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Three men talking: Stepping away from privilege is not enough

You can practice gender awareness all you like, and it will still be incredibly easy to slip back into familiar patterns. But quietly washing your hands of it is not enough, and a dramatic renunciation can backfire. 

A few weeks ago, I took part in a discussion after a film screening at the SOAS Israel Society in London. The film concerned the Wannsee Conference, where the “final solution” was planned, and the screening was organised by a member of the society, a barrister doing his PhD at the LSE. Of those present, three were men (myself included), and six were women, including one of the principal organisers of the society, a theater student who, as we remembered much too late, had said before the discussion she’ll want to talk about Holocaust education in Israel; and another principal organiser, a history student, who, among other things, has been exploring issues of complicity and real-time denial by combatants conducting ethnic cleansing in the War of 1948.

The credits rolled, and the barrister made some introductory remarks explaining the political and legal history after the events of the film. He then opened the floor to the rest of the group. Nobody spoke, so I pitched in. The third man, a history PhD student in his forties, picked up, and the moderator rejoined him.

Fifteen minutes into the discussion, it hit me that only we men in the room were talking.

Once I realised I was part of the problem, I contended myself with withdrawing from conversation. I was hoping one of the women present would step into my space, but in reality, all I did was let the two other men seamlessly fill up that space with their own conversation. And while women did join the discussion towards the end, they still spoke considerably more briefly (even if more to the point) than the men. The fact the men were in their thirties to forties, mid-career (myself) or PhDs and most of the women were postgrad or undergrad students under 25, didn’t help either. Whenever the discussion died down and no one would say anything, I would permit myself to pitch in with a comment, assuming that someone has to say something and no one was saying anything, so I might as well. I was usually rejoined by one of the men, followed by the other, and the dynamic cheerfully resumed itself.

After the discussion ended, one of the organisers said there should be a sign or a gesture established in the group that would mean “men, stop talking.” I agreed emphatically and was immediately confronted with the fact I didn’t actually do anything to stop what was going on.

So why didn’t I? After all, I realized the dynamic as it was happening, and there were a few things I could’ve done. I could have stopped the discussion and called out the dynamic that was taking place; I could have taken over briefly as moderator by directly asking one of the women present to contribute insights based on the knowledge that I already knew she had. I’m normally reasonably (though by no means exhaustively) aware of gender dynamics in groups I’m in, and have little reservations about calling them out – although, crucially, one of the women present usually does it before I have to.

This was the first element that allowed me to put my guard down: two of the women present were friends and feminist activists who normally plunge into discussions, lead them, and call out gender dynamics when they see them. Having them there allowed me to eschew responsibility and to wait for them to take the lead (which I tried to prompt by, um, vigorous eye contact). So long as they weren’t saying anything (ran the unarticulated tranquilliser at the back of my mind) things weren’t that bad, surely.

What I didn’t realize as this was happening, though, was the second factor: the sheer power and impenetrability of that centrifuge of three men talking – three older and “more experienced” men  – and how difficult the vortex can be to breach, no matter who else is in the room. I’m putting “more experienced” into quotation marks because it’s not necessarily about genuine or relevant experience: much of the man-talk in the room centred on expertise on international law and on film trivia. In fact, as far as political and societal analysis of the type many of us hoped to get out of the discussion was concerned, I myself often look up to some of the women present. But what was taking place a certain type-casting on which gender dynamics operate: the content or relevance of our demonstrated expertise was much less important than the fact we were Three Experienced Men Talking – you know, just like we talk in any number of other meetings, on male-only (or 90 percent male) panels at conferences, at dinners, at parties, and on TV. Merely falling silent does not make you less complicit in that, not least because it allows the two other men to take the space you meant to leave for others to step into, but didn’t say so explicitly.

