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Thursday, May 08, 2014

Checking my privilege took all the energy I was going to use to do something about it

Phoebe has written up her YPIS hobbyhorse nicely for the Atlantic, getting pretty much to the bottom of why privilege-checking is more or less the moral equivalent of changing your facebook photo For Great Justice:
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?

9 comments:

Flavia said...

I wonder though whether it's ever possible for privilege talk - even correctly used to signify group advantages - to lead to such action.

This is a good question. In terms of alleviating the sufferings of The Many, perhaps not. But I do think that it can inspire, as it were, stricter scrutiny in places where structural privilege might be relevant.

To take an example from a context I know well, let's say you're hiring someone or they're up for tenure or whatever, and you have a weird but unplaceable negative reaction to something about them--or one of your colleagues does, or some of the candidate's reference letters don't seem to foreground his or her research skills so much as what nice people they are. It can be productive to take a few minutes to consider whether that reaction has anything to do with the fact that the person is a woman or a minority, and ask whether you (or your colleague or the referree) might have had a different reaction if the candidate was a white man--and then go back to the CV and the written work and so forth and otherwise make sure they're being fully judged on the merits of their accomplishments.

That's not saving the world, but it's the kind of thing that people who have been taught about structural privilege are hopefully more likely to do.

Miss Self-Important said...

Ok, that's something, but how is that really different from the concept of bias? Moreover, in this case, wouldn't privilege even be misleading, since I'd be led by it to assume that as a woman myself, I wouldn't be likely to somehow subconsciously discriminate against another woman, sharing as I do her group trait? But in fact, I'd be no more likely than a man to want to hire a candidate whose main qualification was being nice. So does it help more to point to male privilege in this case as though this was a particularly male weakness, or as a form of perception bias that affects everyone?

Alpheus said...

This may not be what Flavia was going for, but awareness of privilege might lead you to consider the possibility that women, all else being equal, are more likely to receive recommendations that highlight their niceness at the expense of their research skills. Or, praise for niceness might be more likely to be interpreted as a red flag when the candidate is a woman.

The whole rhetoric of privilege is subject to abuse (as Phoebe points out), but I think it's broadly true that many people are oblivious to the obstacles that others face -- even when those obstacles are faced by large numbers of people in a particular category. In its origin, the concept of privilege was a way of getting people to recognize the subtle but pervasive forms that social discrimination can take. Many of those forms of discrimination are not readily amenable to solution by collective action, but they are likely to be mitigated if empathetic people come to understand that they exist.

Phoebe said...

I like "time privilege." I think the implication was that a PhD (or just one in French?) is some kind of luxury vacation and not... a job. But dude could always retort that he lacks knowing-how-PhDs-work privilege, and could still win that YPIS competition.

I also think it's interesting that, because privilege-talk is so-very-now on the left and the right, we who aren't at the same place on the political spectrum can join forces in opposing it.

Before getting to the rest (or maybe while starting to do so?), let me respond to something Alpheus wrote: "many people are oblivious to the obstacles that others face -- even when those obstacles are faced by large numbers of people in a particular category."

Yes, absolutely. Yes, also, to what Flavia wrote about "structural privilege," as in hiring. The weird thing with privilege, what makes it difficult to discuss, is that the phenomena it points to are real. Subtle forms of discrimination are real. Unfair advantage on a wide scale, also real. People *do* act entitled and oblivious, and, even without getting into social-change implications, being a decent person means not assuming everyone shares your advantages, whatever they may be. Gratitude's probably good for sanity, etc.

If "privilege" were only ever used to describe society, as vs. individuals, it would be a useful way of, if nothing else, understanding how things work. Maybe with an 'and then we'll do something about it!' implied, maybe not. The problem is, that's not what's happened. "Privilege" is used as an accusation, but even when it's not, it seems to inspire defensiveness, and a kind of widespread, sometimes preemptive denial of privilege.

