I spent several weeks last summer discussing the rhetorical tactics of feminism in a largely critical manner. Despite the impression of disapproval that might have given, I’m actually quite sympathetic to the cause of feminism, as well as that of leftist social justice movements in general. So today, I’d like to delve into the actual content of these movements. Regardless of my frustrations with how they argue, are they at least right? Do they have good points? When, if ever, do they go too far?
Specifically, I’d like to talk about “privilege,” a term which dominates much of the progressive blogosphere regarding feminism, race, economic justice, and various conceptions of equality. I’ve organized my thoughts about privilege into four main points. The first provides an overview of privilege for the uninitiated, which can probably be skipped by those who are already acquainted with the term.
Part I: What is the privilege?
Privilege, as I see it, is the unearned advantage one derives from how they are treated by society, relative to how other people in that society are treated. It first came into widespread use after an influential 1990 article by women’s studies professor Peggy McIntosh called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” This feminism 101 blog defines it this way:
Privilege, at its core, is the advantages that people benefit from based solely on their social status. It is a status that is conferred by society to certain groups, not seized by individuals, which is why it can be difficult sometimes to see one’s own privilege.
Since social status is conferred in many different ways — everything from race to geography to class — all people are both privileged and non-privileged in certain aspects of their life.
The various “aspects of life” which may confer social advantages can be referred to as an “axis” of experience (for example, race). Along each axis, the privilege narrative divides the world’s inhabitants into those classes which have privilege (in this case, white people) and those which do not (in this case, racial minorities). Commonly alleged axes of privilege include race, sex, sexuality, gender, religion, and wealth (I’ll get into some of the less common, but still frequently alleged sources of privilege later on). Feminism 101 goes on to explain:
“Possessing "privilege"…is not intended to imply that life is objectively easy, just that on that particular axis of experience it is likelier to have been easier than a person similarly situated but without that particular privilege.”
Intersectionalism, a key concept in third-wave feminism and the modern social justice movement, is the examination of how those axes intersect, working to the magnified advantage of those who belong to several privileged classes at once (for example, a straight white male), and exacerbated disadvantage of those who belong to several less privileged classes at once (for example, a lesbian black female). In this way, the privilege narrative divides the world’s inhabitants according to the relative amounts of net privilege they possess. Those classes which lack privilege are seen as socially oppressed.
It should be noted, before I begin the next section, that I think the privilege narrative is essentially correct. Many groups truly are treated unjustly due to illogical or hateful prejudices about their innate characteristics. I am uncertain as to how damaging the effects of this treatment generally are, or to what extent social status works to people’s disadvantage in the advanced liberal democracies of 21st century western civilization. But I am convinced it is enough of an injustice as to warrant significant concern, attention, and alterations in the way we treat one another. As it relates to feminism in particular, I briefly outlined some of the ways male privilege rears its ugly head here.
But not all of this leftist narrative is correct, and the rest of this post will focus on the parts which are not. This is not because I wish to see the movement fail; on net, I think it does more good than bad, and there are many cases in which I rush to its aid when debating some of my more conservative friends. But the parts which are correct are more eloquently defended in other parts of the internet by people with a better perspective of the topic than I. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the conservative retort; since many social conservatives are woefully ignorant about these matters, and oftentimes outright offensive, I encounter far fewer coherent rebuttals to leftist arguments than conservatives might make were they to think on matters a bit longer. This post will be my first attempt to illustrate the excesses and irrationalities of certain corners of the “privilege” blogosphere – not as a condemnation of privilege awareness, but as a good faith effort to tease out the good from the bad.
Part II: Discerning natural from imposed privilege
The first problem I see with this way of understanding the world is that the word privilege is overbroad. Too often, privilege is used as an umbrella term that conflates very different sorts of social advantages, which we as social reformers should afford different levels of concern.
Some privilege originates from the way humans interact with one another, and the disparate treatment some demographics receive thanks to illogical and unjust prejudice against people of their characteristics. For example, many men choose to rape or sexually assault women. This makes women rationally fearful of rape and sexual assault as they go about their daily lives in ways men are not. This fear often prevents women from doing things men would do without a second thought. Therefore, men have the privilege of going about their daily lives without worrying very much about the possibility that they will be raped or sexually assaulted, and this privilege originates from the fact that men rape women. This is a terrible injustice which we as a society must rectify.
