by Emrys Westacott
A colleague recently responded to a memo I circulated by telling me they considered it unintentionally heterosexist. I didn't agree. After a brief exchange of e-mails that served only to sandpaper each other's sore spots, my colleague called my attention to the following passage in Allen Johnson's book Privilege, Power, and Difference:
If someone confronts you with your own behavior that supports privilege, step off the path of least resistance that encourages you to defend and deny. Don't tell them they're too sensitive or need a better sense of humor . . . Listen to what's being said. Take it seriously. Assume for the time being it's true, because given the power of paths of least resistance, it probably is.
The passage is well-intended and, up to a point, reasonable. But it should also be read with caution, since I believe it can easily encourage fallacious thinking and thereby harm the very cause it hopes to advance—a cause with which I fully sympathize. Of course, the tenor of the passage is to encourage a self-critical attitude, and we're all in favor of that. But the same kind of reasoning could also be used to fend off the advice being given. After all, one can easily rewrite the passage to put the boot on the other foot:
If someone tells you you're being hypersensitive or unreasonable, step off the path of least resistance that encourages you to defend and deny. Don't tell them their behavior supports privilege. Listen to what's being said. Take it seriously. Assume for the time being it's true, because given the power of the paths of least resistance, it probably is.
As my colleague and I found, navigating these shoals in our everyday interactions, achieving the proper admixture of knowledge, understanding, self-awareness, sensitivity, and reason, can be difficult. Still, I believe that in our attempts to manage this, it is important that we recognize and respect basic logical parameters. If we fail to do this, we do our cause a disservice.
In discussions of sexism, racism, heterosexism, heteronormativism, and other forms of prejudice, I have sometimes encountered two particular forms of specious reasoning. I will label these the appeal to subjective response and the accusation of privilege. My purpose here is simply to explain what these are and what is wrong with them.