The Art of Effective Communication: How ‘privilege’ and ‘patriarchy’ might be doing us more harm than good

The issue I presented a few weeks ago was a clash that arose as a result of a culture unwilling to accept the criticism that feminism was levying, partially because societies by their nature are inertial entities, partially because changing attitudes towards women is an incredibly difficult project given their longstanding marginalization, and partially because the feminist critique is so far reaching. I advocated for an uncompromising defense of feminism, its goals and its methods. I maintain that that attitude has the power to effect great change and keep feminists energized and mobilized politically and personally. It is the case, however, that there is more to the story, something along the lines of the piece I wrote about sexism and sexists. As a political movement, it is important to keep troupe morale up (apparently I’ll be using an explorer/adventurer metaphor for the purposes of this piece) as well as venture into higher and as yet unknown ground (e.g. academic work, analysis, feminist theory, etc.), and these purposes are well served by a certain ferocity as well as by the supportive subculture of references, music, movies, ideas, websites, blogs and most of all, jargon. Unfortunately, subcultures are inherently exclusive to those who do not subscribe to the fundamental tenets or are not familiar with the body of work, research or media that form the basis of the shared culture. This prevents feminism from expanding and appealing to larger and larger groups, and so a rational response is to look at the ways in which we communicate and establish if they are fulfilling the goals we see for them.


The Theoretical Part

To be clear, I in no way support ‘weakening’ or ‘dumbing down’ feminism so as to make it more palatable. Rather, I seek to ensure that the central ideas of feminism are disseminated as widely as possible and reach all of the audiences that might take to them and use them to change the way they live, the way they vote or the way their communities or families operate, even if they might not be in the traditional sphere of influence of feminism. This is simply part of the natural progression of political and social movements, wherein ideas that are at first radical become fringe, than accepted, then mainstream. To do this, of course, they must of necessity change form. Almost universally, again because of society’s inertia and all the other previously mentioned factors, the ideas become less radical (intrinsically, not just appearing so because they come into vogue) and less sweeping as they move to the center. This is to the good. It sounds like that awful depoliticization we all fear so deeply, and it is, but it must be recognized that so long as a group of staunch radicals are willing to hold down the fringe front and keep the Overton window on their side of the court, this effect makes their ideas take hold, be recognized as valid and become incorporated into law and/or everyday life.

Precedents for Success

A clear success in this department is the idea of sexism. There was a time when the concept of sexism didn’t make any sense, because there was no assumed equality between men and women from which to deviate in a morally relevant way. Now, of course, that is very much not the case, and that is due to an enormous number of incredibly brave and outspoken women who fought to be taken seriously, to be educated, to be treated as the people they so clearly were and to be given their deserved rights. It is due to the activists who did insane things, risked their lives, their marriageability, their fortunes and jail time to fight for women’s rights. But it is also due to the moderates who made feminism make sense to those who saw no problem with the status quo and allowed society to change itself while getting to pretend not to. It’s incredibly frustrating as modern enlightened people to look upon the history of social change as the history of activists letting the status quo save face. But it is. Social movements have firebrands and diplomats, and I want to explore the ways in which diplomats speak, convince and generally use language and see what lessons can be learned from it.

This happened in early feminism, where some women threw their girdles into the sea, broke out of jail and tied themselves to chariots. In the meantime, women got the right to vote.

There was a time when women were considering difference feminism and lesbian separatism, contemplating eradicating men entirely, founding a new island or at least reverting to aboriginal-style matriarchy. In the meantime, sexual harassment was recognized as a widespread problem and made illegal.

And now, we have women who want to essentially get rid of gender/dissociate sex from gender entirely, revamp or eliminate marriage, let people get married to their dogs, get paid for being stay-at-home mothers and run Slutwalks. In the meantime, maybe we can get rid of the incredibly pervasive victim-blaming associated with rape, get everyone free or very cheap birth control and do away with slut-shaming. Sound like a plan?

The Concrete Part: Two Examples and Possible Solutions

Privilege: This is one of the core pieces of feminist (and generally social justice) jargon, because it’s a really powerful idea and it means precisely what we want it to mean. Nonetheless, we should be able to explain what we mean even if the word is Tabooed (meaning that neither a word nor any of its direct synonyms may be used in explaining the word. Very useful for ascertaining whether someone, including one’s self, really knows what a word means). Furthermore, and more relevantly, calling people out on their privilege sounds like accusation and blame. It feels like someone is being blamed, their opinions dismissed and their points of view undermined by the mere fact of being white, or rich, or male, or straight, or cisgender, or able-bodied, when in fact there is really nothing they can do about it. Also, if they don’t understand the concept of privilege, they may feel that it is nonsensical to posit a sphere of existence entirely distinct from the one they have been privy to their entire lives and then claim unequivocally that they will never have any meaningful access to it. This is bad. This turns people off, and it turns them away. It makes them feel like they will have to constantly apologize for the benefits society has conferred upon them for fear of being the Bad Guy and also that they will never be accepted into the feminist community. It makes them feel personally responsible for the status quo. This is really really astonishingly unproductive.