Maybe the problem really is the word - it has a way of making *all* forms of advantage, big and small, money-related and not, sound as if they imply that the person in question is, well, upper-class. When, obviously, most who benefit from male privilege or cisgender privilege, etc., are not. If you're not someone who'd fit the common-sense definition of "privileged," it can seem ridiculous to be asked to apologize for privilege.

Which brings me to MSI's big question: "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?"

It's definitely the latter, but a bit of both. As you say, "So, rather than help others, we are oriented by privilege talk towards feeling aggrieved and demanding more for ourselves." That seems to be, unfortunately, where some versions of privilege theory, even, lead. I need to think this through further, but what seems crucial is this idea that to be privileged is to be unaware of one's privilege. That's what stops conversations. It's - as you're also saying, if I understand correctly - that aspect of built-in futility.

So maybe here's where I stand, for now, re: your question. Privilege is, in the abstract, useful for describing how society operates. And the idea, if internalized, can help individuals become more self-aware, and maybe even prevent them from engaging in inadvertent racist/sexist/etc. behaviors. Insofar as the term helps convey that there isn't an equal playing field, it's beneficial. And if, in individual interactions, the term helps one person explain to others where he or she is coming from, it's done its work.

But at this point, there are so many problems with "privilege," so many ways the concept throws people off, that it might be better to return to less-provocative but more precise terms like "sexism," "racism," etc.

Miss Self-Important said...

Alpheus, and also Phoebe: But is privilege really the most useful way to describe that phenomenon? Being nice and being intelligent are both actual advantages, but only the latter is relevant to the case at hand, so if there is a broad tendency for people (including other women, so there is no group ID immunity) to perceive women in terms of their kindness rather than their intellect and this harms women in the particular sphere of academic job recommendations, then the heart of the issue is recognizing a form of widespread perception bias in these cases, not some diffuse "privilege", since the question of unearned advantage here is pretty tangential.

Phoebe: I see that privilege in some broad way highlights inequalities, which is fine, but I still don't see what new awareness of inequality or even suffering privilege brings us, unless the point is that the very updating of the terminology is itself what keeps our awareness fresh, and without it, the urgency or even existence of such inequalities would fade from view?

I wonder too if the very vagueness and breadth of privilege that allows it to be a catch-all reminder of all kinds of inequality isn't also a problem. That is, is all inequality indefensible? The previous set of terms - racism, sexism - took aim at specific inequalities whose illegitimacy was argued independently. Racial discrimination is unjust not because any discrimination ever is unjust, but b/c race is not a valid basis for discrimination. "Privilege" cuts through these distinctions and seems to suggest that every inequality - even inequality of time apparently! - must be rectified, since even a few extra moments of leisure gives you an advantage over someone lacking them.

Also, I think you might like Marilynne Robinson's pre-Privilege Vogue essay on the broader topic of morality and castigating people, "Puritans and Prigs." The most relevant excerpt is here but the whole thing is quite good and says some of what you say about the way terminology and the imperative to keep up with terminology's updates can become a form of moral superiority which undermines actual morality.

Phoebe said...

Thanks for linking to that - I'll need to find the whole book!

As for the rest, I think there are two questions: 1) Is "privilege" a new concept? and 2) is it useful?

Re: 1), I do think it's new, even if it's not really pointing to any forms of bias that we were previously unaware of. I guess it could be credited with increasing awareness (beyond academia) of the concept of cultural capital, although it could, along the same lines, be faulted with leading to an overestimation of what cultural capital, on its own, can achieve. And "privilege", unlike "advantage," implies an edge someone doesn't realize they have. As in, someone might in the abstract know that it's advantageous to be white, but not realize this explains why they drive without getting pulled over all the time.

