It’s not a new conversation, although it has definitely amplified in the last five years or so, with desperately needed social actions like the #MeToo movement, and has now reached a fever pitch since the midsummer killing of George Floyd in Minnesota at the hands of police, the protests that followed and the riots that ensued.
I am referring to the question of inherent privilege. The concept carries many names, the most common is probably “white privilege“, but class privilege, gender privilege, and racial privilege are being discussed in an almost constant cycle on the 24 hour news networks and on social media in some form or fashion. The Results of all of these conversations seems to be that we, as a country, are starkly divided on the subject.
Politically I self describe as a right leaning liberal, (I would be inclined to call myself a left leaning conservative a la John McCain but the current McConnell or Trump party is not the conservative party of my youth). That said I’m not a firm believer in every tenet of inherent privilege, I do think it exists, but the “liberal intelligentsia” and I diverge pretty far on exactly what it is, and how it manifests.
Modern academia anyway says that each of us is born with an inherent level of privilege based only on our parents genetics. Somewhat predictably (at least in the US) the conceptual class with the most inherent privilege is white cis gender heterosexual males.
The theory is sound enough, we tend to treat people who are more like us better than those who are different from us. It’s not always nefarious, people more like us usually have similar interests, live in the same community, and go to the same schools. Logically then we also tend to associate & interact with people more like us as well, so because there are more straight white men than any other class in positions of power in the US, it makes sense that that group would be the most privileged. That’s oversimplified, but just in case you needed a refresher on the premise.
Where conservative outlets like Fox News and I part ways is the idea that this is a creation of “the left” exclusively designed for class or gender warfare. I don’t believe that, I believe like most well-meaning progressive concepts the idea was not to put two factions against one another, but to educate people on how they might be treating others inadvertently, then they can do some self reflection on why they haven’t considered a more diverse group of friends or coworkers, then hopefully change those bad behaviors to make a better more inclusive environment for everyone. No reasonable person could object to that. So where does it go off the rails? Why is it such a polarizing subject? That is where the media and politicians come in, both sides grasp that this concept is polarizing and then...
Weaponization, where it falls off the rails is almost always weaponization. News networks and politicians love nothing more than reminding us how the other side (those non-specific bad people over there) is infringing on your rights, or oppressing you, depending on which channel comes in clearer. They are depressingly successful at getting each side worked up into a frenzy, and convincing them that the other side is the true enemy. Inevitably the only solution is to continue to elect them and other members of their political party.
The idea of privilege when being used as a hard conversation starter and as a tool to change bigoted opinions is almost entirely positive, mainly because it does not carry with it the collateral damage that we get when these concepts are corrupted and used as a weapon. The modern incarnation of privilege is being used more like a hammer than as a conversation starter, we shout privilege at people because we don’t want to hear what they have to say. We shout it because we don’t like the things that people are doing. We literally expect individuals to apologize for the bad behavior of a group of which they happened to be a member, regardless of whether or not they participated in, enabled, or even knew about the bad behavior. It’s simple guilt by association under the auspices of mob rule.
The problem is there is absolutely no nuance. For instance, there’s no meaningful distinction within the established “privilege groups” themselves; which is to say that if you were born a man you have male privilege, if you were born white you have white privilege. What well meaning (and some not so well meaning) activists seem to inevitably miss is that it’s just never that simple.
That lack of nuance, combined with the newly established “you’re 100% with us or you’re an enemy” strategy I believe is what causes these stark divides amongst us. Imagine being born in one of the hollers of West Virginia, the last two generations live on the same plot of land that you do, and all of your male role models have worked in the coal mines for 40 years and then retired back to the same holler to live out the rest of their lives. Then you turn on the television and get told that you are more privileged than others because of your skin color. Then you think of someone like President Obama’s daughters, whose parents have more money than they could ever hope to spend, she will have the nicest things, the best education, and an opportunity to travel all over the world and see things that 7 generations of your family have and will never get to see. Then someone in a serious tone of voice says that you are oppressing people, so you get angry, very angry, because you have never lived a privileged moment of your life as far as you can remember. Then you change the channel and see someone who tells you that your rights are being taken away by the people calling you an oppressor, and the machine is fed. It never even occurred to you that even though they might have financial security they might have difficulties of their own to deal with, different from but no lesser than yours. Both sides of this argument get convinced they are 1000% right and start to only listen in the echo chamber, all they get is affirmation that what they believe is right, group think sets in and then people start to entrench.
For instance, There is no question that there are more men in corporate positions of power than women, but before we rush to call all men oppressors, consider this, if we ignore reality and just say that all fortune 500 CEOs are men, Think about what percentage of men that represents, there are roughly 175,000,000 of them in the country. So that works out to six decimal places behind the zero before a number that’s 1 or higher. Meaning the majority of men at work are in the exact same position as women, many aren’t particularly appreciated, often are underpaid, and don’t really have a lot of opportunities to advance because they’re also not an “insider”. The old stereotype of the boss only hiring his friends and relatives exists for a reason. Inevitably if you have people in positions of power some of them will behave badly, some VERY BADLY, but being mistreated in the workplace is definitely not a gender specific issue. Something that you could never surmise from the reports you see on either side's “news” networks.
Gender privilege is probably the most challenging of these to navigate, Mostly because men and women as very general groups don’t agree on exactly what they view as appropriate behavior from the opposite sex. Generally we all agree on the big things, but more banal middle of the road issues like paying for dinner, family responsibilities, professional responsibilities, etc. are not things on which everyone agrees.
I believe most people want to treat others well, and simple conversations would correct most bad behavior. But I’m not delusional, I know even public shaming or “canceling” won’t stop some people‘s bad behavior. I also believe it’s disingenuous to not acknowledge that there is a fairly large problem of females being mistreated by men, just as we need to acknowledge that every negative thing that happens to a woman is not exclusively based on gender.
So much more energy is spent convincing ourselves that the other side is just making up or at least exaggerating their problems than would be spent just hearing them out. It seems we have willingly cast ourselves in a fragile emotional catharsis that makes us unable to listen because all we can do is defensively respond to individual charges as though they are being levied specifically against us and no one else.
All of this distracts from the good intentions that were the origin of the idea of privilege, instead of using this as a tool to improve relations between people with differences, we have allowed it to be weaponized and used only as a device to silence dissent, intimidate people into compliance, and entrench ourselves so deeply in the argument that the entirety of our ego gets caught up in being right.
Even if what we are doing is wrong.