Archive for August 22nd, 2013

The war on privilege will never end.  Its next great campaign will be against the privileges of the underprivileged.  –  H.L. Mencken

check your privilegeI finally figured out exactly what it is about the word “privilege” that annoys me so much.  It isn’t just that it’s thrown about so often these days that its place in an identity politics or “feminist” drinking game or bingo-card parody would be a given; nor that it’s often used (generally in the phrase “check your privilege”) to shut down discourse; nor that it’s increasingly employed by statists to subvert the concept of individual liberties; though of course all those things are part of it.  Over a year ago I wrote that

…I tend to tune out when sex worker activists start blathering about “privilege” as though it were some specific quality like height, skin color, IQ or income.  There is no single quality in the modern world which confers “privilege” as birth once could, not even money or education.  I’m not denying that some people are underprivileged and others start out with greater advantages, but this is inevitable in a world where everyone is different; even in a hypothetical post-scarcity economy of the future where teaching machines gave everyone a university degree at the age of five, there would still be a plethora of areas in which some had advantages over others.  Furthermore, early advantages no more ensure success than early disadvantages guarantee failure, and in fact a growing number of psychologists point out that too much privilege often makes a child (and the adult he becomes) fragile, maladjusted and less likely to succeed than one who has to struggle to achieve his goals.  It is as pointless to feel guilty about one’s natural advantages as it is to resent those with other advantages one lacks…

At the time, I knew that overuse of the word irritated me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the exact reason.  But now I realize what it is, and it’s twofold.  Firstly, a privilege is something that is conferred upon a person by others; we don’t speak of a dog’s “superhuman hearing privilege” or a bird’s “flight privilege” because we all understand that these things are innate in the animal.  Yet similar natural characteristics in humans are often referred to as “privileges”, despite the fact that they cannot be considered such by any normal understanding of the word; no conscious entity “grants” a human a good brain, a healthy body or a stable neurochemistry, therefore these things can only be advantages, not “privileges”.  And that brings us to the second part of the problem:  the word “privilege” implies an advantage which is undeserved and unearned, and thus something for which the individual so “gifted” supposedly owes some debt or obligation to someone else (generally God, country or “society”).  The replacement of semantically-neutral words like “characteristic” with the semantically-loaded “privilege” is an overt attempt at emotional manipulation, an effort to make the fortunate feel guilty for characteristics over which they had no more control than their eye color or height.

not a privilegeGovernment’s conversion of natural rights into granted “privileges” is a similar cognitive game; if civil liberties are unearned “privileges” magnanimously granted by beneficent governments, “authorities” arguably have the power to take them away again under certain conditions just as a landlord has the right to evict a tenant who has violated his lease.  But when we recognize that self-ownership and personal agency are the birthrights of every single sentient being, governmental abrogation of those rights is seen for what it truly is:  Violation.  Usurpation.  Theft.  Rape.  For example, using the phrase “white privilege” pardons the government for its systematic violations of the rights of minorities; if the way white people are preferentially treated in Western societies is a “privilege”, an “extra” thing conferred upon some but not others, the onus of guilt seems to fall upon those who are fortunate enough to have received this (undeserved) gift.  But if we recognize the truth, that such treatment is the birthright of everyone, then the onus falls where it belongs:  on those government actors who act independently or collectively to rob minorities of what is rightfully theirs by virtue of their humanity.  Being harassed relatively less by cops, being treated more leniently by the courts and the like are not “privileges” conferred upon white people who otherwise would be treated as poorly as minorities; rather, minorities are cheated and robbed of their inalienable right to be treated in the same way as white people.  To refer to decent, respectful treatment as a “privilege” is to imply that nobody actually deserves it, when in reality everybody does.  And nothing that rightfully belongs to everyone alike can reasonably be called a “privilege”.

Read Full Post »