Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Problem with Privilege

Employing the word “privilege” to describe the relative advantages of being white or male or heterosexual has become a litmus test of one’s sensitivity to questions of social justice.  While I suspect many feel a certain discomfort with using the word this way, overcoming such feelings is understood as a rite of passage, crossing a line that separates the unenlightened from the redeemed.

I felt the same queasiness, but my reaction was to try to think it through.  Why did I have this feeling, and why was I being asked to suppress it?  Here is what that led to.

There is no question that inequalities are everywhere.  It seems obvious to me that, separate from other factors, being white, male, nonpoor etc. confers relative advantage.

But there are two types of advantages in society.  One is differential access to opportunities, liberties or benefits that, in principle, could be enjoyed by all.  Access to health care is an example.  Access is unequal, and the goal should be for no one to have their health problems undiagnosed and untreated.  One could go a step further and claim it as a universal right.  You might or might not want to (I would), but the possibility exists.

The other type of advantage is positional, being better off by virtue of being above or ahead of someone else.  Much of the benefit of gender inequality for men, historically, was due to the corresponding subordination of women.  The possibility of taking sexual advantage of someone else, for instance, can hardly be universalized, since its existence for some requires its opposite for others.  The Marxist theory of exploitation had this structure as well: the profit of capitalists was regarded as inseparable from the surplus value extracted from labor.

In the past, the verbal distinction between these two types of inequality was captured by the differentiation between rights and privileges.  Rights were benefits that could be claimed for all.  If some had them and others didn’t, the solution was to extend them to everyone.  Privileges were benefits that depended on exclusivity: membership has its privileges, benefits that would evaporate if membership were opened to all.  The proper goal of an egalitarian is to dissolve privileges.

Here is another example.  At one time it was common for many unions (in the US) to exclude blacks, and this allowed white union members to monopolize jobs in certain industries.  That was a privilege that principled people sought to abolish.  Meanwhile, only some workers are unionized, and this allows them to enjoy greater pay and say on the job than those not in unions.  That’s certainly an inequality, but a reasonable response would be to call for laws that make it easier for any group of workers to form or join a union if they wish.  This is a position in favor of labor rights.

During recent decades it has become common for antiracist activists to apply the term “privilege” to both types of advantages.  This is a clever move, because it mobilizes the guilt most of us experience (or should) in the case of unjustified, positional advantages in the battle against all advantages.  For example, if it is a privilege to not be assaulted at random by the police, a domain in which whites do in general have an advantage over blacks, then whites should feel a twinge of guilt and seek to “reject” this privilege.  That may well be a more powerful motivator than the sense of unfairness whites might feel in thinking that the right to personal safety they enjoy is being denied to others.  I understand why activists might want to elide the distinction between these two types of differential benefit.

The reason I don’t go along with it is because I think it’s beneficial to retain a language that makes relevant distinctions.  While it’s possible to distinguish between rights that should be universalized and exclusive privileges that should be dissolved by explaining the difference in a paragraph, it is much easier to think in these terms if we retain the dichotomy between rights and privileges.  Also, while eliciting guilt can be a convenient strategy for activists, I believe solidarity is a firmer basis for building movements to overcome unjust differences.

Next up: microagression.


WDD said...

Cops not randomly beating you up is both a right and a de facto privilege. If you want to make this argument you need to name some rights that are still withheld from marginalised people.

I'm not that familiar with US law but I think there are some New Deal employment laws which were not extended to ocupational groups that were primarily black? Equal marriage (and equal pension rights) still an issue. Abortion only fits into your framework in terms of wealth - rich women don't need to give a crap about the law in their state or country - but it's not a right that can be withheld from [cis] men in the same way. (Many men surely do suffer from unwanted parenthood, but not the physical risk nor usually the economic devastation that follows it for women, especially in a country like the US with weak social safety nets).

Also, I think appealing to a sense of fairness is far less likely to cause a defensive/aggressive/denial reaction than trying to make people feel guilty for something they never chose. I don't understand this part of your argument at all. It's not a tactic, it's a useful concept. "Privilege" in this usage describes benefits which arise despite equal rights. It is invisible to those who enjoy it in any given context. Getting the structurally blind to see does not involve haranguing them for not getting treated badly - no one should get treated badly - it involves getting them to understand the things they don't experience and therefore don't know about.

A middle class black woman is (by definition) more socioeconomically powerful than a working class white man. This is because class is the over-arching privilege which makes all the others matter as much as they do. But he is still unlikely to be handed a uniform when he tries to register for a conference; be asked to pour the coffee or take minutes when he is a senior presence in a meeting; be sat next to another white person because obviously "they" all know each other; be required to take responsibility for white supremacist violence because he's seen as part of an amorphous lump of "other" and not an actual human being.

Sorry, but I think you got carried away with pointless semantics here. None of this article pertains to the social justice concept of privilege at all. Read some more black female writers. You can't pull this stuff out of a white male head. That's the whole point.

Peter Dorman said...

WDD, I think you've missed the entire argument. It is not at all about injustice, which I think we probably agree on. It *is* about the distinction between goods (privileges) whose value depends on their exclusivity, versus potentially universalizable goods which can either be nonrival (freedom from being beaten up or killed by the cops) or made universally available at a community's given level of resources (health care). Possession of the first should trigger guilt in "normal" people under a range of circumstances; unequal possession of the second shouldn't.

Granted my comment about the use of "privilege" in a way that elides this distinction is flat out speculation. It's quite possible that those who promulgated the language used in diversity workshops etc. were simply unaware that "privilege" had a long history of use in the way I describe. (I can remember the slogan, "Health care is a right, not a privilege!") Given the academic origins of this new usage, though, I'm more inclined to the view that it was strategic.

