Privilege and Religion

Okay, making a second pass at this post – I’m still not certain I’ll quite manage to write what I want to write, but hopefully I’ll manage something that at least makes a little sense.

There’s a lot of discussion going on in the public sphere right now about the apparent war between freedom of religion and freedom of speech.  Firstly, let me make it clear where I stand on this: I don’t believe it exists.  In the same way as the supposed war between religion and science, I think this debate is being furthered on all sides by those attempting to win their own personal arguments, who are pursuing this war because it serves their own purposes, and are, on both sides, doing so consciously.

The two cases where this supposed war between speech and religion has recently reared its head in the case of Islam is firstly, the Islamophobic video that sparked violent responses in North Africa and secondly, a poster paid for by Pamela Geller and posted in the New York subway system, effectively equating Zionism, Islamophobia and ‘civilization’.  In both cases, much of the discussion has focused on the behavior of the Muslim (and even non-Muslim, in the case of the Geller poster) response, as being an over-reaction, and a lack of appreciation for and tolerance of the freedom of speech, that gives Geller and the creators of the Islam video the right to create these messages.  Are these criticisms fair?  Perhaps in a perfect world.  Because that’s what the freedom of speech presumes – it presumes a perfect world, in particular one without privilege.

Privilege is a tricky, and often misrepresented, concept.  At its most basic, the idea of privilege in discussions of gender or race is an attempt to recognize that not everyone speaks from the same position based on their personal history, and therefore certain people are allowed a voice that is denied others.  The clearest example, at least in my mind, is the on-going discussion about civility and language in multiplayer gaming, in particular the tendency of gamers to threaten rape during game-play.  Men tend to claim that this is a harmless practice, effectively nothing more than trash-talk, whereas women tend to argue that it is actually threatening.  The difference in experience stems from their relative privilege – men, particularly white men who are not likely in their lifetime to be incarcerated, are statistically unlikely to experience rape, whereas women are, and therefore women experience these comments from a very different position than men.  To put it simply, it seems like a joke to men because men aren’t raised in a society in which they are made aware, from an early age, that they might genuinely be raped, and to be vigilant for it, whereas women are[1].  In the same way, if I joked about your family being killed by chickens, it would seem like a weird and harmless joke to you, unless you happened to come from an alternate dimension in which chickens are brutal killers, in which case it would seem heartless and callous.  Your personal history and background affects how you receive messages.

The problem with discussions of privilege is that privilege is often used by minority communities as a trump card, effectively stopping any dominate groups from speaking.  I’ve noticed this is particularly trendy on the internet – I’ve come across any number of sites that say, point-blank in their comments policy, that if you are not a woman/person of color/woman of color/queer/etc, you should not comment on the site.  That’s fine for a blog – after all, it’s partly a private space and the owner has the right to set the tone – but it cannot work for any larger conversation.  All people have a stake in discussions of gender and race because Ozy’s law is correct – these things affect everyone, they just affect the dominate side indirectly.  Moreover, segregating the conversation is part of what leads to the circumstance that exists now – certainly in the case of Islamic studies, I wholeheartedly believe that part of the reason why so many Islamicists veer so severely into criticizing the Muslim tradition is because there are so few Muslims scholars present in a given setting to question that tendency, a circumstance that has arisen in part because Muslim scholars tend to group together and non-Muslim scholars tend to group together.  They need to interact in order to have the tough conversations, otherwise those conversations will never take place.

So how does privilege relate to freedom of speech and freedom of religion?  Well, as I said before, those freedoms presume that all of the participants are on equal footing.  This makes sense, given the context in which they were developed – at least in the American setting, the Founding Fathers envisioned a country in which all white, Christian, male property-owners would have equal access to government and the public sphere.  Many of these groups had experienced repression for the practice of their religion, but they were all roughly on equal footing in the Americas.  No group had experienced legal repression in more than a century by the time of the Constitution, and even those that still experienced social repression, like the Quakers and Shakers, had their own safe spaces, in the form of states or local communities that they more or less controlled completely.

