To say that someone “comes across as privileged” is to call that person clueless and insensitive. It may not even be logically possible to admit to privilege, if we’re defining “privilege” as advantage about which one is unaware...It’s a personal insult posing as social critique...It’s also that it’s made cluelessness a greater crime than inequality. These ubiquitous expressions—“check your privilege” or “your privilege is showing”—ask the accused to own up to privilege, not to do anything about it. There may be a vague, implied hope that privilege-checking will lead to efforts to remedy some injustice, but the more direct concern is not coming across as entitled, not offending anyone underprivileged who theoretically might be (but almost certainly isn’t) in the room.Privilege talk is just navel-gazing as social justice, and "calling out privilege" is the world's easiest form of social work. Hey, you there! Privileged! Done, gold star for me. (And of course some schmoe read the article and got right on that. Some people have only three days to live, ok, and here you are, using your time privilege to get a PhD!) However, my question for Phoebe on this has for a long time been, is it the entire way of conceiving of inequality that privilege talk represents that's the problem, or just the particularly insidious way this rhetoric has been used by the internet commentariat?
My sense is that Phoebe favors the general impulse behind privilege talk, when it's used as a way of describing systemic group inequalities. Where privilege goes wrong is when a way of describing the broad social advantages of a group (say, males) is applied to any individual male in a way that implies that he is either personally responsible for the oppression of all females by virtue of sharing a group trait, or that he is nothing but a male, which, due to the supposed privilege this carries, trumps all other, perhaps less privileging, individual circumstances in his life. (Phoebe: feel free to correct this generalized summary.) But what also seems to be wanted here is concrete action against injustice or inequality, something that Phoebe rightly complains that privilege talk never seems to lead to.
I wonder though whether it's ever possible for privilege talk - even correctly used to signify group advantages - to lead to such action. The same impulse that pushes people to constantly mis-apply what were supposed to be group traits to individual cases also leads them to intellectually and morally break systematic inequalities down into personal situations, and for good reason. It's precisely because it's impossible for anyone to do much to improve the group status of women - all 150 million of them in the US - that we resort to helping individual women at some local level. The individuation of a "social problem" is necessary for individuals to take any action. Otherwise, it's all on the state to address group inequalities, since that's the only entity big enough to manage it, and our job as citizens is to pretty much to sit back and change our facebook photos at coordinated intervals to show our support.
At the other end, privilege rhetoric's claim that social goods are unearned strokes of luck undermines the sense of personal agency that's required to think that you can or should help others out. Even if you thought that it was unfair that you just happened to be born with all these desirable accouterments - whiteness, wealth, maleness, etc. - they're still flukes. Certainly the idea that luck is required for success has always been an important way of urging charity; the poor are "the less fortunate" and your obligation to help them arises from circumstances for which they are not entirely to blame. But this understanding of luck and misfortune is individuated and has to be amenable to improvement by effort. So, it's bad luck that your childhood was poor, but if you do well in school, then you can go to a good university and not be poor as an adult, and the rich can help concretely with that. By contrast, no amount of effort can make someone white or male (well...). Can someone with white privilege help someone not white attain the "structural advantages" of whiteness? No, he can just try not to gloat in public, as Phoebe points out. Neither can he personally do much to eliminate those structural advantages which simply inhere in his being. If you didn't build it, then you have no construction skills to pass on to anyone else, nor can you demolish the sprawling edifice. You just have to wait for the advantages of whiteness to abate in society at large, and since only the state is potentially powerful enough to rectify luck-based inequalities by redistributing the wages of luck to the less lucky, then again, once you've checked your privilege at the counter, you can sit back and enjoy the flight.
Finally, there is the question of pride, which privilege (not unlike Christianity) tries to subdue. Phoebe suggests that privilege is a "new form of noblesse oblige" for elites, but that, whatever its demerits, actually did impel people to concrete action. The parallel is not quite right though, since noblesse oblige arises out of pride. In America, it's because it's a great thing to be wealthy and successful that you should help others become so. (In the ancien regime, the peasants can't ever become like you, but it's still because you're so great that you should try to improve their lot, though that kind of noblesse oblige is less relevant to us.) However, privilege is, as Phoebe points out, not a great thing to have, but rather a source of shame. You cannot reasonably be proud of being white or male or rich. If anything, you should be sorry for it, since you're facilitating a vast system of oppression just by existing. But cringing shame is an impetus for hiding, not for action. Maybe that's a desired result - no more condescending "help" from the privileged for the un-privileged, just the privileged getting out of the way? But I assume this is not Phoebe's desired result, or what she hopes for from privilege talk. Still, when we try to help people, we are implicitly trying to make them more like us in some way. We teach children so they can know what we know, we counsel our friends so that they'll do what we'd do, we donate things so that other people can have what we have, etc. If we thought ourselves pathetic or despicable, then what could we purport to offer anyone else except a piece of our lameness? Better to keep that to ourselves.
Where it doesn't crush our pride by making us ashamed of whatever goods have (and really, hardly anything is as resilient as our pride, as Christians also know), then privilege talk inspires resentment. Rather than self-flagellate over the privileges we do have, which is painful, we will always prefer to blame others for the privileges we lack, which is self-vindicating and therefore pleasant. So, rather than help others, we are oriented by privilege talk towards feeling aggrieved and demanding more for ourselves.
It's not as though there was no conception of charity, social obligation, or the virtue of helping others or just being nice before privilege came along. What then does privilege-checking contribute to this effort? It doesn't tell us anything new about who could use help. It doesn't tell us anything new about how to help them. It doesn't in itself help anyone. It doesn't explain anything about social phenomena that wasn't explained by already-existing concepts like race, class, elite vs. mass, etc. It appeals to all the things in us that suppress any actual individual activity on behalf of the less privileged. So what's useful about privilege?