I first learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in a high school marketing class. The traditionally pyramid-shaped diagram illustrates a psychological theory on how people prioritize their needs. First comes the basics (food, water, shelter), followed by safety, then companionship/ friendship/love, then self-esteem and confidence, and finally self-actualization. In wildly oversimplified terms, Maslow is suggesting people don’t pursue the higher tiers of need until the lower ones are satisfied.
Why am I talking psychology today? A series of comments, essays (like this one from Tiger Beatdown), and really smart friends who make really excellent points are causing me to reconsider what I wrote last week about Hugo Schwyzer. Let me clarify, I still do not, in any way, support the vilification he has withstood these last two weeks, nor do I think the vitriolic tone of his haters is justified.
I’ve been thinking about my feminism, Hugo’s feminism, and other people’s feminism in the context of Maslow’s hierarchy. I’m white, straight, able-bodied and well-educated. I was born into the first three, and the last one is directly related to a familial history of privilege (not money, but race). That’s a whole lot of privilege.
When I think about my personal feminism, I can pretty safely jump the first three tiers of the Maslow pyramid and spend my time worrying about confidence, self-esteem and self-actualization. My basic needs are met. My sense of personal security is intact (in the sense that while, yes, being female I am risk from different types of violence than men, I do not live in a state of fear or in a place where my gender expects violence). My friends and family are present and engaged in my life.
When I write about my own feminist concerns, I write about things like being afraid of math, Barbies and body image, or casually discriminatory comments in the workplace. I write about these things because that’s what’s on my mind, and that’s what’s on my mind because I don’t have to think about finding food, paying my rent, protecting my family, or convincing people that I am a smart, useful person (mostly). I can wax poetic about sexual liberation and SlutWalk with a degree of nonchalance that women of color can’t without confirming hypersexualized stereotypes that persist after hundreds of years.
So, on to Hugo. He has, I’m sure he would admit, even more privilege than I do. Lots and lots of it. I think what many of the haters are expressing (poorly), is resentment that his inherent privileges grants him a leadership role in a movement that is about equalizing the playing field. It’s hard to believe that someone would work towards a movement that would undermine the very advantages that enabled him or her to be successful.
Then there’s the separate question of who gets to speak for who. Part of the fundamental problem is that privileged people like me and Hugo have easiest access to the tools to voice our issues. Tools like English skills, college degrees, internet access, time on our hands to write to you people on the internet. People who are still striving for the first two tiers of the Maslow pyramid don’t exactly have time to blog….
I don’t have answers, but I do know that I don’t believe that privilege disqualifies one from the conversation of inequality. How one tempers one’s privilege, or qualifies it, or cites it in every other sentence or not at all, is a whole big can of worms for another day.
Related Post: Alice Walker on SlutWalk.
Related Post: A guest post on OWS, privilege, and opening up a conversation.