In this context, these groups could openly criticize one another’s religion fairly easily, because no one group was clearly dominate – there was probably a Protestant majority in the late eighteenth century, before the spike in Catholic immigration in the 1830s and 1840s, but it was split between the Anglicans and the Separatist, Radical and Calvinist communities (Presbyterian, Congregationalists, Quakers, etc), who had all experienced periods of success in Europe which they could draw on to bolster their own claims.  To use Scalzi’s terminology, basically everyone was playing the straight, white male difficulty.

The present situation couldn’t be more different, however.  Instead of a small pool of roughly equal communities, we now have a massive pool of widely varied communities, not only here in the US, but, as evidenced by the Islamophobic video, abroad, as well, all attempting to engage in a conversation with each other.  In this context, history and privilege have to play into discussions of religion and free speech, because speech does not exist in a bubble.  People today who are encouraging and defending Islamophobia may not be aware of the long history of Islamophobia in Europe and the West, but consciously or subconsciously, much of what they produce mimics these centuries of attacks, and likewise, the response from Muslim communities is not merely a response to a single example (the Geller post or the video), but rather a reaction to a long tradition of attack.

With this in mind, there are some general ground-rules that need to be born in mind before someone critics a community for not tolerating free speech.

1.) Free speech does not mean freedom from reactions to that speech.  You have the right to say whatever you want.  You do not have the right to police how people respond to what you say.  Indeed, our laws are already aware of this fact – it is *not* free speech to scream fire in a crowded theatre when there is no fire.  Technically it should be, but the reality is there is no situation in which this speech is anything but endangering, so we’ve just stopped people from doing it.  In the same vein, if you call your friend an ass, and hurt her feelings, you can’t stop her from being angry with you by saying, ‘but freedom of speech!’  The same goes for the public sphere – people will react to what you say; you do not get to stop them from doing so.

2.) Speech does not appear in a bubble – understand the history of the argument before you dive into it.   This is why it’s different when African-Americans use the n-word with each other, versus being called it by someone else, or why you probably shouldn’t call your Jewish friend’s apartment ‘ghetto’.  Our language developed with our history, and sometimes words and concepts carry a historical connotation.  This is particularly important with discussions of nation-states, because so much of the modern world map stems from Western imperialism.  It’s particularly insulting for Pamela Geller, as a white Westerner, to declaim Palestinian identity and statehood because both the state of Israel and the modern concept of ‘nation-state’ in general are Western concepts that were largely forced on the rest of the world in the nineteenth and twentieth century[2].

3.) Privilege is not static.  Different communities experience privilege in different places.  This is particularly relevant in the discussion of the anti-Islam video, which seems to have been produced by the members of the American Coptic community.  In Egypt, the Copts are a minority that have often suffered repression.  However, in America, they are protected by the blanket-privilege of Christianity, and Muslims suffer repression.  The people of Libya and Egypt have also suffered repression as a result of living under tyrannical rule, a rule propped up by twentieth-century Western imperialism.  So you can’t simply argue that the video doesn’t come from a privileged place just because it was produced by Copts – privilege is relative to current environment and position.

4.) Nearly everyone has some privilege.  This seems to be the one that people have the most problem accepting.  Somewhere in the world there is probably at least one person that has no natural privilege – I’m guessing it’s a disabled, queer, Buddhist woman living in central Africa – but that unfortunate woman aside, we all have some privilege.  You may experience repression for expressing your atheism publicly in the US, but there are still places in the world where that could get you killed.  Same goes for gender or sexual orientation.  However, at the same time, if you own a car, a computer, an ipod, an iphone, or really any name-brand clothing, you are participating in a modern system of slavery.  However, these relative levels of privilege don’t disqualify *anyone* from participating in public discussion.

Let me reiterate that: privilege doesn’t disqualify *anyone* from participating in public discussion.  If you are a straight, white, multi-millionaire American man, you still are allowed a voice. But to use that voice most effectively, you should probably keep in mind all of the other stuff I’ve said above.

Well, anyways, those are the aspects of privilege that most stand out for me in these debates – anyone else have some they want to add?

[1] Tons of people have discussed this debate, but my favorite remains John Scalzi’s discussion of privilege in gaming/nerddom, “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting.”

[2] Thus Eddie Izzard’s brilliant discussion of the cunning use of flags.  “That’s the rules … that I’ve just made up.”

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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One Response to Privilege and Religion

  1. Pingback: Cultural Appropriation and You! | askanislamicist

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