I’m sure most internet geeks have heard of Wheaton’s Law: “Don’t Be a Dick!” – I’d love to think it’s that easy. However life is much more nuanced than that. People can be asses without even realising it. And so we can all discriminate, not even stopping think we’re being a dick and worse then justify it afterwards, nah, even defend it!
Despite being a white heterosexual male, the older I get the more aware I’ve become of how this plays out and it’s easy to let it slip and “forget” so I created this mental shortcut. Three axioms to remind me of how every one of us can be a “dick that discriminates” and how to sniff out the bullshit in others.
I’m not going go into huge amount of details. These three axioms distil a lot of information and concepts about discrimination and how it affects others. It’s a shortcut and certainly leaves gaping holes. I don’t keep a list of sources for the info behind these concepts either, I’m not an academic and I’m not really here to educate you (that’s you’re responsibility). But a lot of what I know about discrimination comes from these three core ideas.
It’s always important to remember, the more you try to distil real-world social-complex information down to basic points, the more information you lose. Nothing is really black and white. Everything is a shade of grey and painting it black and white means you cut everyone out except the two extremes. People, like you and me, don’t come in the two flavours: Dick and Not a Dick.
Axiom #1: We all have Privilege
Privilege has become a really loaded word these days. Everyone has some privilege over another. Though that does not make every privilege equivalent, forcing women out of the workplace because they may get pregnant is no way the same as men having to pay higher car insurance, though both are forms of discrimination.
Discrimination is based on privilege derived from your social group be it gender, race or whatever. And we all use privilege, otherwise it’s not privilege. Example, if you are rich, you will spend your money to buy better things and make better opportunities for yourself.
There are two aspects to Privilege which I find very striking and nearly form two sub axioms. It is very hard to recognise what privileges you have but it is very easy to recognise when someone has privilege over you.
Taking the rich man example. Everyone who is not rich, knows that man has money and spends it. It’s obvious to them. They may be jealous of him, they may want to be his friend in the hopes it rubs off on them. Business may give him free stuff in the hopes he spends big there later. The rich man though has become used to his money (and it’s perks) and he may even consider himself a good man, doesn’t look down on others and treats everyone equally. But sometimes he forgets that others don’t have as much money as him. He probably justifies it too, that those without money are lazy.
You may not recognise what privilege you have, but you still use it. Worse, if you don’t recognise it, you will still defend it. The rich man may get angry and defensive when someone is angry with him because he gets his way. The rich man will justify it by thinking why should he feel guilty for being rich?
If you don’t recognise what you have is privilege over another, you will justify why you are allow do some things, and others are not and/or why you should have it. Anytime you hear or read something where someone is justifying why they should be allowed do this or that or moan about why they must change their ways? Alarm-bells should ring in the back of your mind. Ask your-self are they trying to defend some privilege they don’t recognise?
Axiom #2: Equality does not mean everyone is equal
Just because something is open equally to everyone, doesn’t mean it’s equally open to everyone. I’m sure that sounds wrong to many. But it’s like Animal Farm, everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others. It’s just that no-one states that last part (i.e. privilege, first axiom).
If an industry or hobby is dominated by one social group, then folks from other social groups may not be as comfortable entering the industry or hobby (subtle discrimination can play a big part here, my third axiom). “Equality” may also be framed in such as a way to encourage one type of participant over others, even though technically it’s open to all.
Why make the effort to get someone from a marginalised social grouping when you’ve got all these people over here? If someone is good enough in that other social grouping, they say, they’ll have every chance. But often the marginalised ones have to work harder to be seen than the majority or privileged social grouping. While it should be the other way round, people should work harder to ensure equality. (If you don’t recognise the privilege you have, how would you even realise this? First axiom).
Quotas are often used to try and solve or break this problem in professional areas. The come-back from those with privilege is that it devalues the ones the quotas are designed to help, because now people will think they got in by quota instead of their actual value. This would only be a valid argument if there is genuine equality in the first place. I think long term quotas can have a negative impact by signally divisions to others where equality exists, but as a short/medium term solution, it can be useful to force others to make an effort to ensure and encourage equality and equal representation.
Really this Axiom is about framing. How we frame an argument or discussion can control and determine the outcome, not the value. This is pretty powerful form of control and is used very well in politics. If you can frame the debate, you can force you’re opponents to defend themselves to their disadvantage rather than present their own side and come to a equitable answer. If we start with the idea that “we’re all equal” then it’s impossible to talk about discrimination, because how can people be marginalised if we’re all equal. We’re not all equal. Some are more equal and they don’t even know it.
Axiom #3: Difference between Subtle and Explicit Discrimination
For this one, I do have a link! “Subtle Racism Harass Brain”, though not exactly on point. What I really picked up from that and what I keep in mind is that there is a distinction between overt discrimination and subtle or ambiguous discrimination. And it affects social groups differently.
The overt kind we can all recognise. Good people, we all hope, will say no to it and not do it. But then for some groups, we may not realise the subtle or ambiguous messages we send out to others. You could probably get away with your Dick jokes, but when there is more subtle or rather ambiguous cues surrounding it, then some may get uncomfortable about it because of the overtones of such jokes.
The media influence us greatly not matter what we think. What does the media tell us? If we don’t really recognise our own privilege and we miss the subtle or ambiguous negative cues targeting other groups, coupled with stuff like filter bubbles, it’s very easy to get caught in the framing trap of “everyone is equal”.
Being a father of a daughter and a son, I worry some about the cues the world is telling them. How toys are marketed, the stereotypes directed at them from cartoons, peer pressure in schools, etc. My son seems to be keenly aware when “something is for girls” even at three, yet he loves to collect flowers, unaware that some might perceive that as “girly”. How long is that going to last?
Telling someone their stupid every day, even if they are not, at worst may make them think they are stupid and worthless or at best make them angry and unhappy. You don’t really need a degree in gender studies or marketing to see the stereotypes aim at you and others. The really blatant ones can be easy to ignore (but they still affect you) and the subtle ones can affect you without you realising. Apparently even knowing that the source of message is biased before reading can influence your later thinking.
You can forget about what privilege you have, but you consider yourself a good person so you would never explicitly be a dick to another, but what subtle or ambiguous signals do you or others in your social group give out, that you may not realise? If you think everyone is equal, why are others complaining about being marginalised or feeling uncomfortable?
So that’s the three axioms I keep in mind anytime I read a heated discussion online about sexism or an opinion piece in a newspaper. I hope you can see how the three axioms bleed together but I’m sure they don’t give a complete picture as there are probably things I think are simply too obvious or I’m utterly unaware of. If you have a moment, please tell me what you think in the comments. Thanks for the attention.