13 October, 2011

Privilege and the TPGA Dialogues

This is kind of a draft for a comment I want to write somewhere, but might end up not posting if I can't get it out right.

Basically, I see a lot of people talking about the TPGA dialogues as a situation when parents and self-advocates were both focused on the issues that personally affected them and didn't want to listen to the other side or didn't want to compromise.

As a person with a disability, I'd just like to say: I love parents. They're totally sweet. I read some parent blogs that I really like and that are helpful to me in thinking about anti-ableism more broadly (since most of the disabled people I meet on the Internet have certain abilities by definition). But this doesn't have much to do with the reasons a lot of Autistic people on the TPGA threads were saying things that made parents feel "uncomfortable" and "silenced."

I think it comes down to the fact that a lot of the Autistic people who were in the conversation are involved in the kind of Internet social justice atmosphere where the concept of privilege is very central. The article I linked to probably isn't the best explanation of privilege, but it is hard to find one article or blog post that explains it really well. But basically privilege refers to the benefits that someone has when they don't belong to an oppressed group. For example I have white privilege and class privilege (and a lot of other kinds of privilege).

A really important aspect of privilege is that a lot of people who have it may not realize that they have it or how much and this can lead to a tendency to center their own experience because they don't realize how much their experience is already centered. That tendency can take the form of feeling like something is being taken away from them when in fact a situation is being made more equal. (I'm not trying to attack anyone by saying this, I just want to explain the concept.)

Where I went to college, there was a fairly big community of students who either were trans or cared a lot about being supportive of people who were trans. In almost every student group and even occasionally in classes, it had become the norm to ask people to state their preferred pronoun when introducing themselves. This can make things easier for someone who is often perceived as a different gender from what they actually are, since they can address potential misunderstandings before they happen.

Sometimes you would hear people who were not trans, who were very nice people, saying things like, "I hate going around the room and saying pronouns. Like, 'I'm sorry I'm not special!'" Because they had never had to tell people what their gender was, they found it a silly thing to do at best, and at worst, they actually felt that they looked boring and "not special" when they asked for the pronoun that would probably already have been used for them. Even though their boring and "not special" answer was being given by most of the people in the room.

I've also seen a lot of non-trans people feel like they are being insulted when they are called the word "cis," which is just a synonym for non-trans. The word NT, while not one I especially like, doesn't need to be branded a slur by people without disabilities, but I have definitely seen them have that reaction. In both examples, people from the dominant group seem offended by the idea of being called any word at all, instead of just being the group that is nameless because everyone is assumed to belong to it.

I think you might be getting to see why this seems like too long and involved a comment to post on the blog of someone I don't know! But to return to the TPGA dialogues, it is believed in the social justice community (by social justice I mean a certain way of looking at the world) that the appropriate way to talk about oppression is for the people who don't have privilege to be the authority because they experience the oppression firsthand. This doesn't mean that people who are privileged shouldn't get to talk at all, but that if a lot of oppressed people are saying a particular thing about oppression, the privileged people should accept it is true, even if it means apologizing for something they did wrong.

Also, to reiterate, since privileged people often feel attacked just because a situation is being made more equal, someone who thinks about social justice this way is probably not going to feel guilty and back off just because a privileged person says, "I feel like I'm being silenced and people from my group aren't allowed to talk." In fact, the reaction is more likely to be, "What you feel isn't the point."

If a parent thinks that the problem with TPGA dialogues has to do with, for example, everyone only caring about how anti-ableism could personally help them, then I don't think they understand what happened. It isn't possible to understand a lot of the things said by people with disabilities if you don't, either academically or just personally, understand the concept of privilege.


  1. Alright, I can go along with that.

  2. I don't know, I don't really agree with that, in the sense that I don't think "privilege" has to be a central way of understanding things or that the problems are a direct result of people not understanding that construct. I really liked the "privilege" ideology thing when I saw it at first because I felt like it got people thinking about some things they wouldn't have otherwise, plus it basically encourages people who are discriminated against in one area to be supportive of people who are discriminated against differently. But when it's made really central I think it obfuscates things and contributes to an environment of eclecticism where "everyone is fighting their oppression" or some such thing and all oppression is supposedly equal (or equally important). Plus it has people focusing way way way too much on people's personal qualities rather than how power structures (social, economic, political structures) impact broad groups of people overall, which leads to people seeing solutions as existing mainly in their personal lives too.

    More on this some other time I guess. I also don't think the dialogues were that significant and people should now go do something more useful or that they enjoy rather than getting immersed in some kind of blog war over people saying/doing things that some people are going to be saying/doing for the rest of our lives. Even though I appreciate the origional people who made an effort to explain things and I don't think that was pointless.

  3. Dude I know, I just have nothing to do with myself these days so I might as well spin my wheels about something vaguely political?

    I really don't know for sure what you mean about electism. Do you mean when people describe themselves by listing their oppressed groups? That is a little strange to me sometimes.

    Anyway I definitely disagree about it not being a central problem in the TPGA dialogues, if that's what you're saying. I mean, in a vacuum, probably I would say some of the people with disabilities and allies were harsh to parents, or I can at least see how parents would have felt they were harsh...but in the system of privilege? Not really. And I think having a bigger understanding of what this type of sj people consider to be correct behavior can explain some of the supposed rudeness and aggression.

