The Problem with Privilege
While I have read quite a bit on the social justice concept of privilege, and usually written by minorities and members of disadvantaged groups, it was (perhaps unsurprisingly) other white people who showed me what it looks like. Straight, white, cis, able-bodied people. A bit more than a year ago I moved to California and met some of the most privileged people who have ever walked the Earth, many of whom have never lived outside the bubble that is southern California- they’re even weather-privileged whereby a 65 degree 10mph breeze may be the worst thing that happens to them in a week. The insularity and myopia of some of their attitudes has lead to more than a few arguments between us (Not to disparage Californians though, these are a small minority of people I’ve met here).
Now, I am much like them. I am cis, white, straight, able-bodied, etc.., But I grew up poor and in the midwest, not LA. I lived in the high-crime mostly-minority neighborhoods. Where I’m from, there’s a church on every block, next to the liquor store and pawn shop. I ate gub’ment cheese, and got sent to the corner store food stamps in hand.
When I became an outspoken atheist teenager I started having people approach me privately, telling me their personal horror stories. Being beaten by their religious parents, ostracized by their families, fired by bosses and hated, maligned, and dumped by their friends. I had my own tense run-ins with the devout, thankfully not in terms of my family or close friends. But my experiences gave me an understanding of economic, racial, and religious discrimination that some of the folks I have met in the last year do not seem to have.
And it leads them to say some foolish things, and to be a bit dismissive of aspects of those problems. They aren’t bad people, by any means. Many are kind and thoughtful. Some are highly educated, but a liberal arts education doesn’t replace experience. It doesn’t necessarily result in empathy or understanding of the actual landscape out there in our country beyond the orange groves. It can be frustrating. I know I can’t make them understand easily. This is probably exactly how I’ve made non-cis/white/straight/able people feel on occasion.
So I can, I think, appreciate the utility of the concept of privilege. I find it can be very useful and there is much to speak for it. But like all good tools, it went from use to abuse rapidly in the culture. It is now sometimes wielded as a weapon to beat perceived outgroup members, instead of being used to facilitate the growth and empathy of the people who need it the most. I’m going to take a guess about why this happens.
Last time on South Park
[SPOILER] At the end of the season opener of South Park, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) becomes a church and moments later is shut down for rampant pedophilia. The Post Office then replaces the DMV before being shut down seconds later for the same reason. The dark humor carries more than a kernel of truth.
Institutional religions will always tend to be wellsprings of corruption because they internalize a power (or trust) structure without appeal or culpability. Presidents can be impeached and voted out of office. Employees can be disciplined or fired. The most eminent scientist can be contradicted with reason or a single experiment conducted by the most junior (as the most junior, I hope as much!) Ordinary citizens may be the most sensible of all: they don’t generally expect to be believed without some compelling evidence or arguments.
Now consider the guy who says he deserves 10% of your money and moral authority about, say, abortion or women’s rights, because the invisible Sky Captain says so. Revelation isn’t vulnerable to reasoning. Priests aren’t elected. In most organized religious settings there is no means of systemically questioning or opposing clergy. Immune to appeals to reason or evidence, term limits, impeachment and, sadly often, law itself. Their removal depends on the capricious political will of their clerical peers and superiors (if they have any).
Over and over we have seen that priests protect their monstrous cassock-ed colleagues. The opposite also happens, as decent whistle-blower priests get fired for urging justice and protection for the victimized. It isn’t that I think religion turns people into monsters. That gets the causality wrong. The problem is that it attracts, empowers, and protects the corrupt. Two things missing are machinery for accountability and the sense of responsibility that ought to be part of basic human decency, but isn’t always.
Checking your reason
The same rules, language, and information used to hash out social discourse have to be available to everybody in order for the rampant and intrinsic corruption not to immediately follow. For this reason, we can not accept the priest’s argument “… because it is the will of the Lord”. Even if it were true and sincere, none of us can verify it. It is not an argument from reason, but an argument from authority which cites an authority (God’s chosen instrument) that can never be confirmed or deposed.
When it takes the form of “I am of disadvantaged group(s) X,Y,Z.. therefore, you’re wrong about proposition A”, privilege is the same as religion, an appeal to an unimpeachable authority (a person’s purported memories and experiences). As before, even if utterly sincere, it is not a socially, politically or reasonably viable standard. Science stands on empirical evidence. Courts of law, the best kind that anyone has ever conceived of, rest on standards of evidence weighed by objective third parties. There’s a reason the best institutions humanity has produced systematically refuse personal, unverifiable experience as conclusive evidence. The contrary is a horrible idea that never, ever leads anywhere good.
True, I really don’t understand what it is like to be a woman or black person. But I am capable of sympathy, of entertaining counterfactuals, of understanding the desire for fair treatment, respect, and opportunity. I understand what justice means. Since no person is a member of every group, and since every person has those preceding faculties and capabilities (how many people sympathized with fictional blue waif giants on dinosaurs?), it is therefore inescapable to me that they must be the targets of persuasion for reasons both ethical and pragmatic.
As I said before, that can be very frustrating. It means persuading folks of the truth is generally much harder if their experience has not equipped them with the contexts they need. But it’s the only honest, fair way to do it. It’s the only way that doesn’t end like an episode of South Park.
Further reading. There are other problems with privilege, and I recommend reading our own Rebecca Bradley’s discussion of the origins of “privilege” in Critical Race Theory (CRT) here. I am not addressing the concerns that Rebecca so ablely raised, because, well, the majority of people who used the expression “privilege” in the current context have never heard of the CRT that spawned it.