Know thyself, reads the ancient Greek aphorism. And in light of our recent post about the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, that aphorism seems particularly relevant. Part of civility – undoubtedly – is about listening to and taking seriously the positions of people with whom we disagree. If the purpose of a discussion is to solve problems rather than score points, we all win. But part of civility, too, is about self-examination. It’s about understanding our motivations and our position in society. If we don’t know where we are coming from and why it is we want what we want, even the most civil negotiation will be of limited use.
So with that in mind, I’d like to point you all to a 2012 blog post by Doug Muder of The Weekly Sift. The post is a little old, and it definitely comes from one particular position along the ideological spectrum of American politics. But it introduces an important concept, privileged distress, that is key for folks who are interested in civility to understand.
To explain privileged distress, Muder points us at the film Pleasantville. In the film, he writes, George Parker is a TV father and the patriarch of a perfect fifties family. He returns from work at night to a smiling wife, adorable children, and dinner on the table. And when one day that doesn’t happen, he is confused, and sad, and feels that the universe has gone awry. Muder writes:
I’m not bringing this up just to discuss old movies. As the culture evolves, people who benefited from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves in unfamiliar situations that feel unfair or even unsafe. Their concerns used to take center stage, but now they must compete with the formerly invisible concerns of others.
This is the essence of privileged distress. George Parker is the biggest player in his patriarchal universe. Whether he knows it or not, he benefits from immense privilege. And on the day that patriarchy – at least as he understands it – goes away, he feels that loss acutely. The world changes around him. His position relative to his family changes. And it’s a change that is legitimately scary – one about which he is right to be concerned.
The thing is, though, that the reason it’s all so scary is that what has come before the change – the patriarchy – doesn’t read to George Parker as privilege. It just reads as normal, as the thing he’s known his whole life. So when dinner isn’t on the table when he returns home from work, and when he isn’t greeted by his wife and children at the door, he perceives this as injustice. Injustice is being done to George Parker in that he had been at the top of the social food chain, and now he must contend with being merely an equal.
As Doug Muder says, the distress of the George Parkers of the world is real. It’s painful, and we need to listen to it and acknowledge it.
But even as we accept the reality of George’s privileged-white-male distress, we need to hold on to the understanding that the less privileged citizens of Pleasantville are distressed in an entirely different way…. George deserves compassion, but his until-recently-ideal housewife Betty Parker (and the other characters assigned subservient roles) deserves justice. George and Betty’s claims are not equivalent, and if we treat them the same way, we do Betty an injustice.
This is where we return to the idea of self-knowledge as a key component of civility. As we interact with the people around us, we need to understand the power gradients in which we exist. We need to figure out to what degree, when we feel slighted, we are like George Parker who just wants his dinner. And we need to figure out to what degree we are like Betty who has been living in some sense as a servant for most of her adult life.
Both positions are legitimate. In both cases, we have something real for which to negotiate. But both positions don’t necessarily have equal import. And knowing how much ground we have to give as we advocate for our identity needs and beliefs – knowing the point at which our needs start to degrade someone else’s – depends on understanding our own privilege. If we’re already George Parker in a given situation, we may have a great deal more leeway to make concessions than if we’re Betty.
Returning to what I wrote the other week about the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, this is key to the idea of negotiating by listening. I wrote in that post that it’s time for uncivil progressives to take a break from sneering at religious freedom arguments; and that it’s time for uncivil social conservatives to stop dismissing claims from same sex couples that what they want is only what everybody else already has. Self knowledge and an understanding of this concept of privileged distress is a good way to do that. All sides at the negotiating table need to understand where their privilege lies, and how the gradients of social power run.
Confronting those hard truths means asking ourselves whether my religious freedom is more important than your marriage. It means asking ourselves whether your pain at a changing social landscape can be legitimate, and not just a selfish affront to my impending happiness. And it means asking ourselves whether – if we can give up on the idea of our own privilege – our needs and beliefs are really in conflict at all.
There’s no definite answer to any of these things. But this is one means by which we can approach a discussion of the marriage equality ruling that has the potential to yield more than just hurt feelings. Being honest with ourselves is how we can be honest about our needs as we interact with others. And doing that gives us the best chance to come away from a discussion with a sense that we’ve accomplished something worthwhile.
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