The concept of Privilege (in the modern social justice sense) was coined by Peggy McIntosh in 1988 in her essay White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies, and was intended as a new way of looking at social inequality. At its core, the concept is very simple- we are all born with certain social advantages and disadvantages and we should be mindful of this fact when dealing with/judging other people. It is meant (in its original academic intent) as a lens through which to view society and how people treat each other.
This sounds like a great idea for reducing inequality, and it can be- it’s a tool for encouraging empathy and sympathy with others through self-reflection. We definitely need more empathy in this world, as people all too often get locked into their own little bubbles of “reality” and generally don’t think a lot about the situations and perspectives of others. The philosophy that’s come up to surround the concept of Privilege is that we should be mindful of the advantages we have in life, and be using those advantages to help those around us who are less fortunate. Whether it’s being mindful of the challenges faced by women in a sexist environment, the struggles faced by the LGBTQI community, or even the advantages that being of the dominant social group in a society (white in the United States, for example), using the concept of Privilege to encourage empathy, equal media representation, and equality has the potential to make the world a better place for everyone.
Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
While those passionate about social justice and inequality have been fast to see the benefits of using the concept of Privilege in a positive way, by in large, it has also come to be used in a number of negative ways as well.
1) As a way to force others to do your work for you while feeling you’ve accomplished something.
While the concept of Privilege should be used to further equality, instead it’s become a way to try to guilt people into following your own social agendas while doing as little yourself as possible. This happens time and time again in discussion of the arts and issues of Privilege, where those advocating social justice talk about diversity and the need for more viewpoints to be represented. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing, and diversity of viewpoints is good, but the problem is how and why they’re doing it.
Time and time again on Social Media, I see the same pattern. A discussion thread starts on the topic of inequality in the media or arts, or veers in that direction, and it turns into a giant debate about the representation of minorities in writing, audio drama, comics, film, etc. Okay, that’s fine, we’ve all seen discussions like this and it’s a good and healthy debate to have, but here’s where things will get sneaky.
Next time you see one of these debates, start to count the number of times words like “you” and “you should” and similar statements pop up. Then, for fun, try counting the number of “I” and “we” based statements. You’ll find that “you”-based statements will outnumber “I”-based statements in those discussions almost 10-1.
Why is this significant?
Well, you see, the point of the thread isn’t to talk about how WE are going to make media more equal, it is about how YOU are going to make media more equal. See the difference? It’s a pile of social justice believers trying to guilt each other (and the many more liberal minded people in the audience) into doing their work for them so that they can accomplish their goals while doing as little work as possible themselves. On top of that, it lets those with the social justice agenda feel they have accomplished something (slacktivism) while actually doing very little. I’ve seen countless threads where people will endlessly argue about how YOU should change your art to support their ideas of social justice, but for some reason they never get around to talking about how they are doing it. It’s a game as old as time- why do the work when you can get someone else to do it for you? And Privilege has turned into a big ole stick they can use to force you into it.
The concept of Privilege should be a way to help people reflect on how they can improve their work and themselves, but instead it’s all too often become a tool by which those with social justice agendas push others into furthering those agendas. And, of course, if people try to stand up those foisting their agendas on others, they’re told to “check their Privilege”…
2) To shut down conversation.
Sadly, while Privilege as a concept is meant to encourage discussion and exploration, in reality is it most often used to do the exact opposite. Wielding the word “Privilege” like a club, those in the pursuit of social justice often use it to silence the voices of those that they don’t agree with (because if you don’t agree with their ideas social justice, you’re evil, right?) and if someone says something or argues against them in a public forum the phrase “check your Privilege” is whipped out like a trump card to end the conversation.
- “But, what if Venusians are partially responsible for their own economic situation and need to find new ways to rethink their lifestyles?”
- “Check your Privilege! Venusian economics are the result of years of oppression by the Martians! How dare you sit there in your middle class Martian house with your middle class Martian job and suggest that there could be more complex causes to the situation than Martians being evil!”
- “This was a show written by cats about feline life in the feline community, of course there aren’t any non-felines.”
- “Check your Privilege! There should be more dog characters, or are you just racist?”