And retrospectively, this was the third reason why I allowed myself to slip into the gender dynamic I normally manage to go against: while dear friends and fellow activists, these two men were older and more “experienced” than myself – PhD students both, one a barrister – and, in terms of their own personal style of conversation, could go on talking for some time while making a point. In other words, I felt as if I was being talked out of the discussion and had to compete to retain my place in it, thus contributing my own share to the male-domination dynamic of the talk. At the same time, a portion of self pity and anxiety allowed me (hilariously) to frame myself as part-victim of the same dynamic, thus relieving me of the responsibility to do something about it.

Moreover, the fact I was vacillating between falling completely silent and making the occasional intervention merely legitimised the dynamic. Trying to steer their conversation away from technical jargon by engaging with it – in a bid to buy my place within the conversation before turning it – only reinforced it; while the fact three people were talking rather than two made it seem less unnatural and made it more difficult for those excluded to intervene.

Finally, and this was the fourth element: all this allowed me to tune out the gender-dynamic awareness I normally try to maintain, and not to snap back into focus until the discussion was already over. I only realized most of the things listed above on the tube ride home; at the time, I was oblivious enough that when noticing the history student next to me seething silently, I passed her a sympathetic note asking if she was tired – implicitly shifting onto her the responsibility for not speaking out rather than onto the dynamic in which I myself was participating.

So what are the interim lessons learned? They go beyond specifically male privilege alone and can apply to any situation where, on the one hand, you, whatever your gender identity is, find yourself benefiting from a hegemonic dynamic taking place, even if it’s a hegemony you renounce and sincerely hope to deconstruct – and on the other hand, participants from the wrong end of the dynamic appearing to be unable to break through it, at this point in time.

Lesson one is that privilege is much like alcoholism: you can be dry for years or spend a lifetime unlearning it (which I have by no means done, only having begun to think seriously about gender in the last couple of years or so), and still find it incredibly easy to slip off the wagon. It’s not a surprising parallel, because both concern addiction to an immediate sense of empowerment. If anything, male privilege is more insidious because you don’t actually articulate it. You (hopefully) don’t negotiate with yourself like you do with alcohol: “Oh, I’ll partake in the pleasure of patriarchy in a small way, just this once, no one’s going to know.” Not thinking about it or being distracted momentarily is enough to slip into it, setting in action half-dormant processes that are always there to carry you much further than you anticipate.

A second lesson learned is that as a member of a hegemonic group you’re never “just a participant”; you can’t say that you’re not the chair of a given meeting, or that you can safely leave it in the hands of members of the non-hegemonic group to dismantle the dynamic that benefits you at their expense.

You need to engage with this dynamic proactively, but (and this is the third lesson learned) do so while being honest about the manner in which you do and the results you’re expecting or are likely to achieve. Sometimes (god knows) dramatic interventions are necessary. You can stop the discussion, call out the privilege and explicitly vacate the floor for those who haven’t spoken yet. But even on occasions that seem to leave you little other choice, this type of intervention risks silencing the silent even further. It essentializes everyone, explicitly or implicitly requesting them to speak as representatives of their group rather than bring in their own nuanced contribuition.

Other times, the setting you risk producing is even more patronising than the original privilege dynamic – more patronising because you take the argument meant to subvert the privilege, and turn it to your own benefit, casting yourself as the “nice” and even “contrite” member of the hegemony who graciously enables the members of the oppressed group present to have their say, touchingly at his own expense. To start with, you won’t really be helping the situation much or actually rejecting your own privilege since you construct the space you make for others to speak in as a space dependent on your power. On a lesser note, you’re likely to evoke both the enmity of the non-privileged (who don’t need to feel like they’re being done a favor) and of the privileged, who will feel you aggrandizing yourself at their expense and being somewhat of a caste-traitor.

An alternative to this clusteruck is a series of consistent but small and strategic interventions. Instead of merely retreating into silence or making contributions in form of statements, ask open questions, whether of the group (inviting those who haven’t spoken yet to pitch in), or directly of members who you know have knowledge to contribute but who haven’t spoken yet (whether directly, if you can do it conversationally and comfortably enough, or implicitly, so as not to put them on the spot). There’s almost no intellectual contribution to a debate that can’t be restated as a question, very often improving considerably in the process.

