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Posted by on Oct 11, 2013 in Featured Inc, skepticism, social justice | 9 comments

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. 

"Eric, ...Do you pledge pledge allegiance to the flag?" copyright Comedy Central.

“Eric, …Do you pledge pledge allegiance to the flag?” copyright Comedy Central.

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.

  • jg29a

    “The most imminent scientist can be contradicted with reason or a single experiment conducted by the most junior”

    I think you mean “eminent”. :-)

    One of the main problems I have with use of the term “privilege” is that it seems to carve out a subset of a broader psychological phenomenon, and to suppose that this subset has special explanatory significance, which I doubt.

    This broader phenomenon is just habituation. Sure, to the extent that I get treated more kindly because I’m white rather than black, or have my thoughts respected more because I’m male rather than female, then I will establish a baseline accordingly, against which I will judge individual encounters. Yet similarly, I establish a baseline for satiation by food, for the balance of work versus leisure time, for physical mobility, for the ease of access to information or entertainment, for popularity (how often I get invited to parties, for example), for sexual partners, for intellectual partners (how often cool smart people are willing to interact with *me*), and so forth. But not only these abstract features of my world. I also habituate to: how often my trash gets picked up, how far I have to travel to get tortillas, how much I have to work out and diet to achieve a six-pack, and thousands of other things, all of which differ substantially between individuals, and according to all of which people habituate to their own experiences and form judgments of individual cases based upon deviation from their own personal norms.

    So when it comes to instituationalized racism and sexism, the reasonable course of action for a skeptic and consequentialist is not to try and label as many kinds of habituation to positive experiences as we can, and then tell some people to either pretend like they are habituated differently than they are or else to shut up. We didn’t cure polio by telling people without debilitating diseases to shut up, and we didn’t do it by asking them to pretend they had polio. We did it by letting anybody with knowledge and resources participate in improving the lives of people where they could be effectively improved.

    What’s added with the concept of “privilege”? I think it’s essentially a remnant of Marxist thinking about class warfare. It’s the notion that the very existence of the people out there having it better in some way is the *basic cause* of others having it worse. On this thinking, it’s not specific antigay actions and policies that are the enemy of gay people; it’s the very fact that straight people are out there (or average) not having it as hard and, because of the basic psychological fact of habituation, *expecting* not to have it as hard.

    Where this become absolutely poisonous to liberal consequentialism is where it turns out that people who have things a lot better, and expect to have things a lot better, are also far more likely to create ways to help. Just like Jonas Salk wouldn’t have been more likely to develop a polio vaccine if he’d personally know the experience of living in an iron lung, it seems that being white and comfortably middle-class (and not from the culturally and linguistically stigmatized American south) is a pretty good predictor of treating LGBT folks better, having personally liberal attitudes like acceptance of interracial relationships, and of having more internationalist awareness. Blaming people who tend to contribute to progress across the board, on the grounds that they aren’t *personally* habituated to more difficult lives than they are, is blatantly anti-consequentialist.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      I don’t think the point is ever to tell anyone to shut up (well, you can find this out there, but it is not part of my description of what is useful about the concept).

      I don’t find your polio example apt. Jonas Salk’s motivation is well and good and he was free to have it because he wasn’t a woman who was constantly dismissed and harassed by colleagues. A usefulness of “privilege” is to give necessary awareness to the fact that women (for example) do face those challenges sometimes in STEM fields, and to contextualize decisions about policy and remedial actions.

      This can probably be better accomplished other ways. My essay here is not to defend the use, but let’s not pretend there isn’t a baby in the bathwater.

  • Razor Blade Kandy

    The problem with this “privilege” concept should be obvious. First it assumes “all” people pertaining to a demographic experience a “privilege” that no person outside of that group has. So the idea that white people are granted better employment options means a black person with a doctorates degree should theoretically be disadvantaged compared to the white homeless high school drop out, because the white bum has “privilege”. This is obviously not true.

    The other problem with privilege is that it has always been used as an excuse to say that the alleged marginalized (opposite of privileged) person is “entitled” to something to compensate for not having privilege. To put it simply, it’s a way for one group to have authority over another group. Examples:

    ALL Women are entitled to special protection laws and handouts because ALL men are privileged.

    ALL Blacks are entitled to special protection laws and handouts because ALL whites are privileged.

    The entire thing is based on cultural marxism, the paradigm of oppressed and oppressor. It is used to justify people of the oppressed class committing wrongs to the oppressor class.

    • Eshto

      It also expects all members of a minority demographic to be walking encyclopedias about their demographic’s issues and history. It’s dehumanizing.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      “…a black person with a doctorates degree should theoretically be disadvantaged compared to the white homeless high school drop out, because the white bum has “privilege”

      I don’t think that follows at all, or that anyone is saying that. Instead, the application to this situation is that a black person with a PhD is still far more likely to be stopped, arrested, or killed by police than a typical white person. They still get treated differently, worse than non-black peers, and have to work harder for the same ends. I don’t know, but I would guess such a person may get accusations of “affirmative action” tossed at them, or whispered in private, to explain their success away, which would not happen to a white person.

      I’ve not heard a serious formulation of privilege in which it is alleged to trump every other imaginable factor.

      “ALL Women are entitled to special protection laws and handouts because ALL men are privileged.”

      Such absolute statements are untenable. However, special considerations make sense even when they aren’t absolute. Women are disproportionately vulnerable to and victims of many kinds of discrimination, harassment and assault. That’s a fact. It makes sense to create policy and law that reflects that fact (just as it does in the case of any other group,including men, e.g. in prisons).

      It also makes sense to try to enhance our own ability to empathize with groups that are not-us. Progress is much harder to the degree to which we fail to consider others as part of the “us”; they are. We’re all in this together.

  • whatever

    Privilege theory was invented to answer the question, who is more oppressed a white college graduate or a fat older white woman, a lesbian hispanic or a disabled black woman. These were questions asked in the late 70s when it was noted how many feminists were coming in late to the meetings because their hispanic sitter was late on the bus.

    Privilege theory answers this question by understanding kyriarchy which helps to place a partial ordering on oppression.

    Luckily, the answer is bitter residual old (bro) guys. It’s where all oppression falls down from, and it helps all groups of feminists focus on who the real person to hate is.

    Once it was determined that we could all join together with a new common enemy, it was easy to turn kyriarchy theory from a theory of understanding the different advantages and disadvantages any group has into a theory of understanding how to dismiss the arguments of specific individuals you are currently hating on.

    • Brive1987

      Did “kyriarchy” actually answer the question or just say “depends” based on a subjective view of which oppressive model was in play in a given context?

      And how is relative value ascribed? How does the Monetary oppressions of classism compare to potential violence and loss of opportunity embodied in patriarchy. If both oppressive systems are in play at once who “wins” and gets placed higher on the totem pole?

      • whatever

        See that’s the beauty. At the beginning of kyriarchy theory these were questions to be asked. At the current stage, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the bitter bigoted can’t get laid frustrated wife beating pedophile white guy is in place as the guy everyone can hate.

      • http://www.facebook.com/wonderist Thaumas Themelios

        Just a quick comment re ‘kyriarchy': On the surface, it appealed to me as more accurate than ‘patriarchy’, but now I realize that it will inevitably run into the same key problem with ‘patriarchy’, that it is unfalsifiable; it’s the invisible cause of everything bad, like religion’s devils and demons.