Other alleged “privileges”, however, come not from how we choose to treat one another so much as from our random assignment in the lottery of birth. Any given person’s likelihood of success in life’s various pursuits is influenced by the set of genetic traits and environmental circumstances into which they were born, prior to and independent of their interactions with other human beings. For example, smart people have advantages over stupid people, and attractive people have it easier than ugly people. Children with two loving and caring parents have advantages over orphans. Athletic or coordinated people have an edge over clumsy people. Black people are more likely to get sickle-cell anemia, while white people have to deal with skin cancer more often. Women have to deal with menstruation and pregnancy – men don’t. People with good eyesight have advantages over people who need glasses. I could go on; there are thousands of ways in which unique individuals with unique upbringings and genetic codes are different from one another, and some of these differences bestow natural advantages. This means that even if there ever comes a day when everyone treats one another with equal dignity and respect, some will still be better equipped for success at certain endeavors than others. The natural differences between us will always create winners and losers. None of this is an injustice.
The trouble with the privilege narrative espoused at the extremes of the progressive blogosphere is that it lumps these things together, thereby blurring the line between the artificial disadvantages we impose on one another through unfair and disparate treatment, and the automatic disadvantages which result from natural variation in our abilities and general life situation. Much of the political left either fails to see or refuses to admit the distinction between using one’s abilities to acquire just deserts, and using one’s privilege as leverage for personal gain. To understand why, you have to go back to a set of classic philosophical debates from the 1970’s.
Part III: Nozick > Rawls
The short answer is that the left is broadly characterized by an aversion to the notion of merit, which at the extremes metastasizes into the belief that there is no such thing as merit. As Wikipedia testifies, famous progressive hero John Rawls championed this mindset:
“One of the most controversial rejections of the concept of desert was made by the political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls…claimed that a person cannot claim credit for being born with greater natural endowments (such as superior intelligence or athletic abilities), as it is purely the result of the 'natural lottery'. Therefore, that person does not morally deserve the fruits of his or her talents and/or efforts, such as a good job or a high salary.”
Stephen Metcalf, libertarian critic and writer for Slate.com, explains Rawls’ view in more depth here:
“In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argued that our talents are not really our own, because they are not morally intrinsic to us. Rawls asked us to imagine that we know nothing about our life advantages—that how gifted, smart, attractive, charismatic we are, as well as the socio-economic status of our parents, lie behind a veil of ignorance. He then asked us to design an insurance policy against poor accidents of birth. That insurance policy would be "justice," in the form of a society that was fair even from the perspective of its least well-off citizen—who, after all, passing through the veil of ignorance, might turn out to be us.”
From this perspective, there is no moral distinction between the two types of privilege I outlined above. It’s not an unintelligent person’s fault that they’re unintelligent, they’d reason, so how can it be fair that they be disadvantaged in life for that?
The famous libertarian answer to John Rawls was another Harvard Professor named Robert Nozick, who wrote Anarchy, State and Utopia a few years after Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Metcalf summarizes:
To this, Nozick replies: All that intellectual pomp, arrayed to convince me that my talents are not mine? But my talents aren't like fire and disease. They aren't fatalities I insure against. Quite the opposite: My talents constitute the substance of who I am, and I am right to bank on them.
Wikipedia explains it at slightly greater length:
Nozick claimed that to treat peoples' natural talents as collective assets is to contradict the very basis of the deontological liberalism Rawls wishes to defend, i.e. respect for the individual and the distinction between persons.Nozick argued that Rawls' suggestion that not only natural talents but also virtues of character are undeserved aspects of ourselves for which we cannot take credit, "can succeed in blocking the introduction of a person's autonomous choices and actions (and their results) only by attributing everything noteworthy about the person completely to certain sorts of 'external' factors. So denigrating a person's autonomy and prime responsibility for his actions is a risky line to take for a theory that otherwise wishes to buttress the dignity and self-respect of autonomous beings."…
[W]hile it might be true that peoples' actions are, in whole or in part, determined by factors that are morally arbitrary this is irrelevant to assignments of distributive shares. The reason for this is that individuals are self-owners with inviolable rights in their bodies and talents, and they have the freedom to take advantage of these regardless of whether the self-owned properties are theirs for reasons that are morally arbitrary or not.