At other times, don’t feel out of place to cut a particular fellow-privileged short if you feel they’re taking over. Remember, if you’re a member of a privileged group, you’re never just a participant; you always have more power, and therefore more responsibility than “just” a participant, if such a thing exists. Fourthly, be mindful of the fact that since the balance is already tipped in your favor, almost anything you do can turn to your advantage, and keep guard against it; once you break the dynamic that needed breaking, don’t take over the discussion and make it your so responsibility, and therefore your power, to keep it on the track. Step back in only when you feel it’s necessary for you to do so, just like you did before.

Fifthly and finally, never let your guard down. Make it a habit to assess, consciously and routinely (say, every 15 minutes) what power dynamic is happening here and whether you can also contribute – not fix it singlehandedly, but contribute – towards making it a much more equitable one. So long as the hegemonic order relevant to the group persists, the power it feeds into you doesn’t disappear – and neither does your personal share of responsibility, to yourself and to your friends and allies, to dismantle it.

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    1. Ayla

      first a confession: I only read until the part about how there should have been a secret ‘men stop speaking’ sign (though perhaps you’ll forgive me for not listening to everything the man had to say 😉 ), but/and: really? I think any good moderator should do his or her best to get everyone talking by actually addressing those who are less aggressive, and every panel member should speak up. This isn’t a room of children, after all. With appreciation for your awareness, you, Dimi, weren’t the moderator, so all you could really do was use body language to address or invite the women, but it’s really the moderator’s responsibility not only to include everyone, but to redirect the conversation in general if it takes off in a limiting direction.

      Reply to Comment
      • directrob

        Simple, moderator of no moderator: “[ Moderator ] the three of us seem to dominate the discussion, I propose it is time for us to be silent and listen to what others have to say … “

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    2. Male privilege is well known. So is Jewish-suffering-privilege.

      As noted, males and females both wish to be heard, probably on any subject.

      And more people have suffered (even during 1942-1945 at the hands of the Nazis, and certainly in Palestine since 1946) than only Jews.

      Reply to Comment
    3. You attended a mixed-sex discussion where the women were very hesitant to take part (as is common, even when the women in question are very knowledgeable and confident in their fields). You ended up participating in an all-male conversation and did nothing useful to change that dynamic (as is common, even among pro-feminist men). 2000+ words aren’t needed to describe the incident and reflect on it.

      Have you apologised to the women for your share of the discussion-hogging, asked for their take on the situation, and got their suggestions for how to react the next time you find yourself in that situation? Did you suggest that one of the female participants write this piece, if any of them were interested in doing so? If not, did they have any input as you were writing it?

      I ask these questions because like many feminist women, I have become tired and quite jaded with the long ruminations on privilege and privilege-checking that seem to be a core feature of the ‘social justice’ blogosphere. They can feel self-indulgent, with man after man avidly describing the power dynamics that affect mixed-sex groups as though he’s just discovered something novel about splitting the atom, while women sit silently on the sidelines with sardonically raised eyebrows, thinking, “Dude, we’ve noticed, you like your own voices. Now what?” I’m sorry if this feels harsh, but I have long since got to the ‘now what’, the point where I look for actual tangible results IRL.

      For example, one of the women at the Israel Society wanted to talk about Holocaust education in Israel, but her stated interest was forgotten. Is she going to moderate a future meeting of the society on the topic? If she’d rather not moderate, will it at least be a guaranteed item on the agenda? What is your procedure for choosing a moderator? If it is just the first person to volunteer on the day, then ten to one you’ll end up with a guy. Theoretical discussions on privilege and power are only worth anything if they result in some solid change. Otherwise it just feels like another cosy conversation between members of the same club.

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    4. Huge crack of applause for Vicky. Every word. I hope I get to meet you some day.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Kolumn9

      Sorry, I couldn’t read the whole article. I felt myself falling asleep right about the time you thought it was up to you to shut up rather than up to a woman to speak up.

