• Making Sense of ‘Privilege’.


    Fellow SINner Rebecca Bradley wrote a post the other day about the notion of privilege that comes from Critical Race Theory (CRT):

    And so, it seems to me, the idea of privilege was reincarnated from its earlier formulations in order to rationalize the hostility that is requisite to Critical Race Theory: white privilege, a mystical quality that magically infuses each and every white skin with power, whatever the owner’s actual circumstances; and incidentally turns the owner of that white skin into a by-definition racist, regardless of his or her personal beliefs or behaviour.


    CRT’s illiberalism is unpalatable, and it appears to be rather dogmatic. Any critique is just a symptom of privilege-blindness made only by those who “don’t get it” betraying their biases. “Listen to the [minority]!”, we are told, as if the voices of all members of that minority are in perfect synchronisation with each other. What is really meant by this is that we should listen only to those who agree with CRT (and similar belief systems), and whatever we are told by them we should accept without question (including normative statements and moral pronouncements which require philosophical inquiry in addition to the empirical data we are too biased to observe for ourselves).


    A Meaningful Concept of Privilege?

    So should we dispense with the idea of ‘privilege’ altogether? Surely not. As a citizen of the United Kingdom I can vote in political elections while non-citizens (with exceptions of course, but please go with me on this!) cannot. That’s a privilege afforded to citizens over non-citizens. Another kind of privilege which seems plausible is the ‘privileged upbringing’ or ‘privileged circumstances’ of certain folks – ‘getting a head start in life’ somehow. I certainly feel privileged when I buy a Vanilla Latte from Starbucks or watch the World news.

    Science fiction writer John Scalzi provides an oft-quoted analogy: Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is. According to Scalzi, the three axis of privilege, straightness, whiteness and maleness are akin to playing on ‘Easy’ in a video game. Wealth is an attribute, like intelligence or strength. However to my mind the analogy is very weak indeed.

    Firstly, why is wealth an attribute and not a function of the difficulty level? If you have plenty of capital in a capitalist system then you ‘have it easy’ compared to someone who has nothing. So starting with capital (i.e. wealth) is like playing on Easy mode compared to someone who starts with nothing, who is presumably playing on Hard. That chimes with actual video games – starting wealth is usually tied to the difficulty and not to attributes like intelligence.

    What about things like skin colour or sexuality? Well, one doesn’t choose their race, and so if they find themselves discriminated against on the basis of their race then that certainly makes things harder. But for this to work we must talk specifics – it is entirely possible for someone to go through their life without being discriminated against, or for members of social groups not usually associated with being discriminated against to be so. Someone has had a hard life on the basis of oppression if and only if they have actually been oppressed, and they have been oppressed if and only if there is some sensible instance of that oppression. Furthermore, ‘privileged’ is a relative term. It makes little sense unless we have some idea who the privileged person is privileged over, and how exactly they are privileged over them.

    An Outline of an Idea of Privilege

    So I am privileged compared to people who were raised in poverty because I grew up in a relatively wealthy household. While they couldn’t afford university, I went to four; without my parents’ funding I wouldn’t have been able to. I gained knowledge and qualifications that those raised in poverty were unable to attain, through no fault of their own. And that’s just one example. Has my white skin ever provided me with privilege over another? The truth is I don’t know, and neither does the CRTist, however much they might pretend to. Has my maleness helped? Not that I’ve ever noticed – my two sisters have reaped the privilege of our upbringing to the same degree that I have. Again, someone claiming that I’m ‘playing on Easy’ compared to my sisters must provide instances of some benefit afforded by my maleness. It isn’t enough to talk averages if you’re talking about me (or anyone else) in particular. Similarly I have black cousins (I won’t say ‘cousins of colour’ – sorry!) on both sides of my family. To date I’ve not noticed an advantage I hold over them. They have had easy upbringings just as I have. Yes, there may be epistemic barriers in my way, but that’s true of anything. I haven’t experienced ‘God’s love’ either, but I have no problem questioning His existence. I recommend this article for more on ‘epistemological privilege’.

    To summarise my view of privilege:

    P is privileged over Q in context C iff P has some right, immunity or benefit R over Q in C.

    This differs from the SJW version of privilege, which can be summed up thus:

    P has x-privilege iff P belongs to ‘privileged’ category x.

    So my questions for commenters are:

    Is my view of privilege defensible, or at least more defensible than the CRT-SJW view? If not, why not? Can you think of a more plausible one?

    Answers to these questions, as well as any other thoughts you have are more than welcome.

    Category: Philosophy

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.