Someone Else Is Always Listening

Dear Reader,

Messaging is all around us. For all our constant bombardment by marketing and propaganda, we get more positive communications too: more attempts at representation, discussions of privilege, and the like. Yet we forget, I think, that a lot of other people are listening too.

This was brought to mind by, of all things, one of the Avengers movies (Age of Ultron, specifically). There's a scene about halfway through where the Black Widow character, who was formerly a Russian spy, refers to herself as a “monster” because she was surgically sterilized in some way. I didn't think about it at the time, but that's a hell of a slap in the face for a lot of women who's had a hysterectomy or who is unable to carry a child for whatever reason.

And therein lies the problem. The message wasn't really directed at them, I don't think, but plenty no doubt heard it anyway. Imagine being someone for whom this is a sore spot only to have a massive(ly popular) franchise say “you're a monster.” Because that is literally what the message was.

I'm not writing this solely to call out Joss Whedon or anyone else involved in the production. Depiction doesn't equal endorsement, after all, even if I don't think the writing in that movie was good enough to suggest that Black Widow may be wrong (even if one character tries to say that she is). Instead, there tends to be a lack of consciousness of the ancillary messages to whatever big trends we're talking about.

Take “privilege,” for example. Things like “white privilege” or “male privilege” definitely exist, but there's not enough consciousness of their limitations. For most of my adult life, when I would hear someone refer to one of these areas, all I could think to myself was *then why aren't I happy?* It felt like I was actually being penalized—I got the social stigma of being this majority subject to privilege, but none of the benefits. Even if I haven't knowingly faced the types of discrimination that someone from a minority community has, there's an implicit assumption with ideas of privilege that my life is per se better. As someone with a lot of mental illness that has resisted treatment, I question this.

I could go on, but figure you may be mad enough at me over what I've already said. And I don't want to give the impression that I'm denying privilege or that I don't think it's a useful thing to talk about. We just need to be more aware of the fact that it's incomplete.

It also encourages a metrics-based approach to thinking about happiness. We have a bad tendency to try to quantify quality of life, which is not actually possible. There's an idea that a bad metric is better than no metric, even where the former leads to actively harmful conclusions. After all, without quantifiable things that we can put on a graph or in a spreadsheet, how would we know that our lives are better?

Some of this is society's fault for not being more conscious of prejudice, leading to desperation from minority communities to be seen, recognized, and legitimized. So I see some of my own issues with the messaging behind privilege as a penance that I have to pay, while I also recognize that “deserve” has no place in our conception of the universe.

I could go on, and I'm sure you can think of other examples where you've been hurt by omission. I hope we can all be more conscious of this, and see if we can't try to improve our inclusivity in this way as well.