And if you try to argue against those who have slapped down the Privilege card, you are by default perceived to be siding with the status quo/oppressors, and are thus a Cat sympathizer/Martian supremacist who should no longer to be listened to by the community by virtue of your wrong-ness. You have offended the social justice/social media status quo that all right-thinking people should be following, and if you continue to argue you will be unfriended, blacklisted, and no longer welcome at significant social events.
Again, this was a tool for creating conversation and exploring the deeply nuanced nature of society, but now it’s become a tool for those in pursuit of social justice to shut down discussion and free speech with which they disagree- thus accomplishing the exact opposite. Speaking of nuance, this is another problem with wielding Privilege as it is all too often used in social media today…
3) Its very use in debate creates an automatic oppressor/oppressed dynamic
The moment the word “Privilege” enters a conversation, the person using that word is automatically labeling the person they’re using it against as siding with “the oppressor” against whatever minority viewpoint they support, and labeling themselves as a member of (or ally of) “the oppressed”. From the moment the word enters the conversation in a debate context, the person using it is claiming the moral high ground and framing the whole conversation around a struggle for equality that they support. Even if the person they’re using it against has valid points or arguments, it doesn’t matter- they’re automatically on the defensive and perceived by the audience to be supporting the “wrong” position and must now fight to justify themselves and their argument. (Something the person who just whipped out the word “Privilege” no longer needs to do because now they’re standing up against a bully, and who doesn’t want to side with the underdog?)
Going back to the previous point, the word “Privilege” has turned into a conversation killer than automatically gets all “right thinking” people to rally behind you. It biases the conversation, and poisons the whole debate by attacking the character of the person who is arguing against whatever position the social justice advocate is advocating. In a lot of ways, it’s indirectly calling anyone who argues against the social justice stance a “Nazi” and making them argue their way out of being a Nazi in the audience’s minds. (And who listens to Nazis? Other Nazis! That’s who!) This makes the whole argument a losing struggle, and one which will almost certainly end in a meaningless mess, which is natural because…
4) The whole concept of Privilege as used on Social Media is largely meaningless anyways.
The truth is, the whole way people use Privilege in online debate is pretty much a joke. To claim someone has Privilege over others is already a racist/classist/culture-ist statement, after all, we’re all individuals with different life experiences. The first rule of respecting others is recognizing that we all (rich, poor, black, brown, white, purple, polka-dotted, etc.) have our own unique experiences that come from our unique upbringings and that we shouldn’t be trying to label people or lump them into groups. When one person whips out the “Privilege” card, they have no way to knowing what the life is like of the person they’re arguing with, and even if they do know that person, there are so many things about ourselves that we hide from those around us. Taking a stance against “Privilege” is automatically attempting to label and classify others who you don’t know, and don’t have the right to classify. (Or, if you do, they get the right to label and classify you too!)
On top of that, anyone on the internet is automatically Privileged, since most of the world barely has TV, much less internet access. So it’s already a bunch of Privileged people arguing over who is more or less Privileged, which is pretty silly, when you think about it.
Like I said, meaningless.
So, after all this, should we stop using the word Privilege and throw out the whole idea? I mean, if it’s doing as much harm as it is good, is it worth keeping around? Like anything, the answer is- it depends. As a lens for viewing society and encouraging self-reflection, I think Privilege is a pretty good tool. It really could help us to make society better by making people think about things outside of their own little Monkey Sphere.
That said, the way people are using Privilege in the social media world has to change. Using it as a tool to beat others into submission to your personal social-political agendas is just wrong, and produces the opposite of conversation and diversity. Change comes from ourselves, and being leaders, not from pushing our beliefs on others and using social peer-pressure to force them to do what we want them to do. True diversity comes from free speech, and people being allowed to say and express things that you may not agree with. While everyone has the right to comment on what others do, and should discuss issues of inequality and social justice, shutting down voices doesn’t accomplish that goal and only breeds anger and resentment.
It’s a complex issue, and I don’t claim to have the answer, but the next time someone whips out the word Privilege in a conversation, think about what effect it has and why they’re really using it. Are they using it to really promote actual discussion of inequality, or just to promote themselves?