But re: 2), maybe not. There are too many problems, with the concept but especially with how it's used.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well in that case, do we have the probably unavoidable difficulty of losing meaning in translation, especially in the translation of what was originally a descriptive concept (cultural capital sorts individuals into a status hierarchy) to a prescriptive one (eliminate cultural capital!)? "Social Darwinism" and the awesome prescriptions that arose from that popular translation effort come to mind as a precedent for this, though that parallel may be inexact.

Also, on the question of gratitude for advantages, I vaguely recall an old post of yours questioning whether such gratitude is really meaningful or possible. In this context, I wonder what it would mean to be grateful for the ability to drive around w/o getting pulled over all the time. Like, when I drive, should I constantly be reminding myself, it's so good that I'm white! I kind of can't imagine actually doing that or what use this action would have, although it might helpfully distract me from the other habitual thought I have while driving: OMG this is terrifying!

Phoebe said...

Is the "cultural capital" thing prescriptive, though? I'm thinking more along the lines of how it's now very clever to point out that if you know about farmers markets or camembert or whatever, you're privileged. The goal doesn't seem to be any particular action. What happens, though, is people are labeled "privileged" who may or may not benefit from such practical things as money, marketable skills. I don't mean the Bobos in Paradise status-income disequilibrium situation of making plenty but still less than banker friends. I mean perma-adjuncts, perma-interns, etc. People who may even self-identify as "privileged" (and sometimes even write confessional articles about this privilege), but whose preference for organic doesn't pay the bills.

Re: gratitude, unfortunately I have no recollection of the post you mean. But I don't think the idea is to be grateful while driving. (There's a Louis C.K. monologue that consists of gratitude for white privilege, but this only works as comedy.) It means that someone who announces that racism is over, say, would do well to be enlightened. It's about empathy, I suppose. Empathy's nice, even if it doesn't lead to any useful reforms. The problem comes when empathy becomes the whole story - when shame over white privilege takes the place of advocating for, say, an end to racial profiling.

Miss Self-Important said...

This is the gratitude post. Not quite what I recalled, but somewhat.

Cultural capital by itself is a descriptive concept, yes, but when subsumed into "privilege," it takes on a prescriptive edge. Otherwise why would this adjunct to feel compelled to apologize for her privilege, if it had no normative implications? That would be like apologizing for preferring rice to pasta. Ideally, the privilege axe-grinders want the perma-adjunct to have the tenured prof's job security, but they also want the coal miner to have the perma-adjunct's cultural capital, right? They don't just want to describe the differences among these people, but to level inequality along all these axes, from employment to kale consumption. Turning cultural capital into privilege results in those without access to or knowledge of kale being taken to be deprived of something valuable rather than assumed to prefer a different leaf vegetable?

Not to take this too far afield or drag it out forever, but how would even privilege talk well-used lead to advocating for an end to racial profiling? I'm supposed to begin by examining my own privilege, but it's impossible for me to deduce that black people get stopped in traffic more often than whites from examining myself and my own driving. All I'd know is that I've never been pulled over, which isn't exactly indicative of anything even about white people as a group. I would have to know in advance about racial profiling for this exercise to work. So really what is wanted is not for me to examine myself, but for me to consider the justice of racial profiling, but somehow through the lens of privilege rather than whatever my instinctive way of considering would be. So I guess I could ask, how would I like this if it happened to me? But could I also weigh empathy against impersonal considerations of what policies are best to prevent crime, or terrorism? Could I decide that, as a policy matter, I don't necessarily want to end racial profiling even though I agree that it imposes disproportionate burdens on some groups comprised mainly of non-criminals? Or would privilege-thinking pre-empt such a conclusion, or refine it, or what?

I do realize I'm asking you to defend this concept beyond what you've claimed it might be useful for, so you're not obligated on this front. My main interest is how privilege appeals to tendencies in us that are almost inexorably counter-productive of its own ends if those ends are helping others. But now I'm more curious about the ways it might tend to lump all previously-distinct inequalities and discriminations together as one morally interchangeable BAD THING to be, eventually, eliminated.