You can hear it anywhere you go. It may even make intuitive sense to you. It sits below YouTube videos and news articles, echoes around stadiums, and frames conversations around
water-coolers and at barbecues. But it is destructive, and we must be able to recognise it.
What I am referring to is camouflaged, regressive rhetoric emerging whenever privilege is challenged. The arguments range from barely concealed prejudice, to pseudo-rational reasoning, but their intention is to defend the status quo without appearing as such.
I’ve found that as a general rule, people believe their lives are pretty challenging. Maybe it's a Western thing, or maybe it's a human thing. Sometimes it manifests in a belief that others are taking advantage of them, or free-riding on ‘the system’. Other times, it appears as the belief that because other people have more or live better, they must be struggling. I've found that some people take offence at the idea that they are privileged.
This logic is slippery, and therefore dangerous. You can have a life with challenges and still be the beneficiary of privilege . If any of the following terms apply to you, you benefit from privilege in Western society:
- employed, or
There are many others, but I wanted to point out some of the obvious ones. If you were surprised to see something in the list that applied to you, you may have felt anger, guilt, or disbelief. That’s OK. I'm not here to guilt or embarrass you. But let me say this unequivocally before we go any further. If any of the terms in that list applied to you, you benefit from privilege in Western societies. This is beyond question; incontrovertible, irrefutable, unarguable.
There is a litany of recent examples where privileged individuals and groups are highlighted as such and have chose to push back in unreasonable ways. Let’s begin with a series of troubling incidents in the video game industry, broadly known as “Gamergate”.
The Gamergate controversy concerns sexism in video game culture. It garnered significant public attention after August 2014, when several women within the video game industry, including game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu and feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, were subjected to a sustained campaign of misogynistic attacks. The campaign was coordinated in the online forums of Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan in an anonymous and amorphous movement that ultimately came to be represented by the Twitter hashtag #gamergate.
So what set off this controversy? Quinn made a video game and was accused of using a relationship with a male video-game journalist to solicit a positive review from a popular gaming website. Purportedly acting in defense of ‘ethics in video-game journalism’, the group subsequently expanded its targets to include anyone took a stance against sexism in
video-game culture or stood in support of others who did.
It was later identified that the male journalist involved didn’t even review Quinn’s game, but the group continued to use this as a pretence for launching vicious and hateful attacks.
The harassment included doxing [leaking of personal details online], threats of rape, death threats and the threat of a mass shooting at a university speaking event.
A small subsection of gaming culture reacted violently and viscerally after feeling threatened by successful and activist women pointing out institutional issues within the industry. It is a truly frightening story.
Some privileged people fight to defend their position. In doing so, they often use false pretences to justify actions against those seeking to restructure an unjust system.
This is the framework that we can use to understand some elements of the resistance to progressive movements in our culture. That people will fight to defend their privilege to the disadvantage of others is sad, but unavoidable. We must see this behaviour for what it is: an uncomfortable few desperately clinging to advantages that were never rightfully theirs. This is what the last gasps of privilege look like. This is progress.
During recent matches, Sydney Swans champion and two-time Brownlow medallist Adam Goodes received audible boos from opposition fans. As a footballer, this would usually not be noteworthy, but Goodes does not just play. Goodes is a proud indigenous man who consistently highlights issues of racism in football and Australian society. The highest profile example of this was the night he drew a line in the sand during a match at the MCG.
…the 328-gamer fell victim to a racial vilification incident after being verbally abused by a Magpies fan, who was then escorted from the venue…
Goodes, with security staff around him, had stood only metres away and pointed to her following a verbal clash with the fan…
“To come to the boundary line and hear a 13-year-old girl call me an ‘ape’, and it’s not the first time on a footy field that I’ve been referred to as a ‘monkey’ or an ‘ape’, it was shattering.”
Goodes was subsequently named Australian of the Year in 2014 for his work with indigenous youth programs and for his efforts in the fight against racism.
Some fans argued that the recent booing was because Goodes was a diver and that he often complained to umpires in search of free kicks. Undoubtedly some of the boos were motivated by this alone, but even a cursory look at social media turned up hundreds of examples of people complaining about Goodes’ action on racism.
‘‘People just don’t like Goodes, especially since he was so undeserving of an AUSTRALIAN of the YEAR award. What a joke,’’ said one respondent to the Baum column. ‘‘Can I get the gong because I am white.’’
Another reader opined that Goodes had been booed, in part because he: ‘‘points the finger at a little girl who called him an ape’’ and ‘‘vilifies all white-skinned Australians as being responsible for the ‘genocide’ of the Aboriginal people may be we’re all a little over this sanctimonious ‘role model’.’’
One castigated Goodes for being ‘‘a precious little petal, everything is racist to him. he has lost the plot big time and i have lost all respect for this guy!!!!’’
Waleed Aly hit the nail on the head on ABC TV’s Offsiders on May 31:
There’s been people talking all week about, why are people booing Adam Goodes? Like there was some mystery about it. There’s no mystery about this at all…It’s about the fact that Australia is generally a very tolerant society until its’ minorities demonstrate that they don’t know their place. And at that moment, the minute someone in a minority position acts as though they are not a mere supplicant, then we lose our minds.
…and that’s why Adam Goodes ruffles feathers, it’s not because he’s controversial, it’s not because he’s a provocateur, it’s none of that. It’s because he actually says, I’m going to say something, and I’m going to express Aboriginality…
…that is ultimately what we boo, we boo our discomfort.’
The pattern is similar to Gamergate. In the face of privilege being highlighted, an uncomfortable few denigrate the messenger and obfuscate the reasons why. This time the change agent is a diver and rough in the tackle, rather than an unethical journalist. But it never takes long for these pretences to dissolve and for the true, unjust arguments to rise to the surface.
The long-term trend of social development across Western societies is undoubtedly progressive, with societies moving towards greater equality and understanding year after year after year. It may seem like a glacially slow process, particularly for those suffering under the weight of disadvantage and prejudice. Humane individuals and organisations will continue to advocate for and implement progressive social change in spite of these challenges. Regressive obfuscation must be identified and dismantled using thoughtful, empathetic arguments. This is the path towards a more just future.