*Privilege* as a bundled anti-concept

Here is a very good, representative list of experiences that one can check off or not. Some are positive, others are irritating, and some are infuriating for those who experience them. The purpose of the list is (in part) to help one realize how good/challenged/frustrated/damaged one’s life is.

But note that the list packages all of the experiences under the “privilege” label. In some intellectual circles, the concept of privilege is being broadened and leveraged for ideological reasons, and one should be aware of the re-packaging.

A genuine privilege is a benefit granted by authoritative others. Its features are that it is: (a) not earned, (b) not given out equally, and (c) social-hierarchical in origin.

Some examples:
* You mom lets you stay up an hour past your normal bedtime.
* The owner of a health club that you belong to allows you to bring in a guest for free.
* You’re invited to speak at a fancy event, and you begin by saying “It’s an honor and a privilege to be here.”

Now return to the 100-item list and note that it ranges across experiences of travel, insults, financial stresses, crimes, biology, cultural attitudes, and more. And note how the few of the items meet the criteria of a privilege. For example:

* International travel: Suppose you work hard, save money, and buy a flight to Mexico. Did you earn your trip or are you being given a privilege?
* Name-calling: You haven’t been called a “pansy” or a “towel-head.” Is that manners or a privilege?
* Physical safety: No one has beaten you up or raped you. Is that respect for rights or have you been granted a privilege?
* Nutrition: Your mom and dad fed you regularly. Is that their good parenting or your privilege?

The list conflates at least four distinct phenomena: natural advantages, earned advantages, civil treatment, and privileges. Their distinctness is not that difficult to grasp conceptually. And thoughtful people have good discussions about their boundaries and significance regularly. So why the package-deal? One suspects that the real purposes of “privilege” lists are to induce feelings of guilt or shame in anyone who has a good life and to justify resentment and anger in anyone who feels “unprivileged.”

Conceptual sloppiness is one thing. But intentional conceptual sloppiness is a highly irresponsible thing. Yes, some people are better off than others, and yes, some people suffer, sometimes undeservedly. So we all need to work continually at fine-tuning our understanding of how the world works, including the ways in which the differences between people can have unfair or otherwise immoral sources. But let’s make sure our language captures the different causal stories involved — and let’s not attempt to avoid the hard moral arguments with linguistic tricks.

Related:
Understanding Triggers and Microaggression as *Strategy.*

3 thoughts on “*Privilege* as a bundled anti-concept

  • November 26, 2016 at 9:03 am
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    This is useful, but to start by saying that “A genuine privilege is a benefit granted by authoritative others” begs important questions.

    I take it that what fans of the “new” use of the term intend to point out is that some genuine privileges are granted by circumstance, and by historical accident. History has in this sense “granted” me the following privilege: as a white male, I don’t have to feel afraid when a misogynist racist assumes power in a neighbouring country. I can shrug it off, because it doesn’t affect me (at least not the way it affects many others.) Yes, there’s a sense in which that’s what you refer to as “natural advantage” (“natural” in that I was born with it). But I think that would kind of miss the point.

    I should add that while I think this novel use of “privilege” is sometimes useful, its OVER-use is an absolute menace. Witness the headline I saw recently that attributed pedestrian deaths to drivers needing to “check their privilege.” This seemed to me gratuitous, given that there are many hypotheses (e.g., texting-while-driving) that have nothing to do with an unseemly abuse of “privilege.”

  • November 26, 2016 at 4:18 pm
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    Thoughtful response, Chris.
    In my post I start with the way “privilege” has been used for centuries. The new use, from my research so far, began about a generation ago when the word “underprivileged” began to be substituted for “poor.” Then it’s been broadened.
    Your case about the circumstances one is born into is a good one to reflect on.
    I know you’re not Hegelian in the sense of making “History” into a semi-divine force that “grants” benefits or not. But I think that’s how some of the New Privilege theorists think–that there’s a divine or natural lottery, so to speak, and some us get lucky and other don’t. But before I existed there’s no “me” who participates in a lottery; and my life circumstances at birth are mostly created by people (my parents and broader society), not randomly generated and distributed.
    Some people are born into social system that gives them advantages. “Advantages” is the best word to start with. So, for example, your being born in Canada means you have positive opportunities others don’t and protection from negatives that others don’t. That came from an “achievement” by the thousands of Canadians before you who created that relatively healthy system. I think it’s fine to say that you “inherited” the system or that the system “gave” you good things.
    But what you inherited or were given were not “privileges.” The clear contrast would be to a young aristocrat: the advantages he inherits or is given by the system are clearly privileges. By contrast, earlier Canadians worked to make a system that is prosperous and respects rights. But rights are not privileges, and neither is inheriting earned prosperity.
    So my view is that we’d each have to look at each advantage we have and ask where it came from. I don’t claim this yet as an exhaustive typology of advantages: natural, self-earned, other-earned-and-given-to-you, being in a civil society, being in a rights-respecting society, being in a society that has double standards that benefit you, being in a society that has legal double standards that benefit you. Only advantages in the latter two categories strike me as “privileges.”

  • November 27, 2016 at 10:35 am
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    The use of the “privilege” is meaningless when you don’t consider the “who” in terms of who is granting the privilege. Since most postmodernists view society as the equivalent of God, they don’t think in terms of who, as in actual entities or persons or even nature – all is society. It’s why it’s pointless to say, some of what they are saying is useful, the fact is the philosophical roots of what they are saying, are inherently corrupt.

    One of the things Rand pointed out, is that in philosophy, approximates are inherently evil. This is why she spent more time tearing apart the arguments of moderates and middle-of-the-roaders than “extremists”, because, they helped to obscure reality, far more than people who sell their ideas in black and white.

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