Hell yeah, Wikipedia guy! I couldn’t have said it better myself. But I’ll try anyway…
I think the central question distinguishing Rawls and Nozick, and perhaps distinguishing the liberal and conservative mindsets in American society more broadly, may be summarized thusly: are human beings ever justified in feeling pride or guilt?
Liberals appear to lean towards no. We shouldn’t feel too proud of our successes (like getting into a good college or acquiring lots of wealth or winning a sporting competition), because really, we only got lucky. We would not have been able to get into that college were we not born with a certain level of intelligence, into a family or school district that valued hard work and gave us every opportunity to get good grades. Inversely, we shouldn’t feel too ashamed about our fuck-ups (like committing a crime or failing a test) because that outcome likely resulted from our placement in a less advantageous set of circumstances. When Barack Obama cajoles business owners they “didn’t build that,” he is proceeding from the assumption that they should temper their pride because their accomplishments (and, inversely, other people’s lack of accomplishments) were primarily decided by factors beyond their control.
Conservatives are the opposite. Conservatives doubt whether our every success or failure is solely the result of whose uterus we popped out of. They may (and should!) concede that we are each influenced by an infinite number of variables beyond our control, the origins of which we will never be able to fully trace. But to conservatives, that shouldn’t make the resulting human less accountable for their decisions. They value personal responsibility and “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps”, so to speak., and feel strongly that our decisions can influence our life in ways that were not predetermined the moment we came into the world. Thus, we are right to feel proud for doing good, and ashamed for doing bad. Furthermore, conservatives understand that our traits, whether they’re good, bad or neutral, helpful or inconvenient, are the essence of who we are. They are our definition, our trademark, our unique identifiers, the only thing that distinguishes one person from another. Consequently, conservatives hold successful people in higher esteem (and vice-versa) than liberals tend to do.
Both sides are partially right, but that means they’re also partially wrong. Success is certainly more dependent on external factors than “meritocracy” conservatives will admit. But at the same time, it’s also probably less dependent on our circumstances than liberals will admit, and that’s what’s wrong with the privilege narrative of the Social Justice Warriors. Carried to its modern extremes, it strips people of their autonomy as independent decision makers, and of their accountability for the outcome of those decisions, to too great an extent.
(This same dichotomy resurfaces in debates about drug addiction, but that’s a subject for another day.)
Another way to look at this is to distinguish between “fault” and “responsibility.” Life coach Travis Robertson has a brilliant, succinct post about this here. If you are a lifeguard and some kid shits in the pool, that is not your fault – but it is damn well your responsibility. So too in life: everyone is their own lifeguard. If the company you work at collapses due to mismanagement, and you lose your job, that may not be your fault – but it is still your responsibility to provide for you and your family. You are not morally culpable for the calamities which befall you, but it’s nobody’s responsibility but yours to deal with them.
The left conflates these things all the time. My Dad and I were listening to NPR a few years ago when we heard an interview with someone who wrote a biography of Barack Obama’s father. The author was parrying what she saw as simplistic attacks on his father’s character from members of the political right, and about 29 minutes in to the interview she said the following:
“You know, there are people who dismiss Barack Obama Sr. as a drunk and a wife beater – that’s just not fair to him. He’s a very complicated person, a very talented person who was caught in the midst of two different cultures. One was the Luau culture in which he was raised, and the other was the cosmopolitan life of newly independent Nairobi. It wasn’t entirely clear what a man’s role was; you would live in Nairobi, the city life, you’d go back to the village where the old traditions prevailed. I’m not trying to excuse anything that he did, but I think it’s important that to understand him you understand where he came from, what his childhood was like, what polygamous culture was that he was raised in – you have to understand that to understand what his life was.”