      This article reads like a case study of what the unabomber called oversensitized liberals. You seem to no longer have any capacity of approaching a situation without trying to psychobabble it from every possible angle before responding in the least logical/natural and most ideological way possible.

      Reply to Comment
      • I agree with what you say on the language and overall style of the piece. However, you’re overlooking the level of difficulty that women have in speaking up in a male-dominated discussion – even women who really know their stuff.

        I’m also working on a doctorate. Most of my cohort is female. We have one woman who has directed a land mine clearance team; another woman who has held high-level roles in political missions in Kosovo, Darfur, and Afghanistan; and a medical doctor who has practised emergency medicine in several war zones and in the aftermath of natural disasters. If anyone knows how to think on her feet and state her case, she does. But during our induction, this group of competent women – used to removing land mines and making hugely difficult decisions under pressure – sat and let a man in our group steer and dominate the discussion with his interruptions, his insistence on setting the topic, and his corrections of our work and approaches. Once I caught myself thinking that if he lectured me on the correct way to approach child trauma in Palestine one more time I might have to jettison my pacifism just long enough to stuff him head-first into the coffee percolator – if I could find the confidence for that, seeing as how even challenging him in discussion was hard.

        There are reasons why this happens. Looking back on my school years, I can see that teachers generally tolerated a much higher level of boisterousness and vociferousness from boys than they did from girls. When I began to work in the field of special education/children’s mental health, I found small girls being referred to me with suspected ADHD or behaviour problems, when boys who were far more lively didn’t warrant anything like this attention – their behaviour was just read as normal for a boy. But in girls it was pathologised, because they weren’t being demure enough.

        This is how it begins. It’s pretty hard to shake off all the training in being ladylike, which you seem to imbibe even without realising it. There are other contributing factors too. I do not think Dimi has really proposed any effective strategy for dealing with the problem beyond just noticing that it is there, but the problem does exist.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          You have a legitimate point about women being educated to be passive and still it is up to women to speak up rather than for men to be afraid to speak. While I accept that social conventions create such situations, I don’t think new social conventions for women will result from individual men changing their behavior.

          Next time you are in that situation don’t be ladylike.

          Reply to Comment
    6. Woman at the meeting :)

      In all fairness to Dimi, he had very thorough conversations about the issue with two of the women he mentions in the post, which greatly shaped this piece. The conversations he had with me included a debate on whether it is problematic for a man to be talking about this stuff rather than one of the women present. Similarly, on Dimi’s facebook page, some readers were saying they would like to hear what the women had to say about the incident, and someone else that the women present should have some role in “leaning in” and improving the situation too. However, what I was telling Dimi is that I find it hard enough to be silenced in a space i feel is safe for me. I really don’t also want the onus to deal with it and make it better, if I can avoid it. If one of the men can do it well and with great input from us, I would much rather leave it to him. Basically – if you can sort out some of your patriarchal shit yourself, that’s great, less upsetting work for me to do! These thoughts I had after the meeting seemed to clash in some ways with some of the political orthodoxies I’ve been used to accepting, so i would love to hear people’s thoughts on it.

      Reply to Comment
      • That he spoke about this with the women who were present is important info that belongs in the article itself, especially as it can’t be taken for granted that he did so. If it could be taken for granted, there probably wouldn’t be any need for articles on this topic in the first place.

        “Basically – if you can sort out some of your patriarchal shit yourself, that’s great, less upsetting work for me to do!”

        No feminist is going to disagree with this statement. But how this is done is very important. It needs to be effective and on-point. The Internet is already swimming with long introspective blog posts about male privilege written by men, but what do they achieve? Why the need for yet another? So many of these ‘privilege’ discussions seem to hinge on the personal epiphanies of individual men rather than the realities of life as a woman. Again, this may seem harsh, but my own involvement in women’s rights has left me little inclined to hand out cookies to men just because they’ve noticed a few basic facts about life that women have been all too well acquainted with for a long time. I read this article and most of what I saw was long-winded angst (and it’s rare that I agree with K9). I expect more from pro-feminist men because frankly we need more.

