Friday, July 17, 2015

Uphill Both Ways: or, on the Privilege™ of having legs.

When two people cross paths on a hiking trail, the person going downhill should yield to the person coming uphill.

To those who haven't gone backpacking, this might be less intuitive. But when you've carried a lot of weight for miles, it begins to make sense.

Foremost, going uphill takes stamina and a certain amount of rhythm and focus take hold - anyone who has been in this zone will want that uphill hikers be allowed to keep that going.

Additionally, going downhill you have line of sight that you don't have going uphill (if you ride in a car notice that the passing zone of a double-lined rural highway is always when going downhill or flat. It's not only because your car has to work harder to accelerate uphill, the line of sight is better). Therefore hikers going downhill will usually see uphill hikers before uphill hikers see them. Yet another reason to initiate communication and to yield.

Now, I don't always follow that rule, and like many rules there are situations where this makes no sense. As the link above states, if an uphill hiker wishes to rest, it's perfectly acceptable for them to stand aside. The point is that it's their choice to do so. I also will yield going uphill to a downhill hiker who I can tell is an Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hiker or any long-haul backpacker. I do this because while I may be hiking ten miles with all kinds of time, these folks have been on the trail conceivably for months. I stand aside when I'm able because I want to help their journey in that small way. Many times, I am thanked for this small gesture.

So what? I don't know. Let's take a right turn.

I've more or less abandoned notions of privilege as a vehicle for thinking about power. I may need to unpack it more but here's a brief mention. It's not just an argument against "privilege" because it's being used as a tool for silencing. It is an axis, and not the only one. If we focus on it, we risk quibbling about personal responsibility and systemic oppression. We risk missing coercion and injustice but it's not just a question of having bigger fish to fry. We risk alienating people who would otherwise be most likely to engage in demonstrably constructive conversation.

Maybe I'm becoming a pragmatist. I simply tire of attempts to tip scales by using privilege language as a corrective act. Of claims to being more (or less) deserving of a voice or authorship because of privilege axes. Ten years ago I might have bristled at a charge of lefties playing "Privilege Olympics" but now I bristle at providing a laundry list of my marginalized identities as license to be heard or taken seriously (or not dismissed). I value ideas -- including where they're coming from -- but I will not rate the value of a speaker's words by demerit points (the more privilege you score, the less you have any right to say anything at all).

Do oppressed people deserve more? Is it a Thing that some have to work harder than others?

Of course. But downhill hikers don't yield because uphill hikers deserve the right of way. Downhill hikers yield because of empathy. Downhill hikers yield because they've been there. Damn the metaphor -- yes, some folks are always hiking uphill and some folks are always, it seems, hiking downhill.

So what if I am always hiking uphill, and some downhill hikers just aren't yielding? And dammit, my load is pretty heavy. What then?

I'll leave you with this. I have choices:

  • Post signs everywhere to alert uphill hikers that I'm sick of yielding to them. (ineffective)
  • Keep hiking, forced to step aside and feel more anger every time I'm not yielded to. Complain when in friendly company. (passive)
  • Just don't ever complain. At least I have legs. (internalized oppression)
  • Ask them politely and explain why to those who listen -- ignore the ones who respond with expletives.(splaining)
  • Whack/stab them with my hiking pole. (violent)
  • Tell them they shouldn't hike. (coercive)
  • Keep trying to get them to understand what it's like to always hike uphill, but then resent any attempt to identify with me because how could they know what it's like to hike uphill? They can't. Never mind that carrying 30lbs downhill with bad knees has gotta hurt. (denial of empathy/projection of pity)
  • Why yield? Why should I *ever* yield? (...)
I'm not sure there is a good way. I'm sure I'm missing ways.

I guess to me it raises questions. What is the difference between being deserving of something and that something being just? I think that's up for discussion, and it has no one answer (especially regarding justice -- given that "social justice" brandishes a seemingly very different set of ethical assumptions than other notions of justice).

But that last stance of refusing to ever yield: beware a position of pride too great that you lose the very dignity you're fighting for.


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