My Dad and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. I have no doubt Barack Obama Sr. lived in a confusing time for a Kenyan intellectual man. I’m sure he had a tough upbringing, and that his abusive father had an influence on how he turned out. I’m equally sure that after his mother left him in fear of his father, when Barack Sr. was only 9, it became difficult for him to trust people in committed relationships. But what is most certain of all is this: due to these reasons or others, Barack Obama Sr. became a drunken wife beater!
In no way does the environment in which somebody grows up influence how “fair” or “unfair” it is to call them what they are. People make decisions in life, and no amount of interesting speculation as to the factors which compelled them to decide as they did alters the consequences of those actions or their moral responsibility for them. The left needs to learn that “my surroundings made me do it” is not a cogent excuse. The author pretends she is “not trying to excuse anything that he did,” but suggesting the titles “drunk” and “wife-beater” are an unfair characterization of someone who, according to her own research, frequently got drunk and beat his wives, does exactly that.
Martin Luther King’s most famous quote from his most famous speech announced “I have a dream: that one day my four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Ironically, the modern left appears unwilling to bring his dream to fruition: they will not judge even on the content of people’s character!
Part IV: Implications for Social Justice Movements
Guided by Rawlsian mindsets, leftist social justice movements have broadened the parameters of privilege so as to include even natural advantages.
To see how, let’s look at some quotes from the same “Primer on Privilege” post I borrowed from above:
Privilege is…[a]bout how society accommodates you. It’s about advantages you have that you think are normal. It’s about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal. It’s about fate dealing from the bottom of the deck on your behalf…
But aren’t some advantages I have normal? The vast majority of human beings on the planet have advantages over autistic people, or people with epilepsy. People who do have autism or epilepsy are, statistically speaking, the deviation from the norm. Therefore, the people who don’t have epilepsy have a very normal, commonplace advantage over those who do. This is not ordinarily considered an injustice.
Saying that plainly makes the left uncomfortable, perhaps because for a long time, society wrongly associated normalcy with superiority. Abandoning that association is necessary, admirable and ongoing work – but it doesn’t require shedding empirical observations about what is and is not normal. MENSA members are abnormal too. So are red haired people. Most people still realize that ginger geniuses are not lesser human beings! When fate deals us our unique hand in life, it makes all of us abnormal in some way or another. So long as we treat individuals of all abnormalities with equal dignity and respect as we go about our daily lives, that’s not a problem.
The blogger continues:
Some privileges are easy to demonstrate: Can you go into a random restaurant and order food? That's not something that those with food allergies, diabetics, celiacs, or a range of other conditions can count on. It's not something people whose religious convictions include following Kosher, Halal or other faith-based dietary restrictions (there are Christians, Buddhists and others to whom this applies) can count on in western society either.
Sorry, but no: that’s not privilege. If you are allergic to certain foods, the resulting disadvantage you face in life stems from your unfortunate genetic precondition, not from unfair treatment at the hands of other people. If your religion precludes you from eating certain foods, the resulting disadvantage you face is a self-imposed consequence of your decision to abide by that religious precept. Other people should treat you kindly and respect your rights, but they are not obligated to cater to your dietary preferences at the expense of more popular products, and it’s not unjust if they choose not to.
Perhaps the most illustrative example in her post comes near the end:
“When I was in high school, we played a game we called Asshole, or to be polite, Donkey, which was a basic discard card game. The twist was that after each round, when the next round's cards were dealt, the loser had to give their two highest cards to the winner, who could give any two cards to the loser. Obviously, this set-up disadvantaged the loser, and benefited the winner. But even with that advantage, the loser could still win the next round, and the winner could still lose. That doesn't mean there was a level playing field.”
But in keeping with this analogy, modern progressives seem to be arguing that there would not be a level playing field even without the rule that the loser had to give their two highest cards to the winner, on the grounds that not everyone is dealt the same cards! Instead of insisting on fair rules that are applied evenly to all players, and then allowing the cards to fall where they may, the radical intersectionalists demand that those dealt high cards take it easy on those dealt low cards, so that all hands truly have an equal opportunity at success.
