My crash course in privilege and the nature of opinions


Here I am, sitting on a sofa in the upstairs lounge of a pub in Inverness, Scotland. Status: sufficiently inebriated.

A friend of mine has just provided me with some numbers on the percentage of transgender people (it may have been more specific, like minors) who commit suicide every year.

“All I’m saying,” I’m saying, “is that I’d like to double-check those statistics first — I’m not doubting you — I just like knowing both sides before I make a decision.”

Internally, this is consistent with the mental image of myself as a completely neutral, objective observer — the serious discussions’ equivalent of a beverage coaster. Voicing an opinion that doesn’t both leave my options open and keep this image intact leaves me in a sweaty-palmed, goose-pimpled panic. And — fuck, man, I tell myself — I’m an aspiring journalist. What are journalists if not objective?

A half-second of silence signals that the conversation is now heading in a completely different direction. Something changes in the air around the three friends seated around me, a shift in mental gears indicating that the next statements will be ones of dissent.

I had, until that point, not given much thought to the lives of those who identify themselves as transgender; I had no particular problem with those people, but I did have a weird sort of a problem with the statistic. Where did it come from? Who commissioned the study? What do people on the other side have to say? My brain was reeling, both under the influence of alcohol but also my own struggle to see how, in the words of one of those friends, my “objective and neutral,” was someone else’s “prove it.”

There’s no space to be neutral when the issue at hand is the autonomy of others. I came to realize in the months following that conversation that ‘no decision’ is not always the safest decision — more often, it’s a cop out. This has changed the way I think about everything; taking people at their word is no longer an option. It’s imperative.

It has become increasingly apparent that I am not easily-satisfied in the realm of answers, but for some reason I am loathe to define myself as a skeptic or a cynic. Like all well-written tragic leads in drama productions, I am endlessly hounded by a penchant for second-thoughts and overthinking those second-thoughts (do I even know the characteristics of well-written tragic characters? Can I generalize like that?), a cycle that repeats ad infinitum. My internal soliloquies have soliloquies.

So when someone quotes me a statistic in defense of an argument for something, my gut-reaction is to 1) nod passively and mutter a variation of, “Yeah, definitely,” (a phenomenon I just recently discovered has a name) or 2) flinch internally while explaining to them that those numbers are nice and all, but before I can really decide where I stand on this I need to see some opposing views. I don’t disrespect your thoughts, man, I’m just, like, not taking a stance on this. Hope that’s cool.

Turns out, that’s not cool.


Over the course of the evening I received a crash course in privilege, pride, and the idea that, in many cases, no opinion is still an opinion — and sometimes a resounding dismissal of the lived experience of a large amount of people.

My friends argued that when the subject of your opinion is the life of another human being, there is no objective. There is no “I’m opting out of this one, man,” because by opting out your are, in effect, forcing someone to show that their lived experience is worth your stepping out onto the court in their defense; making you no better than those who would disavow them in the first place.

This notion— that through my non-committal answers I had been repudiating those who already struggle for acknowledgement — was a tough pill to swallow, made bitter by my own pride¹. It’s a notion that doesn’t settle well, because, like most people, I don’t want to be told that I have to weigh-in on an issue. I don’t want to hear that I’m lazy, bigoted, or racist when my soapbox has never left my garage. I was seemingly being thrust out of my upper-bleacher seat onto the dance floor, when I would be perfectly comfortable just to sit and watch the football players brawl.

There’s no space to be neutral when the issue at hand is the autonomy of others. I came to realize in the months following that conversation that ‘no decision’ is not always the safest decision — more often, it’s a cop out. This has changed the way I think about everything; taking people at their word is no longer an option. It’s imperative.

Questioning everything, especially when we are consistently bombarded with a plethora of angles on every story, is not bad practice. I won’t stop questioning, but when it comes to the autonomy of others, I will put the Person first. This means taking people at their word — statistics and all — before I ever consider the opposition. To some, this may be obtuse. But in my mind, it’s clear as day.

Our opinions are tied into the nature of who we are, and are extraordinarily difficult to change or release. Consider the experience of others the next time you are having a conversation over beers. Consider that neutrality may not be neutrality, but a dissent, and as such may not have any value against the experience of others. And learn to be okay with that.


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