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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Joke That Doesn't Work for Me

So, today I want to blog about Privilege Denying Riker and similar accounts.

I'll disclaim right away that I get that it's a joke, and I admit that there are particularly entries that made me snicker. But the truth is, these sorts of feminist* in-jokes make me uncomfortable, and I can't help but think that they do more harm than good.

(* The timing is what makes me assume the creators are feminists. The twitter account began during the Michael Moore controversy re: Julian Assange. But ultimately, no matter which social activist group created the account, I think the problems stand.)

The thing about caricature is that it's supposed to be recognizable and it uses exaggeration to prove its point. But the problem with privilege is that, by its very nature, it's unconscious.

We are all privileged in some way. Each one of us has some quality about us that gives us a particular advantage in some particular situation that we never consider. We assume that our advantage is normal, that everyone is treated like we are. We won't notice the inequality in the system until we're made aware of it.

And it doesn't matter how enlightened we are or how open, at some point we're going to get whacked in the face with our privilege. After all, what happened when the guy with no shoes met the guy with no feet?

The thing is, very few people want to be racist/sexist/classist/ablest or so on. We are at least enlightened enough in our culture to know that it's bad to be these things. Which means, for many people (including me), being called on privilege leads to an internal war of "NO WAY! I'm not racist/..."

I understand that the jokes like the Riker one are designed to help people blow off steam. Privilege complicates any discussion of social issues. It's hard to get people to acknowledge their privilege, because it's hard for people to even see their privilege. Most people who make privileged statements believe that their statements are reasonable is because in their experience they are. This is a big obstacle.

But ultimately, this is why I don't like jokes like the Riker one. The problem isn't the jokes. It's that they attach the word "privilege".

See, a lot of people have no idea what the concept of privilege means. They hear it as a buzzword in social discussions and think "Oh, that's bad! I don't want to be privileged!" They get defensive when it's pointed out. And even people who KNOW what it means get defensive.

As an example, consider the tension around race in the feminist community. There are women who've fought their entire lives to be able to take on men at equal footing turning around and denying the experiences of fellow women because these women aren't white. You would think that actively fighting against one type of privilege would make people more sensitive to being on the other side. But it doesn't.

The key element to privilege is that it's insidious. When I say something privileged, I don't realize it's privileged until later. Sometimes I catch it when I see/hear it. Sometimes I don't. The truth is, if I said it, it's because it seemed perfectly reasonable to me at the time.

So when you have the word "privilege" attached to blatantly idiotic statements like:

Hear these Bajorians talking about how Dukat raped them. Sure, they were prisoners, but how does that effects consent. They didn't say no.


Look, while there are always exceptions, I think the vast majority of nerds and geeks are going to look at that statement and see how stupid it is.

Another example:

Really, could there be a better interpreter of Jazz than a white military officer from Alaska? Appropriation rules!


The twitter is doubtlessly lampooning real statements by real people, I don't doubt that. But it's a lampoon, an exaggeration. The most agregiously privileged denying people aren't going to recognize themselves in statements like that. It's too overt, it calls out the dichotomy too much.

Worse, it means that someone who may be growing some awareness of their own privilege may look at it and go "Well, I'm not THAT bad! So I'm good!"

Don't get me wrong, I don't think it's going to bring an end to social discussion or that it's going to suddenly make privileged behavior okay. But it bothers me, in the sense that I think it's the exact opposite of the persuasive and effective tool that satire is intended to be.

(And tangentially, as a Trek fan, I think it doesn't really work as an effective critique of the show. The account focuses on areas that either the series has at least tried to address, i.e. the Cardassian occupation/rapes, or such cartoonish exaggerations that ignore the more insidious problematic elements. For example, the blatant lack of cultural awareness among crew members for the aliens in their midst. What about their treatment of Data and other artificial lifeforms or their tendency to laugh at/disparage Betazoid or Klingon culture? The paternalistic qualities of the Prime Directive: we won't interfere, but we WILL beam you into our holodeck so we can take you to a new non-exploding planet without ever telling you of it? Because it's far more of a violation to inform you of the dangers/options than it is to take your choice out of it entirely. But that's the subject for another blog post.)

I know that jokes don't have to be educational. I'm pretty sure this account is only intended for the people who would find it amusing. I'm not arguing that the creators should take it down to suit my delicate sensibilities. But it does leave a bad aftertaste in my mouth so I felt I'd articulate why.

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