How’s that for a provocative, click bait title? I’m looking forward to seeing who will use, drawing conclusions from the title alone, combined with whatever they can make up in their imagination. Go ahead and post it on Twitter with a link to this page. Use it for calling names. Try linking to this site as a “supremacist” site of some kind.
The fail will be humorous.
I have two important points to make about the word “privilege” and its use in our modern discourse.
One purpose is moral with regard to human nature and economics.
The other purpose is linguistic and has to do with the words that we use – or should use – to maximize our promotion of an improved, more productive society and also to raise up those who could use some help in the betterment of their status within it.
Words make a difference.
And this word, “privilege” is often used wrongly in our little one-liner sight-byte internet spats.
Let’s look at the moral argument first.
Part of our current culture, especially among some groups, is to look negatively upon wealth & elevated status. This tendency has probably always been part of cultures around the world and throughout history. (See the article “Castles on the Hill”) But this tendency promotes a destructive attitude. And it does nothing to fix the problem that it complains about. It’s a tribalistic, non-egalitarian attitude that is expressed most often by those who claim to promote egalitarianism. And it’s even kind of humorous that those who adhere to it are often the same ones who worship the rich and famous of the entertainment industry who tweet the same values that they do.
Wealth, by itself, is not a “bad” thing. It certainly is not something that is necessarily taken away from someone else. Wealth is created from scratch every day. And those who cause its creation naturally hold onto some of it.
And with wealth comes a certain amount of privilege.
To prevent the abuse of that privilege is the reason someone created the concept of a republic – so that the people could collectively work to promote a proper ordering of society that will benefit everyone. If that system is not working, then we need to collectively focus our attention on those specific problems and fix them.
But “privilege” as a concept and a principle itself is not the problem.
And to attempt to make it go away would be immoral.
Let’s step through a quick example. And, in order to focus on the issues regarding the concept of “privilege” itself, let’s assume that all of the characters in the example are of the same race and/or gender or whatever demographic is our favorite thing that we use to divide ourselves in to factions.
Let’s say we have a company with a set of employees. Now, these are the kinds of employees that I myself have seen many times performing similar tasks in the same department in an average large corporation. And, for the sake of discussion let’s say that they are all decently productive employees. Now, without regard to race, gender, color, religion, or whatever demographic, there will be different kinds of people in the group:
Kind one does the task that he or she is trained and told to do, exactly according the each step of the training as it is delivered. This is perfectly acceptable and, if the company continues to prosper, they will likely do decently well in their job. In fact, a large percentage of decently acceptable employees are like this – perhaps the majority in any given department of any given company.
Kind two, when he or she finishes the given task that they were trained to do, asks their manager or team leader for more. Or perhaps they look around for other productive things to do. A person of kind two is more valuable to the company. And, to be clear, this person is inherently different from a person of kind one. They have a different attitude toward their work, toward the company, and, often, toward life in general. Sometimes, with training, you can take a person of kind one and help them to become a person of kind two. But not always. And this fact is often not appreciated by people who discuss and point out problems and attempt to think of solutions within our society.
And then there is a person of kind number three. This person not only finishes their task and looks for more, they naturally look for ways to improve the process. Maybe they go out of their way to get a better handle on the big picture of the company. If they’re in the accounting department, they sometimes get up from their desk and go out into the production shop and see how the product is made. They get to understand what management needs in order to manage the operation and build a new spreadsheet or process to compile better information.
Often, people who promote the idea of a totally egalitarian society do not recognize that these are actually different kinds of people. But it’s true. They are.
And it’s difficult to take a person of kind number one and make them a kind number two or three.
I know. I’ve tried.
And kind number three is vastly more valuable to the company (and to society in general) than kind number one, even though kind number one is perfectly acceptable for most day-to-day operations.
Now, if you actually want to promote an actual egalitarian society, there are a couple things you can attempt to do. They won’t work well. But you can attempt them anyway.
You can provide an environment that requires obedience and nothing else. This will take people of kind number two and three and make them work the same as a person of kind number one. And it will horrendously sub-optimize your productivity and the health of society, as well as the health of your employees who want to do more than just obey orders. This is the first immoral choice.
The next immoral choice is to let each kind of employee work at the level and in the way that they prefer, with some being, in fact, more valuable than others, but just not recognizing their differences and not rewarding their greater value with greater pay. This is the immoral choice that companies very often choose. And it is the immoral choice that is often forced upon them by labor unions and other standardization rules for certain kinds of tasks.
In the above scenarios, people of different abilities and different attitudes are productive to differing amounts of value. They produce their own “privilege” or lack thereof, depending upon their situation.
But the real “privilege” comes with the next generation.
Some of all three kinds of people will have kids.
The kids of kind number three, if their parents are successful in attaining the recognition that their true value deserves, will automatically be born into a more privileged position than the kids of kind number one.
And there is no moral thing that you can do that will change that fact. It is immoral and destructive to society to try to “fix” the resulting privilege in any way that you can attempt to implement.
So let’s look at the linguistic purpose for this discussion:
Privilege is not really the word you’re looking for if you want to fix inequity.
To look at “privileged” people and say, “check your privilege” is not useful. They, for the most part in society, and especially with regard to all of the above examples, are not the source of the problem.
If you look at them and tell them that they are somehow being “unfair” and use words that imply that they are the source of the problem, all you will do is to alienate them. You will not have them on your side. They will vote against you.
But none of us should ignore the fact that there are, in fact, people in society who, due to some happenstance of their birth, whether it’s prejudice against them due to their race (which does, in fact, still happen) or whether it’s their childhood neighborhood and associates, or a physical disability or whatever, are born and raised in a position of exclusion from some of the opportunities that others have had.
Perhaps some of such people would be of type three if they had been born into different circumstances.
We should recognize that how we are raised has a lot to do with what we become.
It’s not everything.
In the “nurture versus nature” dichotomy of our development, some of it is, in fact, in our DNA and some of us will not have certain traits and abilities that others of us have no matter what happens or how we grow up.
But a portion of what we are is definitely due to our environment – whether or not we were born into some or another of that “privilege” that we, as children, could not have chosen, and that it is not the moral right of society to eliminate.
So, in order to properly focus on the problem, we should change the words that we use.
The “privilege” of some is not the problem. Because they are the ones who very often have what it is right for them to have. They have what those lacking in “privilege” are lacking.
So our language should focus on fixing the disfranchisement and exclusion of those who should not be disenfranchised and excluded.
When we tweet “check your privilege” the automatic subconscious (or conscious) reaction of the recipient is the idea that they have done something wrong. But this is not right. And it is even immoral to attempt to eliminate much of the “privilege” that they may have been born into.
It might not fit as well into our internet one-liners. But we should focus on raising up the people who ought to be raised up and not on spouting our little twitter-based spat at those who are not the ones who are in need of having their situation improved. If, where it is necessary and appropriate, we instead offer reminders that there are people who ought to have better opportunities in life, we will meet with a much more positive response.