It’s not to say we should stop using the word. Quite the opposite. We should use it all the time, but casually, without blame, and with a clear and quickly following definition. Occasionally, we should just use the explanation without the word. This is what science advocates do when they talk about evolution and physics, and they manage not to destroy the scientific community by diluting ‘science talk.’ When a guy says that he doesn’t know what all the fuss about cat-calling is about, that he would love to be hit on by women all the time and treated like a piece of meat, it might not really get the message across to point out his overwhelming amount of male privilege, but rather instead ask why it is that women might not feel the same way, and ask him to consider the differences in risk that women versus men have vis a vis the sexual interest of others. Talk about rape, pregnancy and sexual dimorphism. If the word privilege must be used, talk about it in a way that makes sense. This is a great example, but it would also be easy enough to say, “that’s something you’re saying as a result of feeling relatively safe in our society, and that happens to be something women don’t really have for x, y and z reasons. The fact that, though it’s no one’s fault, this disparity exists between men and women, we call male privilege. We don’t call it women’s disprivilege, because as so many feminist critics (that is, critics of feminism) have pointed out, the language of victimhood isn’t always useful. It’s totally unfair and we want to make sure that everyone gets to feel safe on the streets, in their bedrooms, at their jobs and all through their life. Unfortunately, women don’t have that, and often men, especially trans and gay men, don’t have it either. If letting everyone feel safe sounds like a good goal to you, then we’re on the same side. Make sense?” This gets everyone on the same page.

Patriarchy: Similarly, this word serves such an excellent purpose that it would be difficult to consider what to do without it. But it, too, is jargon-y, off-putting and quite blameful. Perhaps even more than ‘privilege’, patriarchy points out men as the culprits, the oppressors and the wrong-doers, thus making any man looking to support women in an awkward position of appearing to fight against himself. Precisely because of male privilege, this entire concept may be new to men and many women besides, and having the introduction to feminism be “and this is all your fault” can easily lose us an ally. Which would be especially unfortunate given that that’s not even what patriarchy means. It refers to a social dynamic which systematically disadvantages women partially in terms of access to and perception of having or deserving sexual agency, economic power and collective political power. It is the fault of neither men nor women, but something that everyone is caught in and contributes to, each in their own way, much like culture, or capitalism. It also affects men in ways that are deeply problematic, and feminists seek to rectify those problems as well.

These are the sorts of conversations that it is especially important to have when the message is not getting across. It is not the responsibility of the recipients to interpret the message in precisely the way that would be appreciated by the senders, but rather the responsibility of communicators to make their message understandable and appreciable by their target audience. If we’re alienating certain men and women simply by virtue of language, speech, tone, attitude and approach (and as feminists we have a strong notion of exactly how powerful these elements of social interaction are, how much work, for good or evil, they can do, and how much harm they can do) then there is no reason not to shift these things except sheer unproductive stubbornness.


Rationally speaking, the best course of action to take is that most likely to arrive at some set of stated goals. Feminists have a lot of goals, and we need supporters and allies to help us achieve them, and if all we have to do to get them is to make sure that we’re explaining ourselves appropriately and not unintentionally placing blame where none is due (sound familiar?), then we should count ourselves lucky.

After all, as Sue Monk Kidd says so beautifully in the Scret Life of Bees, “If you need something from somebody always give that person a way to hand it to you.”

P.S. Am I being a hypocrite by using and/or not defining some of the words in this piece? Tell me!

P.P.S  I really cannot emphasize enough how much this fits into feminist analysis anyway. Remember calling people’s attention to he as the default? Or mankind? Or mailman/fireman/stewardess? Remember chilly climates? Let’s apply it to ourselves too.

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5 thoughts on “The Art of Effective Communication: How ‘privilege’ and ‘patriarchy’ might be doing us more harm than good

  1. Cranky says:

    My agreement with your posts has followed a sharp upward trajectory. I especially liked the links in this one. As for your PS, I think it’s hard to know what to define and what not to define because you don’t want appositive clauses to take away from main-text. Perhaps this is why I like footnotes, a lot. And I think a takeaway from your conclusion is that we should be asking you to define the terms we’d like for you to define, no?

    Have a good weekend!

    PS – I’m definitely going to practice Tabooing my fall back terms.

  2. terracottasoldier says:

    I think that there might be another objection to the overuse of the word “privilege” that is independent of it being exclusionary or accusatory. Lurking in the comments section of any major feminist blog will show you the degree to which the use of the word privilege shuts down conversations. You said, “It feels like someone is being blamed, their opinions dismissed and their points of view undermined by the mere fact of being white, or rich, or male, or straight, or cisgender, or able-bodied, when in fact there is really nothing they can do about it” and I think that that is absolutely true, but there is another side to it which is that even when the word isn’t being used to shut down someone else’s comments it can be used to shut down one’s own thinking. I think sometimes in their admirable haste to acknowledge the limits of their life experiences and insights, people undercut their own ability to make logical arguments and venture guesses about ways that problems could be solved. I have seen many comment threads devolve into a competition over who can better own their privilege which becomes more self-righteous than productive. I think that at some point jargon in feminist circles becomes mere buzzwords that are used to demonstrate how good of a feminist you are without actually making you engage meaningfully in any particular discussion or attempt to solve any problems. That is why I really loved the way that you talked about describing privilege in an informative way without relying on the word.

    Sorry, I know that was a little bit tangential, but your post hit on something that I have been noticing for a while.

  3. Queer Jewish Dandy says:

    I realize this is not the primary purpose of the post, but I think the same way you talk about defining privilege succinctly when you use the terms, phrases like “feminist goals” are equally unclear, because some people still associate that with movements like separatism. Having clear goals feminists can state succinctly will go a long way to increasing support for the cause. Eliminating gender-based violence and gender discrimination can be stated and explained quickly before getting into jargon-filled discussions of methods. If people are hooked by the cause, the methods can be taught in “subculture specific” spaces.

  4. MadameZ says:

    My rule of thumb is always, if I can’t adequately explain a term to someone who doesn’t know what it is within my argument then I don’t use it.

    Words I tend to avoid in discussions are words like privilege. I don’t even spell the word correctly because I avoid the use of it.

  5. […] How novel. And yet, there are really interesting things to talk about. In particular, while in a past post I discussed the need for rationality to address how it is feminists discuss their theories and ideas […]

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