There seem to be no bounds on the list of “privileges” which can give someone advantages the left deems unfair. Vanilla privilege is said to apply to anyone who is not kinky, or lacks uncommon sexual fetishes. Ableist privilege is said to apply to anyone who isn’t mentally or physically handicapped. Neurotypical privilege applies to people who have “a type of neurology that is expected and/or favored by the society in which one lives. (i.e., having a “normal” or “typical” brain, and the typical sensory processing/body movements/facial expressions associated with a typical neurological system.) In plain English, it means not being autistic or mentally handicapped.
Thin privilege, sometimes extended to “socially acceptable body size privilege” so as to exclude anorexics or people society sees as “too thin,” is said to apply to anyone of normal weight. It’s inverse, fattism or “fat phobia”, is said to be “thin privilege in action.” This is sometimes accompanied by denial of the overwhelming medical consensus that being overweight is unhealthy on the basis that these studies are only funded by companies marketing weight-loss products – a sobering similarity to the arguments put forth by anti-vaxxers and anti-GMO nutjobs. When British columnist Lousie Mensch remarked in passing that “vertical stripes don't make you look thinner, jogging on the treadmill for half an hour five times a week makes you look thinner", she was called “fattist” for suggesting a link between exercise and losing fat. Mensch later satirized her critics thusly:
“Why should anybody want to have a healthy body weight? How dare I say that fashion models aren't "normal women"? What about those women who are just naturally the size of spaghetti sticks? Anyway, what are normal curves? This is cis-ist to transsexual women who don't have wombs…
At this point, I had drifted off into Monty Python's Life of Brian, where Stan and Judith are debating whether they should stick up for Stan's "right to have babies" even though he can't have babies.”
It gets worse. Adult privilege, somewhat self-explanatorily, apparently pertains to the oppression of children. This one is unique in that the underprivileged class is not seen as a permanent underclass so much as a group of pledges undergoing a rite of passage. Children’s rights are an interesting topic, but since literally everyone goes through childhood, this hardly seems a case of entrenched systemic oppression we must eliminate root and branch.
Educational privilege is also sometimes alleged. The logic is that wealthier people are more likely to live in good school districts and safe environments, or better able to afford SAT prep classes and the like, so how educated you become is really just chalked up to fate. Nerds like me might have something to say about that. I seem to recall that how well educated I became had a whole-effing-lot to do with how hard I tried in school, whether I studied and applied myself, how intelligent and driven and curious I was relative to my peers, etc. If what you’re telling me is that I didn’t really earn my Hopkins admission or diploma, you done touched a raw nerve.
Even sillier is monogamous privilege; apparently, some people out there believe opposing polygamy amounts to oppression of those who engage in it. Now, I’m all for tolerating people who choose to live in a different way than you do, and I would even legalize polygamous marriage (for so long as the state must be involved in marriage at all). Live and let live! You do your thing, I’ll do mine – this is the heart of libertarianism. But with that said, to the best of my knowledge, monogamous preferences are not something you’re born with. Rather, polygamy ensues from a personal moral judgment about the acceptability of certain types of relationships, which is totally subjective and up for critique.
This sort of “privilege is different than racial or sexual privilege, for instance, because society is judging you based on the choices you make and the beliefs you hold, NOT on your inherent characteristics. By analogy, many people believe incest is immoral, but different cultures have different beliefs on what counts as incest (many Middle Eastern cultures will happily marry cousins, for instance). Perhaps society should be more tolerant of incestuous people, but perhaps they should not - that’s a topic on which intelligent and compassionate people may well disagree. Therefore, the fact that some people believe incest is immoral, and as such disavow it and publicly reprimand or condemn those who choose to engage in it, is more the product of a principled disagreement than some indefensible systematic bias. In either case, the point is this: when you choose to engage in activities which many people believe are immoral, you open yourself up to criticism from those people. That’s not unjust. The law should be equal to everybody, but we as individuals are under no obligation to remove stigmas from things we deeply believe should have stigmas attached to them.
the ideaHow long until we see this same logic apply to “smart privilege”, “attractive privilege”, or “tall privilege”? Is the left unwilling to consider the possibility that any personal characteristics which one person has might be legitimately superior to those which another person has? Is this narrative so far divorced from discussion of merit as to assume that all people are equally qualified in all things? that all social preferences for one trait over another must be based purely in an illogical and unjust –ism? This is liberal guilt gone overboard.