        Reply to Comment
        • ayla

          vicky, thanks. I guess you’re speaking to why I stopped reading. As someone who has gone through most of her life with most privileges one can have other than being a man (thankfully; love being a woman and actually believe that the emotional expectations of men are very painful for them which leads to much societal brokenness), I know that trap of falling into self-indulgent angst and am a bit allergic to it now. Angst, or guilt, can hurt the individual and the whole. Guilt is generally unhealthy and unproductive. Feeling and taking responsibility is another thing, but in fairness, that’s what Dimi is asking about: he’s asking: how to take responsibility? What bothers me about this, the more I think about it, is that it’s about how to tone ourselves down as men to make room for the women to use their voices, when I think it’s not about this at all. How about learning about listening from women? Listening is a key skill in all panel discussions, relationships, etc. and better discussions and ideas arise when more people are listening to each other. So, learn from us; don’t tone down your power to give us space to use ours; using ours is our responsibility–don’t rob us of that. Rather, see the true power in listening. The epiphany should be: damn, i talk a lot. I think it’s okay that Dimi wrote this piece; he’s asking how he can best take responsibility. He’s getting answers. That said, I believe with all my heart that we’re in a time right now where in every respect, we can just get over ourselves and step it up. i.e. end the fucking occupation; stop talking about it. Stop talking about most things. Travel at the speed of light. Just do it. Walk into the future. Bam.

          Reply to Comment
          • sh

            Listening’s good. Even listening to people thinking in silence is good.

            I particularly loved your last 5 lines, Ayla.

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    7. soas student

      I really liked what Vicky said above.

      Also, when I go to hear post-talk or post-film discussions of the kind you mention, as a fairly introverted person I very rarely make a verbal contribution in front of everyone else. I often feel that most of the people who speak up frequently don’t have much of value to say, like the sound of their own voices and share a background which has enabled them to feel at ease expressing themselves in the kind of discourse usual in that setting. I don’t feel I share that background and when I do want to contribute, often people pick up on the fact that my wording is different, or I’m not ‘playing that game’ somehow, and assume a very basic level of knowledge about the subject which patronises me; had they listened to what I actually said then it should have been obvious that this was not the case. And yes, I have experienced this at SOAS Israel Society meetings.

      I’m not sure how much of my experience is shared by others but I don’t feel that being female is by any means the main issue here for me personally – if you want to promote equality then I would strongly suggest doing a bit more investigation and less theorising.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Hagar

      I would have to disagree with most of the commenters above. I do not think that what Dimi tried to do by writing this piece is to have us handing him cookies or praising him, but rather he tried to share his experience and understandings with other men, and create a discussion on the subject. Although as a woman and a feminist myself the particular experience Dimi describes may not have opened my eyes because I’m too, like many of you, familiar with the subject from an all-too-close and life-long experience, I believe that there are many people, men especially, who might find this sort of attitude new and it might even help to open their eyes and make them more aware of the dynamics they are taking part in (or actively creating). It’s important, and I believe that the more these texts flood the internet the better, because than there’s more chance that as many men as possible will actually read it and learn something.

      Reply to Comment
    9. noitan

      As a male who has worried about what to do in these situations, I found this article helpful.
      I also found the comments helpful, especially Vicki’s and Ayla’s.
      I agree that the article should have included reference to the women, either anonymously or by name, who helped shape the piece.
      I believe that in these situations, listening to women is important, and that should take precedent. But being a man, I also would like to hear from other men on what their strategies are. Reading this was a reminder for me how things can get out of hand, and the tips in the article were helpful, and so was the description of the event itself. The long description I think was necessary to frame the situation; of course the same lessons learned might not apply to other situations, and now it is up to me to take those lessons and decide in other situations when to apply them. I think I’ll spend some more time thinking about this piece, and ask the non-men in my life what they think about these strategies.

      Reply to Comment

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