There’s a dustup in the Paganiblogosphere right now that was kicked off by an elder speaking about his “concern” about obesity among Pagans. This was not a good example of someone with privilege speaking carefully to those without.
Peter Dybing apparently spoke without being aware of the problem of fat shaming. That happens; part of having privilege is not having to think about it, hence the idea of the invisible knapsack. But when called on it, you have to step back and consider the situation, especially from the point of view of the person who is telling you about an experience that you don’t have – being fat, being Pagan, being whatever.
Do people abuse that? Yes. The “War on Christmas” is a made-up piece of propagandistic puffery that some Christians use to make themselves feel good about being an embattled minority. When they bring up concerns like that, you can assess the situation and make a sound argument that they are misusing the concepts or simply being jerks.
But people who have experienced fat-shaming speak convincingly, to me at least, about how being fat is experienced as a lack of privilege, how it is used to marginalize them and as grounds for mistreating them. Some people could continue to deny that; I don’t see how they could if they actually listened to their co-conversationalists, but I suppose it’s possible.
Once you know you’re speaking about an issue from a position of privilege, the situation changes. There are lots of rhetorical tactics that are available to you that continue to disempower people who have less privilege, and a great many of them are laid out with delicious sarcasm in Derailing for Dummies. (I’m sorry about the ableist title; the website says it will change.) One that’s not mentioned there is speaking in a way that contributes to the marginalization of the group while claiming nothing but the best of motives; that’s concern trolling.
More importantly, if people tell you that you are contributing to the problem, you have to take a looooong step back and look at what you’re doing. I think Dybing’s approach, though it might have been well meant, did fundamentally suggest that we increase fat shaming in Pagan circles. He might not have thought of it that way, but when it was pointed out to him, I haven’t seen him explain how he or anyone else can possibly “raise awareness” about this issue without it contributing to or outright degenerating into hurtful fat shaming.
Speaking about an issue from a position of privilege is hard. You have to do “extra” intellectual work to examine your own position. You have to do “extra” emotional work to apply imaginative empathy to the experiences that others tell you about and how others may perceive your speech. If you’re smart, you’ll do “extra” shadow work to deal with your own problems surrounding these issues.
But that “extra” work is the least we can do for people who are marginalized on an ongoing basis, every day of their lives, whether it’s because of gender, sexuality, appearance, or anything else. I guarantee that it doesn’t add up to a tenth of the “extra” experience of problems, of being hurt, of struggling just to be treated equally that they go through. So I don’t think we can really call it “extra” at all.
Note: I am far from perfect. I am speaking partially from experience here, and in the full expectation that I, too, will screw up on privilege issues in the future. It’s basically unavoidable. If someone needs to point me to this post of my own in the future, I promise I’ll step back and listen, like I advise here. I’m writing it because I think it’s the best contribution I can make to the ongoing conversation.