[From the archives] Two parables about privilege

[This post was originally written and posted on Google+]

Let’s start with this – take a trip with me to parable land.

Privilege is a weapon, right? So let’s say that in our parable land, privilege is a knife. When a person is born and assigned male, they are given their first starter knife, which is upgraded as they get older and older. As adults, men carry different sizes and types of knives depending on occupation and social status, but all cis men have knives, while people who are not cis men do not.

This causes problems, obviously.

But no one questions it, because it’s just How Things Have Always Been. Writers write novels about stabbing people, directors make movies about how having a knife defines you as having worth. The culture celebrates and normalizes the experiences of the knife-havers and blames those who get stabbed for getting in the way of a knife in the first place. Now some not-cis-men have spoken out against this practice. And some men have started to listen. They speak out against stabbing. They pledge not to stab, and to speak up when they see people getting stabbed. There is incremental change. Glacially slow, incremental change.

And then a breaking point happens – a man that women had been accusing of stabbing them for YEARS actually really did stab all those women, and worse! Other women come forward with stories of stabbings, by this guy and others. People are shocked! SHOCKED! Because, sure, men have been carrying knives their entire lives, but who could imagine that they would actually USE them?

And then someone brings in a metal detector and blows the lid off of the whole damn thing.

It turns out that some of the men who have been the most vocal, the most “enlightened” about “knife culture” have been carrying concealed knives the whole time. And that they stabbed not-cis-men, all the while claiming that they had given up carrying a knife at all. Anger grows, and women and femmes start to whisper among themselves about men they have known who claimed to have given up carrying knives, but who actually just carried a concealed knife. Some not-cis-men have been stabbed by these supposedly anti-knife guys, some have “just” had to put up with the concealed knives being waved in their faces.

Not-cis-men grow heartsick and tired with each new name that is added to the list of Anti-Knife Men Who Carry Knives, because some of them are inevitably men who we looked up to. That we admired. We start to ask ourselves, if my judgement was off in those cases, who else? Who else is carrying a concealed knife that I don’t know about? Who else is going to stab me, or someone I care about, when I least expect it?



Now let’s shift the analogy a bit.

Let’s say instead that society issues EVERYONE a knife when they are born, but men are never given any lessons in how to use their knife, while everyone else is taught how to safely and responsibly handle their knife. Men, it is assumed, just innately know and understand how to use a knife. It’s part of what makes them MEN. So now you have a society divided into people who know the proper care and respect for knives and people (cis men) who thoughtlessly use knives however they want.

Because society says that however a man wants to use his knife is correct and safe, when they do stab people, that behavior is excused and explained. Not-cis-men are tired of getting stabbed. Worse, they are tired of explaining to dudes who SAY they get it over, and over, and OVER how to use knives responsibly without stabbing others, only to watch them thoughtlessly stab people anyway. They feel powerless to change anything, so in order to keep themselves safe they construct mental lists of men at different levels of knife safety. The absolute bottom of these lists is occupied by dudes who know how to use knives, but just like stabbing people anyway. Cool. Those guys are easy to identify and stay away from. But moving “up” the ladder, things get a bit more complicated.

The categorization system most people opt for is emotional maturity: re knife-handling. If a dude is at the toddler stage of knife-handling, he’s going to hurt himself as much as he hurts other people, and sometimes it won’t be bad and sometimes it will be really fucking serious, but every time he will be completely unable to deal with the emotional reality of his fault, because toddlers are sociopaths. (Please note: I say this as a parent)

Men who are Knife Toddlers are men that are not safe to be around, but often men that we HAVE to be around. Parents. Bosses. Police. People with power that we can’t avoid. So we make knife-avoidance strategies for keeping the Knife Toddlers happy when we HAVE to interact with them and hope it will be enough.

Somewhere above that are the Knife Elementary Schoolers. They can sometimes understand they’re at fault, but sometimes not – and they’re still largely unaware of the extent to which social conditioning informs their thinking and actions. MOST of the men that women and femmes interact are either Outright Stabbers, Knife Toddlers, or Knife Elementary Schoolers. Maybe 2/3, maybe 3/4 -depending on how cynical you’re feeling.

Then there are the Knife Teenagers. Mostly, they get that knife safety isn’t a fucking joke. But they can make you fucking nuts arguing about it, and playing “devil’s advocate” for Knife Rights. Mostly, you feel like you can trust them, but then, they are prone to occasional moody bouts of hormonal crazy and might just haul off and stab you anyway. Still, you’ve seen them handle their knives carefully enough over time that you’re resigned to the fact that the odds of them stabbing YOU are pretty low. This accounts for 99% of the men that aren’t one of the lowest three levels.

The last level is Knife Grownup. A Knife Grownup is someone who can be trusted to own and operate a knife in close proximity to another person without stabbing them. Repeatedly. For a long time. Almost no one gets put on this list, because women have seen just about every man they know stab people on multiple occasions, and even if they didn’t mean to it’s just safer to keep an eye on them. If a woman is exceptionally lucky, she might know five men who are Knife Grownups. If she’s very unlucky, she might not know any.

Different not-cis-men draw their lines differently. Some insist, rightly, that they will only associate with Knife Grownups, and accept that this means not associating with cis men, mostly. Others prioritize intent and are willing to include Knife Toddlers in their circles, because they have empathy for the fact that Knife Toddlers don’t MEAN to hurt people, and it’s not men’s fault that society never taught them how not to stab people. Heck, some women keep Knife Toddlers around simply because they feel that SOMEONE has to do the laborious, thankless work of raising Knife Toddlers into Knife Elementary Schoolers and Knife Teenagers. Or even just because they’d rather keep an eye on the unsafe people with knives than not watch them and get stabbed by surprise.



Both parables are true. In both parables, not-cis-men have been opening up, naming the people who stabbed them and showing you their scars. They do this in the hopes that cis men can learn to STOP STABBING THEM, and in order to find support from people like them who have been stabbed in ways they didn’t know about. We are raw, and in pain, and bleeding. And to top it all off, we don’t know which of you we can trust. Aside from an exceptionally small handful of guys, we don’t know who is going to stab us. And the more we open up, the more we learn some of the guys who seemed the LEAST likely to stab us were actually stabbing us all along.