Privileged Distress Today
Once you grasp the concept of privileged distress, you’ll see it everywhere: the rich feel “punished” by taxes; whites believe they are the real victims of racism; employers’ religious freedom is threatened when they can’t deny contraception to their employees; English-speakers resent bilingualism — it goes on and on.
I’ve heard about this idea before and I see it differently. But I haven’t tried to put my thoughts down in writing before so I’m gonna do it here. :) Basically I see it as behaviour by the privileged which overprotects their dominance and a zero tolerance strategy for managing resistance and revolution.
Privilege is a system which functions to maintain privilege without requiring individual privileged people to carefully plan their actions. Actions which maintain the system as a whole become normalised, where actions which undermine or resist the system are weeded out. As a result, what appear to be “normal” or “instinctive” behaviours are in fact a product of selective breeding of behaviours under the selective pressure that those behaviours must maintain dominance.
So the response of privileged people to a challenge to their dominance should be seen as an instrumental response which achieves certain goals. Of course an individual man may feel himself distressed when somebody shows that something he thinks is a human right is in fact a product of male power and is appropriated from women. But what I’m saying is that within the system of male dominance his distress serves a structural function, namely overprotection and zero tolerance.
In My System, an influential book on chess strategy, Nimzovich outlined the positional theme of overprotection, in which a crucial square should be defended by more pieces than seemingly necessary. This makes it useless for the opponent to attack that square and gives the pieces defending it a certain freedom of movement (since one or more of them is free to take on other duties without critically weakening the square).
And in the so-called “zero tolerance” approach to policing, even the slightest action “out of line” is met by an immediate, non-discretionary punishment. Advocates for the system (which has been widely discredited) suggest that this avoids what they call the “broken windows” syndrome, in which once visible signs of resistance start to accumulate, more and more people are encouraged/empowered to break the law.
It’s overprotection because, strictly speaking, it seems unnecessary. Dominance is, well, dominant. It won’t be shaken by a few women refusing to cook dinner. There’s no need to respond so strongly to small acts of resistance. But doing so marks those sites of potential resistance as too painful/dangerous to fight for, while freeing individual men to not to have to bother to act to keep up the system at every moment - enough other overzealous defenders will do that for them.
And it’s zero-tolerance because it blocks the emergence of signs of resistance. If every act of dissidence to power is met with a standardised punishment, i.e. if the barrier is raised by a standard amount, in this case the need to negotiate the “distress of the privileged”, the revolution can be damped before it starts.
If a man is urging you to understand his “privileged distress”, what this means to me is that he’s refusing to accept responsibility for what male power does on his behalf and is pretending that he functions entirely as an individual outside of a context of ubiquitous male power. I don’t know about other women but I rarely have the patience to meet a man on those terms!
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