One of the disconnects that many men feel when they listen to feminist arguments is that while they may have sympathy for the fact that women as a group are oppressed, they do not perceive themselves to be oppressive towards women. Indeed, those men may feel their position in society is highly vulnerable due to being unemployed, low paid, having mental or physical health problems, or any number of other experiences that make claims about their “male privilege” and seem altogether unrealistic. We experienced a good deal of this in the 2016 presidential elections: while misogyny may well have played a significant part in Hillary Clinton’s defeat, so, too did the fact that many men found it hard to muster sympathy for an incredibly wealthy and privileged woman wanting to break through America’s highest glass ceiling when their own lives felt equally thwarted.
Individual and Systemic Experience
Explaining how this disconnect happens does not require proving one party right and the other party wrong. Instead, it involves understanding the difference between individual and systemic experience. When feminists talk about male privilege they are mostly referring to the privilege men enjoy as a group via patriarchy (which, for the sake of this discussion, is assumed to be real): this is men’s systemic experience. When men refer to their powerlessness due to unemployment or some other misfortune, they are referring to individual experience. It is not just possible but actually common for men to experience low individual privilege while still benefitting from systemic privilege. The problem is both parties have a habit of conflating individual and systemic experience, which results in both parties misunderstanding and having little empathy for each other.
The Privilege Spectrum
Let’s look at the graphic below which offers a rudimentary visual representation of what’s happening in regard to men and women’s individual and systemic privilege.
On the left hand side we have low privilege, on the right hand side, high privilege. There are separate lines for men and women. On the left side of the men’s line are those who experience low individual privilege but nevertheless enjoy the benefits of patriarchy: let’s call these “lower class men.” On the right side of the men’s line are those who experience high individual privilege alongside the benefits of patriarchy: let’s call these “upper class men.” On the left side of the women’s line are those who experience low individual privilege and are subject to patriarchy: let’s call these “lower class women.” On the right side of the women’s line are those who experience high individual privilege and are subject to patriarchy: let’s call these “upper class women.”
Now the broad-strokes conclusions from this are easy to see. First, men as a group experience greater overall privilege. Second, the biggest winners are upper class men, while the biggest losers are lower class women. Where it gets more complicated is in the middle. What the graphic suggests is that there are plenty of women with high individual privilege who are subject to the systemic oppression of patriarchy who nevertheless have a greater overall privilege than men with low individual privilege who enjoy the benefits of patriarchy. Of course, this is a thinking experiment, not evidence-based, so the exact nature of the lines is contestable. A more subtle examination of the issue would also show multiple lines for men and women representing race, sexuality, physical ability, age, and any number of other variables.
There are lessons for everyone here. Men who dismiss the feminist critique of patriarchy because they do not individually oppress women need to understand the way patriarchy actually works: this is hardly a new suggestion, and has been voiced by feminists for many years. Perhaps more controversial is the lesson for feminists. Given that this model suggests that plenty of women enjoy greater overall privilege than some men (even if men enjoy greater privilege in total), it is necessary to acknowledge that those arguments which confidently speak of male privilege at the expense of women are in need of some finessing in order to be compelling. This is particularly important to recognize given that those women with a platform to make this argument in the media, government, academia and other positions of influence are even more likely to be speaking from positions of privilege relative to many (or perhaps even most) men.
This model also speaks to the issue of new alliances between women and men. At the moment, the new culture wars of the Trump era are increasingly pushing people into groups divided by sex and gender. However, the more natural division is between the haves and have-nots. If both women and men with low individual privilege were to create an alliance against the women and men with high individual privilege, things might start to look interesting, particularly given that the former is statistically far more significant than the latter. For years, we have been hearing about a gender revolution: such an alliance would take this to an altogether different level.
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