Male Privilege and Monday’s Presidential Debate

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.

This can look like men being less likely to be interrupted than their female counterparts, or like men being able to walk down the street at night without a consistent fear of being harassed.

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.

15 thoughts on “Male Privilege and Monday’s Presidential Debate

  1. Have you completely forgot about assuming the best intentions? When looking at it from a neutral perspective (not trying to find sexism in every single word uttered) it was clear that Maya, Chandler and Anna all received roughly the same response from the audience. Daniel happened to happens to have the support of a large group of loud boys, does that make them sexist, for cheering on their candidate? I certainly hope that’s not what you think. I think that it is a totally unfair accusation, especially since I don’t think you have even spoken with the students who you are accusing.

    • There’s nothing wrong with cheering on the candidate of your choice. I think if you read the article carefully, you will find that I never accuse any specific person of anything malicious. I simply mention that there was chatter while some of the candidates were speaking — which is true! I certainly do not call anyone sexist. I am instead calling attention to the way in which we think about and address these kind of events.

  2. Jack,

    The reality is that we shouldn’t see the world from a neutral perspective – that’s like the counterproductive racial argument of being “colorblind.” We instead must account for the realities of various social factors – in this case, the nature of masculinity within our culture. Masculinity is overwhelmingly presented as aggressive, loud, and dominating, and men are more likely to speak over women, ignore women’s input, and speak up more in conversations. I’m on my phone but if you want me to source everything from that previous sentence, I can when I’m off mobile. Anyways – because of the nature of masculinity and gender in our society, it is absolutely fair to question wether the fact that men were speaking while female candidates were speaking (which I witnessed), and the fact that male candidates received more frequent, rowdier applause than their female counterparts, was influenced by male privilege/male socialization/whatever you may call it. From my read of this article, nobody is accused of being sexist – because sexism does not function on an individual level. Rather, we may perpetuate or be influenced by the society we live in, a society in which men have enormous privilege, and to me this article just calls us to be concious and aware of how privilege can affect our actions.

    • First of all it was not all of the male candidates who people were cheering loudly at. Also, where are we in society if you automatically respond, to some males receiving better feedback than some females, with attacking the integrity of not only the supporters, but the candidates themselves, by labeling their support sexist? I think that is sort of an obtuse was of looking at the situation and I seriously wish that we as a community could have a more sensible conversation about what happened, before we start defaming the character of our students.

      • Again, Jack, I think you might benefit from a close reading here. No one’s integrity is being questioned, least of all the candidates — they have no control over what anyone in the audience is doing.

        I think we will be able to have a sensible conversation as a community when we examine the facts of the situation, and of the greater context. As Regina mentioned, men are socialized to be louder and to speak over women. There is data to back this up. This reality isn’t anyone’s fault — we’re not accusing anyone here of being sexist. However, I think it’s valuable to examine the events on Monday through the lens of this greater social context, with an eye towards improving our dialogue around gender in the future. Once we achieve collective clarity around this context, we can have a valuable community discussion — this article was meant to prompt that reflection.

    • Why should we not see the world from a neutral perspective? I was always under the impression that non-neutrality in the matter of race is precisely the thing that racism is made of.

      • It’s the same reason being colorblind is counter-productive. I think that in an ideal world we wouldn’t factor race, gender, sexuality, etc into our daily experiences. But we don’t live in an ideal world – we live in a world where people are harassed, killed, socioeconomically disadvantaged, etc etc etc, because of identity. Because we don’t live in an ideal world, we need to be aware of identifiers and how they shape our experiences.

  3. Nathan,
    You are quoted in this article saying, “we as a collective have clearly created an environment where such behavior is acceptable, at least for some individuals.” I want to question why I, as someone who was at the debate and cheered for multiple candidates (including female), should be included in this clump of people who created an environment where it is acceptable to be disrespectful to people talking? Why should I, as a man, have to question my integrity just because a select group of people were being disrespectful? Yes I agree that self-reflection is always useful, but that doesn’t mean every time an incident is brought up that I should be questions myself.

    I fail to recognize how any sense of privilege is at play. I do not understand how Deri’s announcement was at all relevant to the matter at hand. I think the administration failed to recognize the difference between a particular group of students being disrespectful while other students were talking and male privilege. Today I went to a lunch meeting and we talked about how it is better to tackle these issues IMMEDIATELY after they happened. If this was a broader issue of male privilege at hand, or privilege at all, why didn’t the administration, or anyone for that matter, stop the debate and tell people to stop being disrespectful to the candidates speaking? My point being; there is a very big difference between being rude and disrespectful and male privilege.

