This was originally published on The Guardian.
Those with the highest levels of privilege are often viscerally afraid of losing it. It’s the fear that if they relinquish power, the tables will turn on them, the terror that they will become the oppressed. This anxiety is not completely unfounded. If we’re honest, no one is above being corrupted or is immune to subjugating others, not even those who have been structurally oppressed for generations.
So, if you’re part of the fight for equality, as I am, how do we make sure that we’re working towards a world that would be good for all, rather than just the group we’re part of?
I was mulling over these questions following a Twitter exchange with the comedian Josh Denny. He said that the phrase “straight white male” was this century’s “N-word”. Many, including me, pointed out that this statement betrayed a lack of understanding of history and context. However, Denny seemed to understand the danger of being dehumanised, given the disastrous impacts of this process throughout history.
He argued: “We have to be better than that. Use our words and our minds and our hearts to win arguments. Not by trying to dehumanise the opposition to your beliefs. No matter who you are.”
It’s fairly obvious to those with an understanding of history and power structures that the term “straight white male” does not carry the same baggage as the N-word – or the same tragic outcomes over particular members of society. It is a false equivalence. However, despite his history of racist rhetoric, the root of Denny’s concern should not necessarily be dismissed. This is not about him really, but about the very real pushback to the many equality movements today, whether it’s #MeToo, diversity and inclusion efforts within companies, or any mention of quotas. Many like Denny – straight white men – feel the ground shifting beneath their feet and seem terrified of what is to come.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not in favour of prioritising the feelings of those straight white men, or about how we manage the discomfort that those in power are feeling. Not in the slightest. I am more than happy to call out the powerful, name prejudiced behaviour, highlight hypocrisies, and point out the structural inequalities that inform society. Acknowledgement is the first step towards change. However, as the ground shifts, we have a window of opportunity to shape the landscape of political discourse.
First, we must interrogate our intentions. I’ll be the first to admit, there is a certain satisfaction that comes from delivering the perfect Twitter takedown. Who doesn’t love the dopamine hits as the likes, re-tweets, and gifs of standing ovations flood in. It feels good to be right, and to have your community reward you for it. However, there is a discernible difference between naming bad behaviour with an intention to educate and calling things out with the aim – conscious or not – of humiliation.
Second, once those who benefit from the status quo have their power equalised, how will they be treated? Does the use of terms such as “straight white man”, “gammon” and “centrist dad” to humiliate or belittle indicate a level of dehumanisation, that could become dangerous once power shifts out of their hands?
Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and theorist, explores these themes in his 1968 book, Pedagogia do Oprimido (Pedagogy of the Oppressed). “The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors,” Freire observes. There is precedent for this reversal, and it could be argued that a shift where the oppressed and oppressors share power equally is much more historically unprecedented.
“The oppressed find in the oppressors their model of ‘manhood’,” the Brazilian theorist further posited. If this concept is extended to contemporary society, the implication is clear: those who are currently oppressed take their cues on how to exercise power from those holding the reins.
If we are to truly transform society, we must resist the temptation to lower ourselves to the methods of dehumanisation that have been used to exercise power and control. What does that actually mean? Well, we have to be better than those who currently hold power, finding ways to be generous and to be kind – even if it’s going to be hard work.
That’s the work of change. It’s about taking a breath before slamming the next Josh Denny on Twitter, and instead choosing to have an actual conversation. This isn’t about centring straight white men, because I don’t have time for that. This is about honouring ourselves and making sure we are building the best society for us all. It won’t be easy, but I truly believe it’ll be worth it.