It’s one thing to be anti-bullying, and we should absolutely be nicer to those who often are bullied (say, stupid, fat, or ugly people). To borrow progressive terminology, when we’re mean to these people, our discriminatory treatment erects additional barriers for the bullied, and confers privileges for the non-bullied. But talk of privilege goes further than that, suggesting that even those life advantages which attractive and intelligent people possess independent of their disparate treatment by other humans is some fundamental injustice. This is very, very wrong.
People ought to treat you kindly, but they are not obligated to go out of their way to accommodate your unique situation. Abnormally fat people are not entitled to wider airplane seats or clothing in their size, and disabled people who cannot walk are not entitled to ramps or parking spaces. That’s what separates inherent disadvantages stemming from the genetic lottery from constructed disadvantages arising from our interactions with one another. You’re not entitled to an even shake from the get go.
When coupled with the left’s growing and previously decried unwillingness to hear dissent, this becomes truly, erm, “problematic.” Consider the “Primer on Privilege” post from earlier:
“acknowledging privilege is a necessary pre-requisite to talking about race: Because the privileged and the un-privileged live on the same planet, but in two different worlds. If you don't begin by acknowledging your privilege, then the chasm between is too vast to traverse. There can't be productive conversation between a person who thinks they've gotten where they are on their own merits, and someone who knows that they would never have been given the opportunity to compete on the basis of their merits.”
This is textbook begging the question. The existence and precise parameters of different kinds of intersecting privilege are very often the very thing which is up for debate. When the left shuts out anybody who doesn’t immediately accept their opinion on those matters, it misses opportunities to inform the ignorant and convince the inconsiderate – whichever side that happens to be.
There most certainly CAN be productive conversations between people who believe primarily in merit, and people who believe primarily in privilege; between those who agree with Nozick, and those who agree with Rawls. The chasm seems frustrating, but that makes traversing it all the more rewarding and important. These days, liberals and conservatives alike seem to be eschewing that challenge to retreat into comforting ideological echo-chambers that reinforce their worldview, so hopefully this post will get the ball rolling a bit with some productive engagement.
Part V: Conclusions on Privilege
Ultimately, my conclusions are as follows.
1. Privilege is real, and worth talking about. It is important to familiarize onself with the concept, and bear it in mind throughout your daily life, because it has serious and far-reaching implications for morally optimal behavior.
2. However, privilege and intersectionality do not comprise a comprehensive framework for interpreting the world. It cannot explain all (or even most, from my view) differences in outcome between separate persons.
3. Not everything the left calls “privilege” is unjust. Of those privileges which are unjust, not all of should be afforded the same level of moral outrage or concern.
4. We should stop trying to distinguish between advantages based on merit and advantages based on luck, because that distinction is impossible to make and unhelpful to attempt.
Instead, we should distinguish between those disadvantages which are natural, and those which are artificial; those which are present from birth, and those which are imposed by human action. The first are unavoidable; the second are oppression.
And, lastly, some relevant quotes from historical figures:
· “Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth cannot be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society – the farmers, mechanics, and laborers – who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government…If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.” – Andrew Jackson, Veto Message of the National Bank, 1832
· “The idea of forcing everything to an artificial equality has something, at first view, very captivating in it.” However, “Those who attempt to level never equalize” — the very attempt is a “monstrous fiction, which by inspiring false ideas and vain expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life serves only to aggravate and embitter that real inequality.” –Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
· "You cannot become thorough Americans if you think of yourselves in groups. America does not consist of groups. A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group in America has not yet become an American." – Woodrow Wilson
“Assume responsibility for the quality of your own life.” – Norman Cousins
“Assume responsibility for the quality of your own life.” – Norman Cousins
· “Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.” – Audrey Hepburn