    • Simon,

      I think the reason it is important for you to think about it, even though you may not have participated in it, is that you have the power to influence others. Speaking from the I experience, as a straight person, if an LGBT+ person calls out anything in our community, my response wouldn’t be to say oh I wasn’t doing it it’s not my problem – I would recognize that I have the privilege to say it’s not my problem, and use that to make sure nobody around me is doing anything homophobic/transphobic/etc. Bottom line, doing nothing is taking an action in itself, and I personally feel a responsibility to be accountable for my privilege by being active. That’s why I would encourage the community as a whole to be aware of the environment we create, and not dismiss things as it not being our problem.

      • Also, I agree that it would have been appropriate to say something during the debate, but that wasn’t what happened, so I think it’s good that we’re talking about it now.

      • Inaction may be action in itself, but what if the perceived ‘inaction’ is in fact the solution? In matters such as racism and sexism, simply not being racist and sexist is the solution. The problem lies in those who a) are actively racist and sexist and b) ‘pick the scab,’ so to speak. If I, for instance, do nothing racist or sexist in my life, and yet am constantly reminded that by not being verbally anti-racism or anti-sexism I am part of the problem, I may become incredibly confused. I, along with just about every student at OES (bar a few hardcore loonies), am perfectly willing to not be racist or sexist if everybody would just stop talking incessantly about it.
        Are conversations about racism necessary? Obviously. But to inflict these conversations upon young minds who have never had the chance to consider such things is practically to inflict the idea of racism upon them, and so — in an extreme case — to make the young minds racist themselves through the teenage principle of rebellion.
        In brief, if everybody would stop talking about racism, I believe it would go away.

    • Thank you for your comment, Simon. You raise some questions that I’m sure will be shared by many of our classmates.

      Ultimately, the culture at OES — at any school — is dictated by the students. A few weeks ago, many members of our community shouted the n-word at a school dance — because they felt it was acceptable to do so. At the debate, many people were talking over some of the presidential candidates. Why? Again, because they felt that, in this community, it was acceptable to do so. Those two events are different in magnitude, but similar in motivation.

      This is why I feel that the responsibility for such incidents, when they occur, falls squarely on the shoulders of each and every member of the student body. We are the arbiters of our school’s culture — the administration does not ultimately determine what is or is not acceptable in the eyes of the students. Only we, as a collective, can do that.

      To your second point: I would refer you to Regina’s previous comment about the socialization of men in American society. I think there’s a lot to unpack there, and a lot of it directly related to the incident on Monday. Oftentimes, privilege appears in ways that are difficult to see or understand — that doesn’t make it any less important to label.

      To your final point: perhaps it would have been prudent to pause the debate on monday; perhaps it wouldn’t have been. Regardless, it wasn’t paused, and so we have the conversation now, instead.

      • Excellent point, Nathan, about the source of our culture being the students themselves. I, however, strongly disagree. The source of the flaws that you cite is not a matter of pure individual sentiment alone, or indeed group mentality; it’s the byproduct of the hypersensitivity that shrouds matters such as these, hypersensitivity that is propagated by the administration and not the students. Not, of course, that any individual member of the ‘administration’ is at fault — the problem is in the space between the individuals of their entire generation. It’s a form of interactive censure that acts like a cultural cancer. It starts small, then it grows, and nobody wants to poke it because it’s too sensitive.

        As psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple states, “Political Correctness is Totalitarianism writ small”

  4. Great conversation. Regina: what you said.

    I cannot speak with much first hand knowledge of the forum, which I only was able to witness a few minutes of. However, something I’ve wondered for years is: why has only one female been elected to the US Student Body President position that I can recall (I’ve been here 14 years)? Is it that the male candidates are truly always superior in some way? Do people vote for their own gender, and less females vote? Do females vote for males at a higher rate than males for females? If so, why? Could there, in fact, be something to this idea of male privilege that somehow advantages males in competitive races with females in the OES US?

    When this kind of thing is brought up, I see really different responses happening. Some feel accused and defensive. Some feel empathic and want to identify solutions to a perceived problem. Some see no problem at all. A big question to ask in life is: when people voice that they feel there is power imbalance happening within a community, is your first reaction to deny that it exists, or to be reflective about it, and seek an empathic or inclusive response?

    Thanks for bringing a good conversation forward Nathan. I read The Dig, and rarely are there comments on the articles. In this case, a nerve has been touched. It’s healthy to look at ourselves as a community and ask if we can do things better… to be more self aware of our cultural conditioning.

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