Liberals are so busy confessing and denouncing privilege they’ve forgotten to fix it

Who is loudest?
Who is loudest?
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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When an author writes a book about privilege, many questions quickly arise: How privileged is the author, and are they self-aware of their privilege? What is their socioeconomic background, and what disadvantages have they overcome? If she thinks talking about privilege is overdone, is that because she herself is privileged? Or is she privileged because she thinks talking about her own privilege accomplishes something?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s new book The Perils of Privilege, to be published in March 2017, mostly avoids discussing Bovy’s personal privilege, or lack thereof. That’s because, according to Bovy, the main peril of privilege is that it can quickly transform discussions about structural inequality and injustice into pointless rounds of personal confessions and attacks. “The term ‘privilege’ is a magic potion that turns otherwise dreary ideological debates into pile-ons,” Bovy argues.

Privilege makes injustice personal; it connects structural inequality to personal moral failings. This can generate powerful critiques. But the debate around discussing privilege—both for and against—can also act like a stink bomb, spraying nasty odors everywhere without accomplishing much. Privilege rhetoric and the denunciation of privilege rhetoric often engender the same futility, as both tend to sideline more useful discussions and analyses.

To prove this point, we need not look further than Justine Sacco’s 2013 tweet about AIDS in Africa. The insensitive tweet set off a firestorm of recrimination and counter-recrimination, and earned brow-furrower Jon Ronson a book deal. Careers were destroyed, careers were made—but none of this helped or effectively raised awareness about AIDS prevention efforts. Per activist Andrea Smith, “as the rituals of confessing privilege have evolved, they have shifted our focus from building social movements for global transformation to individual self-improvement.”

Part of the problem, says Bovy, is that most accusations of privilege currently happen online. On the web, where connections are often casual and many are semi- or completely anonymous, it’s easy to “assume that the person you’re talking to is way more privileged than they are,” says Bevy. But when two people are interacting in person, she says, “it’s generally quite clear who’s the more posh one.”

Another difficulty is that it’s easy to use privilege as a form of one-upmanship—a way to prove yourself the true voice of the people by attacking selective aspects of another person’s past or argument. This is how you get Meghan McCain, daughter of a US senator, tweeting about how Meryl Streep is out of touch with the real America. Or you get elite colleges vocally committed to teaching students about privilege even as they jettison need-blind admissions and reject students who cannot pay full tuition. Privilege can be used in certain situations to hold the powerful accountable. But it can also be used as a way for the haves to justify and protect what they already have.

As a solution, Bovy suggests jettisoning “privilege” as a term, and returning to sturdy terms like racism, sexism, and class inequality. These discussions can be very contentious too, but at least most people clearly understand what they’re being accused of when they’re called sexist. Privilege, in contrast, is a relatively amorphous accusation.

The problem with abandoning privilege rhetoric entirely, however, is that few other terms directly address the myth of meritocracy. “You get what you deserve” is a seductive philosophy, especially in the US. Here, the Horatio Alger narrative suggests that hard work and determination can make anyone a millionaire. (Or a billionaire. Or president.) “Privilege as a concept is useful, in pointing out that inequality is real,” Bovy acknowledges. Privilege is a way of talking about the fact that bad outcomes are not just or deserved. Society is unfair; if your parents are rich, or white, you’re likely to have benefited from advantages others did not have.

The hope is that by talking about privilege, people will come to understand the ways in which injustice works, and try to change it. But awareness doesn’t necessarily lead to action. In light of the 2016 US election, Bovy says, “it’s become more clear that the problem isn’t that straight white Christian men don’t know that those qualities are advantageous, it’s more that they want to keep them as advantageous to them as they are now.”

People generally feel that they worked hard for what they presently own; everyone with any power has some stake in meritocracy. The message “undeserving immigrants are taking our stuff” is powerful because folks often feel, viscerally, that someone else is getting too much. Maybe some people can be convinced otherwise with sufficient effort and goodwill on both sides. But it’s unlikely that any amount of education and discussion is going to lead Peter Thiel to embrace radical wealth redistribution.

Bovy worries that discussions about privilege have made it “no longer socially acceptable to criticize racism or sexism without affixing a point-weakening disclaimer about the legitimate cultural and economic resentments of Trump’s white male supports.” But is that a result of privilege rhetoric? Or has there always been huge social pressure to downplay racism and sexism?

It seems like proponents and critics both expect too much from discussions of privilege. No one rhetorical change is going to upend society. But by the same token, “privilege checking” didn’t push voters deeply concerned about gender inequality to embrace a serial sexual abuser.

Bovy’s book is excellent at enumerating the problems with privilege rhetoric. But, at times, she attributes too much to the rhetoric’s magnetic power. As Bovy says, talking about privilege won’t end injustice, and neither will ceasing to talk about it. Denouncing privilege, and denouncing privilege rhetoric, are both limited endeavors. Hopefully, recognizing this reality will encourage us to use more effective strategies to talk about class, marginalized people, and power.