  4. If this reading millions of blog posts about the dialogues is the best way you can spend your time then that's okay, even though I don't understand it, but it still leaves the question as to why there are millions of blog posts in the first place and what that menas for other people. These kinds of things can be a black hole. But I guess it's not my place to tell people people what to talk about.

    By "eclecticism" I mean it stops people from having any consistent way of looking at the sorts power structures I mentioned earlier and instead they start over with each group. Where is this group "privilaged"? Where are other people privilaged over this group? Lets make some lists and figure out where to insert the buzz words so we can direct how conversations work. Then start over again and apply the same method to every group. Since this doesn't really make sense people then invented "intersectionality" which makes even less sense but allows you to talk about two groups at once. (this is okay if it's not the main way people look at things though)

    Now, as to why I don't think it's THE central problem... I've noticed people who call themselves "social justice" online tend to have this thing where if people don't apply the "privilage" paradigm (or don't talk/think the "right" ways in other ways) then they just don't understand it, possibly because they're being blinded by their privialge. This ignores that people might not agree with the concept even if they understood it. In fact, they might already understand it (I do) and just not agree with it! So even if the parents did understand it, they might not act differently.

    And even though "Autistic people... where the concept of privilege is very central" doesn't apply to me, I really really disliked some of the things that where said, espicially the reply to Zoe which had the rare effect of making me genuinely angry. If being upset was the result of the privilage thing, then it shouldn't have bothered me. S

    This is probably more than I can explain in blog comments though.

    One thing I do think is that if following the "privilage" concept was required and enforced on the website, then the parents might have said less offensive things. But stifling discussion so no one ever says anything offensive isn't an improvement over the situation I saw, to me. I wouldn't participate in either environment.

    Also my spelling is awful so I don't care if you mispell something. And I obviously still think your blog/writing is great and am very thankful for it.

  5. Hmm. Okay, what did parents say that you found offensive aside from ability statements?

  6. What counts as an ability statement?

    What bothered me about the reply to Zoe was that he basically tried to make it a personal conflict with Zoe rather than looking at anything he had done. He then basically stated that he had said things that had upset people before, that he was going to say them again anyway, and then insulted Zoe repeatedly. He also saw the problem as basically being how people expressed things ("form over function") rather than looking at things he had actually said (what he said, not how he said it) or had done and spent a lot of time talking himself up to say what a nice person he was.

    He also literally told Zoe that she was wrong and that almost no parents wanted to shut up disabled people. Worse than being wrong is automatically dismissing people who tell you something you hadn't heard about. If he had said "I am aware of very few people who try to shut up disabled people" I wouldn't have been upset by at least that part because people could have actually talked about it. If he had said "Why do you feel like this is a common experience?" people could have explained. But he already thinks he knows why- it's because we're bitter and because we don't know what all the nice parents really mean. This is pretty insulting.

    Other parents basically did the same things and saw the conflict as being between "nice" people (them) and a bunch of mean people on the internet who didn't like how they said things. I also thought it was really disingenuous for some of them to say that they "agreed with both"- did they mean they agreed with what Zoe said but still thought she was a crappy person? That doesn't make sense and tells me they aren't really thinking about what Zoe was saying.

    I'm sure you could express all this in terms of "privilage" if you tried hard enough but I didn't apply any of the social justice rules to come up with it. I think it's enough to say that people were trying to turn Zoe's points about society into personal conflicts. This is intellectually dishonest and mean, even though most people have done it at some point.

    I didn't mean to try to take this whole thing over though.

  7. I'm just loving how over on FB where Ari posted this, there are a number of parents who are all "I don't understand".

    Privilege is: not having to understand privilege and power dynamics.

    Privilege is: making things about you when they really really aren't (the one woman who's yelling at and misinterpreting me is a prime example IMHO).

    Privilege is: thinking you're telling the truth when you sincerely say "it can't be that bad". It can, it is.

  8. *nods*

    I get super frustrated and angry when people seem to ignore, or be ignorant of, or downplay the power dynamics and stuff that are inherent in how disability and disabled people get treated in society, and how that goes down to the individual level. It's just willfull stupidity. (Blargh.)

    So yeah.

  9. I don't see why this chasm should be unbridgeable, logically...and yet so many parent descriptions of the TPGA dialogues seem to me as though they're describing a completely different event than the one I witnessed and participated in. I don't know how to hold a productive discussion with someone who sees the word "privileged" as a gross insult, and who perceives what happened at TPGA as an attack on parents. Just...how?

    Comments which ignore the power differentials annoy me. (There were several on Ari's Facebook page post of this entry.) This is not about niceness. This is not a situation where you can just say "well both sides were mean." That's not acceptable. There are huge, systematic discrepancies of power here and to just reduce it all to "both sides were mean" is completely. missing. the. point.

  10. I think this parent lady and I are exploding facebook.

    Cuz the mean nasty autistic isn't going to say parent lady isn't privileged. Cuz she is.

    (and she is, apparently, "Like That". Gah)