The last thing the world needs now is to hear from another tall person. I know, I’m late to the game. But I’m willing to do the work, so here goes:
As a vertically advantaged individual, I have benefited from privilege all my life. I was never very athletic, and yet people let me play basketball with them. I was never particularly tough, but few people tried to beat me up. I am not above-average handsome, intelligent, funny or rich, and still some people agreed to go on dates with me. The only explanation for this must be my above-average height, which I did nothing to earn.
When I say things like this, it sounds as if I’m joking. And I am—kind of. In recent years, many socially conscious people seem to have been beset by what you might call a persecutor complex. You only earn the right to discuss the ways in which other people suffer by first declaring the ways in which you do not—and by apologising for not having lived a wholly unfortunate life. And it’s no longer only straight white men who are expected to do this.
In a 13 June 2020 Facebook post, Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby begins her statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement by saying, “The last thing the world needs now is another rich white entitled woman doing her learning out loud.” Even someone like Gadsby, who draws on her own substantial life challenges in her career-defining masterwork, still feels the need to apologise for her privileges before making a statement in support of other people.
Some dismiss this rhetorical move as virtue signalling. And certainly, some people are just going through the motions when they make these apologies. But I don’t think that’s the case with Gadsby. Like many of these apologists, she seems sincere.
I sympathize with the impulse to apologise. I’ve often felt guilty about my own relative comfort when I’ve heard my immigrant parents’ stories of their challenging childhoods, or when, in the doctor’s waiting room, I’ve encountered people who are clearly in worse health than I am. Feeling guilty for not feeling as bad as others seems to be a common phenomenon. And the ability to sympathize with the less fortunate is certainly a virtue.
But when you apologise for not having experienced a particular kind of suffering, you suggest that certain afflictions are more worthy of compassion than others. And, as my opening about height illustrates, defining yourself as privileged based on selected non-horrible aspects of your life distorts reality and implies that those to whom you are apologizing have had unremittingly terrible lives. Such distortions aid no one.
My opening riff was inspired by a 2016 article by Robin L. Hughes, Dean of the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville School of Education, Health and Human Behavior, who writes:
Height is a sign of power and authority … Unearned privilege, implicit bias, and institutionalized racism work in much the same way as unearned height privilege. Race, like height, is central to our everyday interactions and sends tightly coupled and clear messages to each of us daily.
Hughes claims that height is not merely an attribute that can confer advantages in some contexts, but a privilege—just as many people see masculinity or light skin as privileges. But if we define every personal attribute that may confer a social advantage as a privilege, where will it end? In such a worldview, a full head of hair is a privilege. Straight limbs and a straight nose are privileges. Indeed, beauty in general is a privilege. Should people with these attributes apologise for having them?
A science fiction story by Ted Chiang illustrates the pitfalls of this way of thinking. It describes a world in which it is possible to deactivate a person’s ability to recognize personal physical beauty—creating a condition the characters in the story call calliagnosia:
What it does, in a sense, is even up the odds; it takes away the innate predisposition, the tendency for such discrimination to arise in the first place. That way, if you want to teach people to ignore appearances, you won’t be facing an uphill battle.
This sounds like a panacea for a particular kind of social inequality—but it turns out that it isn’t. Some of Chiang’s characters are unwilling to give up the pleasure of looking at pretty faces. Some believe that the procedure isn’t ethical. And others claim that it doesn’t go far enough. For example, one character says that calliagnosia “is for wusses … My attitude is, fight back. Go radical ugly. That’s what the beautiful people need to see.” And that’s exactly what she does: she has her nose surgically removed. The idea being that you’re not truly fighting appearance-based discrimination unless you have disfigured yourself.
In Chiang’s story, activists treat beauty the way Hughes treats height: as an objective privilege— someone either possesses beauty or doesn’t—and people judge others based on that single attribute.
As someone who reached 6’3” by the age of 17, I’ve always known that being tall has helped me seem more athletic, less weak and better looking than other qualities I possess might. At the same time, I also know that some people think that I look goofy and awkward—that I run like a pogo stick and flail like a reed when I’m shoved. I may be tall, but I am also many other things. And some of those other things probably influence how others react to my height.
People’s perceptions of others don’t depend on a single physical trait; rather, they depend on how particular physical traits are combined—and different people make different judgments based on those traits. While some physical characteristics, such as symmetry and clear skin, are considered beautiful across cultures, other traits are only valued in specific cultures and individual ideas of beauty are even more varied.
For example, a friend of mine is a sucker for women with brown hair and glasses. That is his type. And yet he does not find every bespectacled brunette attractive. Similarly, my height is the only physical trait I’ve ever felt confident is attractive in me—and yet my wife hates it: she calls me “oversized.” These variations in taste suggest that we don’t consider particular individual traits to be absolute determinants of beauty. If we did, everyone would fall for their type each time they came across it, and dating apps would be more effective at producing matches than they are.
Whenever we present our racial and gender categories as obstacles to be overcome, we substitute a complex awareness of individual tastes and prejudices with a simplistic either/or logic.
In a review of her new book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, Alison Bechdel wonders, “You might well ask what use another book about fitness by a white lady could possibly be.” Well, no, actually. I simply wondered what this specific book by this particular lady might offer.
The show Last Week Tonight recently aired a segment on the ways in which black Americans are mistreated because of biases against their hair. The segment itself was wonderful. The host, John Oliver, prefaced the segment with the statement: “I realize I’m not the ideal person to talk about black hair.” But why does John Oliver think that he’s “not the ideal person to talk about black hair”—because he’s white? Does he really need to suggest that he’s the wrong guy to be reporting on this topic just before reporting on it—and doing a damn good job of it, too? Statements like these reduce Oliver to his race—which is exactly what the segment was trying to get people to stop doing.
These pro forma apologies also suggest a special kind of impostor syndrome—the idea that you are not justified in discussing anything that you yourself have not experienced. In the process, they reduce the number of people who feel qualified to talk about discrimination and oppression.
That is a shame, because lived experience is not the only pathway to knowledge. If it were, then Last Week Tonight could not exist. Indeed, journalism as a profession could not exist, since it’s predicated on the assumption that, with enough training, dedication and caring, one can learn about and relate to other people’s experiences. If lived experience were the only trusted form of knowledge, a lot of teaching would have to be discarded—including the teaching of medicine. How many doctors have experienced all the treatments and tests that they prescribe? We don’t dismiss oncologists’ expertise on the ground that they haven’t undergone chemotherapy.
But isn’t it better to worry about being an impostor or a persecutor than never to do so, and in the process, become one? Of course. But the language we use to express that worry matters. Apologizing for caring will not make the world more caring. It will only make it more sceptical. It suggests that certain ways of connecting with others are not possible. That’s the last thing the world needs now. Scepticism, in the end, is also what we’re fighting against.