← back to the blog

Privilege and the Value of Listening to Other Voices

I have two major conversational flaws.

The first is that I interrupt people in the middle of conversations. It’s not that I mean to — I’m not thinking to myself, I am better than this person, and what I have to say has more value. More often than not, I’m just excited and eager to get the thought I’m having out before I forget it. I’m very forgetful.

The second is that I try to relate by sharing my similar experience. Someone says, Hey, my mom just died. My first instinct is to reply, Oh man, my dad died once and it’s rough. My goal is to create camaraderie and trust: I know what you’re going through. But do you know what it sounds like to someone trying to talk about their feelings? Yes, but let’s talk about meeeee~. 

I’m telling you this because I think it’s important for you, Reader, to know that I’m aware of exactly what these feelings are, and how hard it is to work on them. Slipping up is easy, especially if you’re a voracious talker. Especially if your passionate on the subject. Moreso if emotions are running high.

But when you’re engaging people whom you have privilege over, you really need to back up and just listen.

Yesterday the tag #ToTheGirls blew up on Twitter, started by author Courtney Summers to highlight positive messages for girls. It was a nice tag full of warm fuzzies. As you might expect, it didn’t take long for #ToTheBoys to pick up as well.

I have complicated feelings about this. Because I don’t think it’s bad for there to be men-only spaces, the same way that I think women-only spaces are valuable. I also think it’s foolish to expect social media to honor the boundaries those spaces when it is so public and visible — men participating in #ToTheGirls was inevitable, and I don’t think wholly negative.

There’s tremendous value in seeing another group’s conversation and experience without trying to engage it. To that end, there was some advice given to men in the #ToTheBoys tag that I thought beautifully highlighted issues boys and young men suffer that people don’t always talk about. (Casual reminder that patriarchy is the thing that ails all of us, not just women.)

I don’t even think that it’s negative that men-only spaces allow men to air their grievances about women. Women do it about it men — it famously started a small Twitter spat in our local social group once. However, there’s a difference between “having a grievance” and “dehumanizing.”

Unfortunately, a lot of men-only spaces dehumanize women. This sticks out to me most clearly from the #ToTheBoys tag:

“It.” Not “her,” not “a woman/girl,” but “it.” And there’s argument to be made that the tweet means “pay for things,” but we’re clearly talking about relationships with women and inserting no humanity. And that’s the problem I have here. It’s not that men created a space to spread positive messages to each other about life, but that then certain men took away from that positivity by reinforcing that they view women as objects.

The message is fine. The motivation is the problem.

I know a lot of men who have severe beef with the idea of “male privilege” because a) they feel significantly victimized by being told they have power over other people when they, themselves, do not feel or wield that power, and b) they don’t feel that they have been charmed or blessed by life.

This is a failure to listen.

Having privilege is not having access to everything you want without hurdle or obstacle. Most of us will face obstacles and challenges in our life. Privilege means that you do not face increased obstacles just because of the random nature of your birth. It’s not one thing, but an interconnected network of things, some more impactful than others. And with many people arguing which ones top the chart.

I’m immensely privileged. I’m white, have easy access to information, heteronormative, cisgendered, have a moderate financial support network in emergencies, and am relatively good looking. That’s generally the order of import I’d rank them in, in terms of how they impact my day-to-day life and how hard life would be without them.

None of this negates that I’ve struggled, or that bad things happen to me — nor are they a reflection of my value or whether or not I’m a good person. They’re just facts.

When someone talks about “male privilege,” they’re not saying, YOUR LIFE IS SO BLESSED YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW STRUGGLE. They’re not saying, YOU’RE A BAD PERSON FOR HAVING THIS PRIVILEGE. They’re saying, There is a whole subset of problems and fears about life that you never even have to think about because our culture celebrates white able-bodied men. 

Let’s come back to listening.

The big thing about the #ToTheBoys response tag is that instead of seeing what women were saying to each other about their lived experience, some men said, “But why do women get to have this thing just for them? I demand one for myself.”

And because the world is made for men, that didn’t strike them as tone-deaf.

I’m not of the belief that men ought to be seen and not heard in the world; I know that there are aggressively anti-male feminists out there, but I’d say they’re about as common as real-life militant anti-woman men’s rights activists. I don’t even believe that men should be excluded from conversations about women’s issues. On the contrary, I think their presence is key to changing the status quo from “women are objects for consumption” to “women are people.”

I do not, however, think their voices always need to be heard there.

Listening is key. Too often, men come into conversations about and for women and start interrupting passionately, either to say that they’re not like that or to commiserate on their shared experiences. These aren’t meant as insults, but they are rude and indicative of the larger problem that we often discuss.

The world is made for men. As such, even male allies don’t always realize when they’re steamrolling women in their own spaces. They’re so used to their voices being the most important, that they don’t even question if their voice is welcome.

And this isn’t just about gender dynamics — it’s just the topic of the moment, and one that I’m passionate about. Any time someone of privilege is included in a conversation by oppressed people, there’s a lot more value to listening than speaking.

White people have an obligation to really listen to the lived experiences of people of color to learn how to stop engaged in oppressive habits. Americans need to listen to the experiences of people from other cultures rather than trying to “fix” them. Cisgendered people need to listen to transgendered people. The list could go on and on.

Listening doesn’t mean agreeing. It doesn’t even mean changing anything. It just means absorbing information about someone else’s life experience, without feeling the need to make it about you.

Listening is key to really understanding each other. And while the duty to listen goes both ways, it’s also important to know that part of privilege is having your own narrative reflected in the culture. Women already know a lot about men’s stories by virtue of having them presented time and time again in both news and media. We need men to sit back and listen to us as well. We need to be allowed to have our own spaces, without be scolded for a lack of inclusion.