Male privilege is impressed so deeply on us, from such a young age, that we are programmed to accept it, to barely notice it.
I was recently in a conversation with some radical women activists who were talking about an important Australian unionist, and someone pointed out that I was calling her "him". Tony Abbott likes to wax lyrical about how males are more naturally suited to leadership than women, and while I detest this view, I had assumed it by my unconscious assumption that anyone in such an important job must naturally be male. Statistically speaking, you can understand why I have assumed this: we see so few women in leadership - but it served me right when I had to turn red and apologize for my own unconscious participation in the myth of male-supremacy.
There is no way to escape the omnipresent fog of oppression in our society - but how do we deal with these issues when they come up?
This article in the Guardian: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot's prison letters to Slavoj Žižek gives a good example. Slavoj, writing to the imprisoned Russian Punk-Rocker Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, unwittingly assumes a patronising tone (intended to be compassionate, no doubt, and 'fatherly') when he says:
But I feel guilty writing this: who am I to explode in such narcissistic theoretical outbursts when you are exposed to very real deprivations? So please, if you can and want, do let me know about your situation in prison: about your daily rhythm, about the little private rituals that make it easier to survive, about how much time you have to read and write, about how other prisoners and guards treat you, about your contact with your child …
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova gently chides him:
You should not worry that you are exposing theoretical fabrications while I am supposed to suffer the "real hardship".
Now the critical moment in the conversation arises: how will Slavoj respond? He says:
I felt deeply ashamed after reading your reply. You wrote: "You should not worry about the fact that you are exposing theoretical fabrications while I am supposed to suffer the 'real hardship'." This simple sentence made me aware that the final sentiment in my last letter was false: my expression of sympathy with your plight basically meant, "I have the privilege of doing real theory and teaching you about it while you are good for reporting on your experience of hardship …" Your last letter demonstrates that you are much more than that, that you are an equal partner in a theoretical dialogue. So my sincere apologies for this proof of how deeply entrenched is male chauvinism, especially when it is masked as sympathy for the other's suffering, and let me go on with our dialogue.
The easiest response would have been to try to recover, and say something feminist-sounding to show how non-sexist he really is, after all. This kind of "brush-it-under-the-carpet" response is natural in socially awkward situations. Instead of doing this, Žižek immediately takes the shame for what he has done, denounces his own behaviour, and points to the social structures.
Those of us who belong to privileged groups: white, male, straight, educated, first world etc. can pretend to be somehow innocent bystanders in our own privilege. We are not. We are in many ways, sometimes involuntarily, complicit in injustices. But what we do have is a privileged voice in a society that listens to people like us. All we can do is what Žižek does here, we must use our privileged position to denounce its very existence.