Sunday, 23 June 2013

A Sorry Kind of Privilege

There's a description in Carol Craig’s excellent book: The Tears that made the Clyde 
of women and children hanging around the gates of factories and shipyards, or outside pubs. It was pay day and they were hoping to run into their men folk and shame them into giving them something from their pay to run the household, before everything was drunk away.  

At the time, it was common, accepted practice, for the man take all the money and spend it on his own pleasures. So much so, that trade unionists, recognising alcoholism as a problem, had a campaign to persuade landlords to refuse service once half of a man’s pay had been drunk.

In other words, the most progressive, left wing men around at that time thought that it was reasonable for one member of a household, to spend half of the entire money for a family, for one week, on himself, in a single night.

I read this, with a short lived sense of relief at how far we had come.
Short lived until I noticed the number of adult men coming into the advice centre, where I then worked, with raging substance issues and cheerfully tell me about the financial help they were getting from aged parents, from girlfriends, from ex partners even.  

And all those worried looking elderly women with their extravagant debts and frugal lifestyles. A junkie son is like a forest fire. It’s incredible how fast he can burn through everything you can build up over a lifetime.

I had a colleague who used to romanticise this sort of behaviour. “Its amazing how families stick by each other and help each other out isn’t it?” When I pointed out this solidarity only ever seemed to flow one way, she said “Well that’s just the way of the world isn’t it? You’ll never change that.”

I noticed all this and I saw we have come nowhere really. Its only the unemployed mans version of the same behaviour.

There is a concept in intersectional Feminism of privilege. As in, for example, Male Privilege. It can be a difficult one to explain. Perhaps it’s the wrong word for the concept. How can you call someone privileged when they are poor, unemployed, addicted, and miserable?  

Well, I think I understand now how male privilege plays out in the underprivileged man. Those men, they just came into the advice centre with a different attitude to the women.

I’ve only ever seen women agonise over whether they really deserve a benefit, when considering appealing a decision. Its only women who needed to be talked into claiming Disability Living Allowance because, after all, they’re “managing” on Income Support.

 And by the same token, its only men who have suggested that they don’t need to provide any of the information I've asked for because they've “already given you my national insurance number so you should have sorted it out” or who have chosen to use their appointments, not to discuss their cases but to attempt to trip me up and score points against me.

It’s that universal male attitude of entitlement. And rage, of course, that their entitlement had been taken from them. Except that the things they feel entitled to are so pitiably small: a scatter flat, their £71.70 per week, a methadone scrip. The bare bones of a life really.

This was the settlement of the 1980’s after all. We take away your pits and shipyards and docks and in return you we leave you with the bru. Except now the Torys are back to snatch away even that consolation prize and benefits that could once be counted on, now have to be jumped through hoops for and justified and fought for.  Why shouldn’t anyone feel entitled, why shouldn’t they feel angry?

Except that's not all they feel entitled to. Not really. It’s not just the material things. It’s the full attention, sympathy and efforts of women. Those niggly little power struggles were just a tiny taste of what the women in their lives must put up with.

Because the assumption is that the women will make up the difference isn’t it?
Will find the money, will take out that bank loan, will stroke that ego, and will pity you when self pity is not enough. Emotionally porous; will be available to absorb the ugly emotions of shame, defeat and rage.

That is male privilege. That is how it plays itself out in the under privileged man. And again privilege seems to be the wrong word- because what are they getting out of it, except the avoidance of personal responsibility, which is surely not in anyone’s long term interest. A sorry sort of privilege indeed. 

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