by Nathan Carpenter
On Wednesday, Associate Head of the Upper School Deri Bash made a Gathering announcement about student conduct during the Student Body Presidential debate on Monday of this week.
Specifically, Deri raised concerns about members of the student body — mostly male students — applauding loudly for the male candidates onstage while simultaneously showing disrespect for the female candidates by talking over them from the audience.
The key theme of Deri’s announcement was privilege. Male privilege, to be exact: the idea that there are certain social benefits that men receive simply because of their gender identity.
The intended scope of Deri’s announcement — as he confirmed to me on Thursday — was much larger than just the events during the debate. He thinks — and I agree — that privilege is something that all of us at OES need to be conscious of in all situations we find ourselves in.
Privilege takes many forms, and is often not the sole motivator of any single incident or event. However, it does come into play quite frequently, often in ways that we overlook.
On Wednesday, I sensed a great deal of resistance amongst the Upper School community to Deri’s assertion that male privilege was an important factor in the rudeness shown to some of the presidential candidates on Monday.
Some feel that the incident itself was not as significant as it’s being made out to be, and is something that should be addressed with certain individuals rather than the entirety of the Upper School student body.
Others feel that Deri’s announcement was too narrow in focus — that many factors went into the interruptions, many of which have nothing to do with male privilege. These factors range from preference of the Upper School voting body, to sexism, to random chance.
There are definitely holes to poke in Deri’s points. The truth is that male privilege was not the sole motivator in what happened, but rather a whole host of factors — including privilege — were at play.
The challenge is to think about the root causes of the rudeness before discrediting Deri’s point as being overly sensitive.
Yes, it was a fraction of Upper School students who were rude while the female presidential candidates were speaking. Yes, many of the people who cheered loudly for one of the male presidential candidates are close friends of that candidate. And yes, some people may genuinely feel the male candidates to be the more qualified.
I concede all of these points, and yet I would suggest that to make these arguments is to miss the real takeaway from Monday’s events, and from Wednesday’s announcement.
In any such situation, there are always loopholes, always opportunities to say, “Yes, but…” or “Not all people…,” and, in many cases, it is easier to make these arguments that to confront that perhaps privilege had a role to play. It’s harder — and braver — to do the opposite.
Indeed, I would argue that when people feel the need to rationalize or defend our behavior or the behavior of others, there often is some element of privilege at play. Why else would we feel the need to explain our actions — why not just let them stand on their own?
My point is that whenever something like this incident comes up, we have two courses of action: either we can explain the incident away by taking it purely at face value, or we can look a little deeper and see if we can identify any patterns of behavior in our community.
So, for a moment, let’s reframe the issue. Instead of thinking about this in terms of how this moment potentially wasn’t motivated by privilege, think about it in terms of how it potentially was.
Why were the majority of people who were vocally supporting their candidate during the debate male? Why were the female candidates the only candidates who were spoken over? Why do we consistently find that the highest position of elected leadership in our school is filled by a man?
As always, it’s possible to explain the questions away. The guys in the crowd were hooting and hollering because that’s just who they are — they’re rowdy. The female candidates were spoken over because these two specific candidates weren’t presenting good enough ideas. It wasn’t everyone who was being rude — just a few select individuals.
All of these explanations, taken one at a time, are logical. If a similar event happens during the presidential elections next year, I’m sure members of the student body will come up with a comparable list of reasons. And nothing will change, because we still will not have evaluated anything about ourselves and our community as a whole.
I think we, as a school, have an imperative to constantly examine and re-evaluate the progress our community is making.
For those of you who would argue that this is not a community issue because the entire student body is not guilty of talking over the female candidates, I would propose this to you: even if not every man in the Upper School spoke over the female candidates, we as a collective have clearly created an environment where such behavior is acceptable, at least for some individuals. Is that worth examining? I think it is.
I understand that this a much more difficult question to ask than it initially appears. It’s hard to reflect on our own behavior and actions to see if they, perhaps, are motivated by privilege.
But, I also understand that the reality of the debate on Monday was this: both of the female candidates onstage were talked over by the audience to a much greater degree than the male candidates. An event like this is not the end of the world, but it does go a long way towards revealing the collective values of our school’s culture.
Moving forward, it’s important for all of us to continue to examine and reexamine our own privileges — and my hope is that such an examination will outweigh the impact of any disrespect we showed the female Presidential candidates during the debate on Monday.