How tampons and liberalism almost ruined my circle of friends
Writer: Thomas Rose
It started innocently enough. A friend of mine – let’s call him Mark – was chatting with some other students and realised that feminine hygiene products were available in the women’s washrooms at Lakehead Orillia, but for a price. “That’s not right,” said Mark. “What about folks who can’t afford them?”
Now, before we get too far into this – allow me to drop a little knowledge for you. Mark is a well-meaning dude. But, like all of us, things he says often come out wrong. An example: One time, Mark and I were discussing a video he’d watched in class that compared some forms of militant feminism to chauvinism. Mark, contrary to what I’d thought before, was pretty thoughtful. I asked him questions, listened to his responses, and was totally on board with everything he was saying. Until, that is, he came to his conclusion – “Feminism shouldn’t exist.”
I tell you that story not so you think I’m better than Mark, but so that you understand why I was a little skeptical as he started researching and reaching out to people about having free tampons and sanitary pads moved from the LUSU Office into the men’s, women’s, and accessible washrooms. Not only are free products already available to those who need them, but why did Mark suddenly care so much about menstruation? I certainly didn’t want to be the guy who railed against accessibility – but if you’ve read anything I’ve written before, you might’ve noticed that I’m a bit of what the French call “an asshole” – I couldn’t resist playing devil’s advocate.
Over the Facebook group, which contains myself, Mark, and a group of our friends, I suggested counter-arguments for what I (mistakenly) viewed as a waste of student money to fix a non-existent issue. One of our friends rightfully pointed out that this was not only a women’s issue, but also extended to trans men, who may not feel comfortable schlepping to the LUSU office and potentially outing themselves. Mark added that he didn’t expect LUSU to pay for the products; he wanted the school to be obligated to offer them. The debate was healthy and productive. People from different backgrounds exchanging ideas and working towards building a better world/washroom. Or at least it was, until one of our friends told me I had to “check [my] white male privilege” and left it at that.
Now, I’m not blind to the fact that I have privilege. I’m a white man who grew up in a middle-class home. I was able to spend three years after high school not working and didn’t have to worry about food or shelter. I was able to move to three different cities over the span of six years and always had the option of coming back home if things didn’t work out, and when I finally did, I was able to enrol in university without having to struggle with concerns many have to face on a daily basis. I don’t take issue with being told I have privilege, I take issue with the notion that my having privilege is an argument in and of itself.
There’s been a growing tendency in the left to dismiss contrary ideas out of hand. We’re told that no longer should we waste our time trying to explain why racism and sexism are wrong, that the idea of educating our way out of social issues is on its last legs, and it’s time to start calling out those whose ideas and values are contrary to our progression as a society for who they are showing themselves to be. I don’t disagree with any of that, on principle. We should not have to, nor should we be expected to, consider the argument of someone who believes people are lesser than them based on circumstance valid. And yes, perhaps arguing the point gives that impression. But here’s the thing – it’s not working.
Back in November, British political satirist Jonathan Pie released a six-minute video that went viral, blaming the left for Trump’s election. He raised some salient points. “We don’t debate anymore because the left won the cultural war,” says Pie, “So if you’re on the right, you’re a freak. You’re evil, you’re racist, you’re stupid… When has anyone ever been persuaded by being insulted or labelled?”
The thing about people who deny their privilege is that to them, they don’t have any. For many, it’s not that they’re wilfully ignoring the plight of others, it’s that they think they have it just as bad. The response, in many cases, is to tell people that they’re wrong, but telling someone that they’re wrong—without showing them why—isn’t going to change their opinion. It’s going to get their hackles up, and make them feel as if you don’t acknowledge what they perceive as their problems. This is why we end up with horrifying concepts such as the Yiannopoulos Privilege Grant, a nausea-inducing scholarship fund headed by Milo Yiannopoulos in an effort to help “white men who wish to pursue their post-secondary education on equal footing with their female, queer and ethnic minority classmates”.
Young adult author John Green once wrote, “What a treacherous thing it is to believe that a person is more than a person”. It might be a bit pat, but it’s something I try to keep in mind if ever I find myself locked in a heated debate on something about which I feel passionate. It helps, I hope, to keep me from conflating the person with whom I am speaking with the idea that they are defending. That’s not to suggest one has to accept contrary ideas. I certainly don’t condone pretending someone’s offering that science tells us why such-and-such ethnicity is inferior has any basis in fact. I don’t expect you to sit there and listen to someone explain the finer points of why women deserve to make less money than men for the same position. All I’m suggesting, and you can take it or leave it, is that if you want to bring someone around, maybe the best way to do it isn’t an ad hominem attack. Maybe, just maybe, we live in a complicated world with complicated issues. I may be wrong, but I still believe in the value of education over confrontation. Just try not to hate me for it.