Not recognizing the argument I'm making (whether you agree or not), and attributing this nonrecognition to my inability as a white male to make such an argument, is not helpful here. However, if you have a piece of writing to recommend that explains why the distinction I want to make is either untenable or inconsequential, I'd be happy to read it. If I'm convinced to change my mind, it wouldn't be the first time.

reason said...

Not so sure that I completely agree here.

I think this statement:

"The proper goal of an egalitarian is to dissolve privileges." goes too far. Can you be an egalitarian and be comfortable with some privileges?

Property rights are a privilege (their defining feature is their exclusivity) - and even possession rights are a privilege. Do we really want to regard it as an unacceptable level of privilege that all people are not free to walk through my living room?

I sort of think, in general we need to be very sensitive about where we really want to draw the line between things that are matters of principle and those that are questions of degree.

WDD said...

Did you delete my response or is Blogger messing up?

Anonymous said...

You should research the origin of terms before you try to impose your ideas on them.


Owen Paine said...

Consider the notion

"Privileged majority "

Not quite lapidary eh ?

The absence of oppression is not privilege ...is it !

JEC said...

Here's the thing: in anti-oppression work, "privilege" is a term of art, a technical term if you will, not unlike "rational" or "[Pareto] optimal" in economics. Repurposing common words as technical terms is always dicey, since those outside the field will tend to read the common meanings of the terms into discourse in which those words are present. So economists have to spend time explaining that a "rational" decision maker need not be a joyless Philistine and that a Pareto optimal solution is not, in any meaningful sense, "best."

In the anti-oppression lingo, "privilege" does not simply denote "advantages" enjoyed by non-disadvantaged individuals; it denotes the individuals' unawareness that those advantages are not enjoyed by everyone. And that's really the point of calling what I (and people like me) tend to think of as "the expectation of basic human decency" a "privilege."

Now, as you write, the problem with the word is that, traditionally, we seek justice by *abolishing* privilege, and that's not the case here. Nobody is seriously advocating for a world in which everyone is equally the victim of random acts of aggression, micro- or otherwise. But, as a technical term, privilege has become embedded in academic and activist literature, so we're probably stuck with it.
(Though things do change sometimes; in macro, we sometimes see people saying "model consistent expectations" where they once would have said "rational expectations.")

Alas, no technical or rhetorical vocabulary is entirely free of unfortunate ambiguity; we just have to cope with the language as best we can.

Mike Huben said...

The anti-oppression meaning of privilege is much closer to the legal definition from Hohfeld. "A privilege is the negation of a duty: it is permission to do an act that would normally be a breach of a duty."

A right is a claim against another person for a duty. Thus a privilege is a permitted violation of a right.

Owen Paine said...

I like that "...negation of a duty " bit

White guy gets off without a ticket just a warning
Black guy gets maximum fine

The stink of this label offends white guys

Beneficiary is Unaware of. His privilege ?
If that's part of the term of art here used in the academy " studies " seminars on oppression
We are even closer to disqualifying the term
As suitable for common discourse

Black oppression strikes me as adequate to the requirements of every day conversation

Isn't there an un necessary implicit loathing
in the term "white privilege "
At least
When pointing toward appropriate treatment
That ought to be universal

I notice this danger
From just treatment
Those treated fairly may lack an instinct for oppression
As in the post 9/ 11 abridgment
of civil liberties

Too many whites have no experience of state terror
They have no fear of state power gaining dangerous "privileges "

Anonymous said...

Owen Paine

Great post.

"Isn't there an un necessary implicit loathing in the term "white privilege "

That is the problem. White men insisting on being offended by the words used by people they once legally owned as property is just ... not going to go down well with the people who still suffer disproportionate economic, social and physical violence as a result of that ownership and the centuries of entitlement embedded into our culture.

These things are not yet history. Don't be surprised if the rhetoric sometimes seems angry. It's a bit rich for white men to prioritise their feelings and insist that the right words and a polite tone be deployed when we have been making these demands for 300 years now and it is still not sinking in.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

In Tasmania a definition of 'oppression' is found in the Criminal Code of 1924:

84. Extortion by public officers: Oppression

"Any public officer who, in the exercise or under colour of exercising his office, wilfully and unlawfully inflicts upon any person any bodily harm, imprisonment, or other injury is guilty of a crime."

Oppression, here, depends upon what is (legally) allowable.

Peter Dorman said...

Interesting. Of all the replies, only Reason responded to the OP. Here's my response to this response: as I understand it, privilege denotes exclusivity, but exclusivity does not necessarily denote privilege.

In the case of property, if there is a positional element to ownership I think we can infer privilege, otherwise not. If I own a car, but the advantage of this ownership does not depend on the non-ownership by others of cars, then I may have a relative advantage compared to those non-owners, but the exclusivity of this ownership is not in relation to the non-owners only, but to all others. On the other hand, a landowner who possesses the majority of arable land in a region and profits from the labor on this land by the non-owners finds that its value is greater because of the availability of a landless population.

In reply to the rest, just for clarity, I take it as given that in any unequal social situation, such as the racial hierarchies in the US, the relative disadvantage of those on the bottom is equivalent to the relative advantage of those on the top. Racism is not just about those on the short end but also those on the long. Whites need to think about this! I am concerned only with the indiscriminate use of the word "privilege". My old school attention to retaining precision in language comes from a belief that imprecise language engenders imprecise thinking. In this case, I think that imprecision leads to greater resistance to the message of anti-racists, anti-sexists, etc. Privilege may be a term of art on the part of activists to denote all types of social inequality, but the unwashed masses operate with a different meaning, and communicating to them is the point.