Privilege: A Problematic Paradigm: Issues And Alternatives: Part Three

[Note:  See previous discussion here and here.]

In our previous discussion we covered the issue of privileges and how not everything that falls under the rubric of privilege involves matters of justice even though the differential spread of privileges feels unjust to the person who has fewer privileges than other people have.  One of the difficulties in dealing with people who think of themselves as the arbiters of their world and as the judges of what is and is not just is that what people see from their own perspective is seldom just and seldom in accordance with reality.  And, as we should expect, that is precisely the problem we have when we look at privilege from the point of view of those who attack others for possessing some kind of imaginary privilege.  Before we can examine the problems of this view, though, we have to understand what is meant when people refer to the supposed privilege that white people have or that men have.

For those who are familiar at all with discussions of privilege, it is a ritual for leftist activists to engage in the checking of privilege [1] where people examine how they are privileged in a variety of ways and beat themselves up about it while simultaneously humblebragging about it.  Depending on how rigorous the exercise is, one can come up with a long list of possible qualities in which some people are privileged and some people are not.  For example, white people are viewed as privileged and people of color (except for most East Asians) are viewed as not privileged.  Wealthy and middle class people are privileged and poor people are not (unless they are white or male, who are automatically viewed as privileged regardless of other factors).  Males are privileged and females are not.  Educated people are privileged while uneducated people are not.  Beautiful people are privileged, while ugly people are not.  Healthy people are privileged while chronically ill or disabled people are not.  Christians are privileged while non-Christians are not (and Protestants are privileged over Catholics).  If one want to continue this sort of thing on, one could say that right-handed people are privileged and left-handed people are not.  Based on principles of intersectionality, one can weigh each of the dimensions of privilege and sum up one’s lack of privilege and end up with a victim score that tells you how underprivileged you are relative to everyone else, with the self-satisfaction that this makes one just and able to criticize others with more privilege than you have.

There are many problems with this view.  Examining them in detail will take a considerable amount of time.  It is worthwhile, though, to point out the dimensions in which privilege fails, though, before going through the reasons in detail to demonstrate how mistaken a view it is in so many dimensions.  For one, ascribing privilege to certain groups of people is simply mistaken.  The categories included are so broad that no one can avoid being considered as a victim or as an oppressor, but the factors that give genuine privilege in life are often far more narrow in nature.  While in real life that which gives privileges in some areas tends to give additional responsibilities or difficulties in other areas, this is not taken into account by a simplistic view of privilege.  Much about this deserves to be said.  On top of that, the asymmetries of the view of privilege in privileging those who are viewed as underprivileged in attacking those with perceived power automatically creates an unjust situation where people attack others as privilege based on an unclaimed and unrecognized privilege that they themselves stand on, do not recognize, which makes anyone who attacks someone else on grounds of privilege unjust and immoral by definition.

On top of all of this, even should one want to engage those who hold to a mistaken and misguided view of privilege, there is seldom any point in doing so.  Any blessings or advantages received by someone who views themselves as unprivileged will be seen as acts of payment for a debt that can never be fully repaid extending to time immemorial, and no disadvantage on the side of one viewed as privileged is seen as amounting to even a drop in the bucket of all of the supposed advantages that privilege has brought to someone.  There is no gratitude, no appreciation, no thankfulness, and no graciousness in the approach of someone whose mindset has become poisoned by envy and resentment.  Likewise, among the definitions of privilege there is a wide variety of responsibility in terms of the qualities.  Those who are healthy and take care of themselves have likely spent a lot of time and effort to do so, while those who are overweight and not fit often have a high degree of personal responsibility in that.  The same is true when it comes to education, as those who have spent time reading good books and learning have a certain moral superiority to those who do not, especially when books are so readily and freely available to anyone who is interested in them.  On the other hand, some of the qualities involved clearly are not something that people can do anything about.  Within the qualities where people look at matters through the rubric of privilege are natural matters of heredity and ancestry where one has no responsibility and areas where privilege comes from personal choices and moral superiority.  And yet they are conflated together as if people were not responsible for any of it and suffered innocently.  This is simply not so.

Taking all of these concerns together, we see that privilege is a viewpoint that is tenaciously held by people who use it as the basis of moral judgments about themselves and others, which does not correspond to reality, which is a blunt instrument lacking in nuance, which conflates factors over which people have no control with those for which the underprivileged person is personally responsible for (even if there are environmental factors at play too), and which leads to a point of view of envy, hostility, and resentment towards those who are frequently morally superior to the person attacking them on grounds of privilege.  All of this leads to a situation where people who do not know what they are talking about view themselves as moral judges and arbiters of others based on figments of their imagination that create needless conflict and that serve to entrench those who hold the viewpoint in an aggressive but delusional state of unreality.  Obviously this is a problem.  How to deal with this is a more difficult matter.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2019/05/08/check-your-privilege/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Privilege: A Problematic Paradigm: Issues And Alternatives: Part Three

  1. Pingback: Privilege: A Problematic Paradigm: Issues And Alternatives: Part Four | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Privilege: A Problematic Paradigm: Issues And Alternatives: Part Five | Edge Induced Cohesion

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