Friday, May 29, 2015

On Privilege

Because it keeps coming up, and I have wanted to write a brief something on this topic, a meditation on the concept of "privilege". As commonly used in feminist and racial contexts, e.g. Peggy McIntosh's tiresome "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" or John Scalzi's dumb, tendentious, and insulting essay, "Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is", "privilege" is an unearned benefit derived from birth status, e.g. the condition of being male, or white. In my experience, "privilege" is really two things, one trivially (in the sense of inarguably) true, and the other demonstrably false:
  1. That certain people have it easier in the world than others as a consequence of birth.
  2. That all subsequent success such people have are in fact directly derived from those advantages.
 I came across a clickbait-headlined cartoon recently that promised to "forever change the way you look at privilege", but in fact was a pretty standard review of how "privilege" is alleged to work. A couple remarks before diving in:

Does there exist, anywhere in this nation, a school district that confesses they are anything but terribly underfunded? I have yet to hear of it. And yet. Pushing on:
Here we go: item 2, FTW! All success can be ascribed to birth status, in some large measure. Q.E.D.

Except where that's wrong. Ultimately, privilege is a motte-and-bailey tactic as described by Nicholas Shackel in his paper, "The Vacuity Of Postmodernist Methodology" (PDF). A motte-and-bailey is a kind of bait-and-switch: the first part is easily defensible (birth can confer unearned advantages), but the second, radical part (all success thereafter is also due to unearned advantages) is not. By shifting definitions, and refusing to look at failures as well as success, we see that "privilege", animated by jealousy, is a toy philosophical theory that has almost no explanatory power.

I encountered (what might well be) a good example of this latter at Medium a number of weeks back in Umar Haque's essay, "The Asshole Factory". The only thing of importance for my purposes here is the first two sentences:
My good friend Mara has not one but two graduate degrees. From fine, storied universities. Surprise, surprise: the only “job” she was able to find was at a retail store.
Let that sink in for a bit: this person has two graduate degrees, and is obliged to work retail? It's entirely reasonable to infer a couple things here:
  1. Her parents have considerable money to put her through multiple postgraduate programs.
  2. She has never previously had to give much thought to how she was going to make a living.
Yet, despite these advantages, she's ... working retail for a crummy employer who spies on her every second of her work day, comparing her performance against her daily sales quota in real time, etc. In privilege theory, none of this should have happened, and she should have ridden off into the sunset with a big bag of money. Or something. Now, I'll grant you I don't know if Mara is white, or even real, but that story is one that's getting repeated time and again because of the painfully false belief that college is necessary for everyone. Being white doesn't get you out of college debt. "Privilege" doesn't address failure and hardship; as a theory for how society works, it deserves only ridicule.

Update: Just came across David Greenberg's "What In The World Is 'Privilege'?" at The College Conservative, which addresses the matter from its Marxist origins.

1 comment:

  1. The other thing I've found with some of the people I've known who "couldn't find a better job" is that many of them aren't willing to compromise on things like relocation, commuting, work hours, status, etc. so they won't accept an entry level job in their field (or in an area related to their field).

    When I graduated from college jobs in my field (geology) were terribly scarce. I ended up taking a job working for a civil engineering company doing grunt soil testing work for crappy pay. It got my foot in the door and two to three years later my pay had almost tripled and I was starting to do interesting work that combined engineering and geology. People I went to school with who weren't willing to settle for a low paying labor job initially and took easier and better paying jobs in sales or other fields often ended up stuck there.

    Privilege is just another word for luck - which is only really lucky if you are ready and willing to take advantage of it.