The changing meaning of ‘privilege’

The following is from an exchange of e-mails with a friend of mine about an essay by Matthew Crawford, a writer I admire, on the topic of “Privilege.” 

Hello, [Friend]:

    “Privilege” has always been a fraught word for me.  I was brought up to believe that I was a privileged person, and that I had obligations beyond the ordinary to “give back” to society.

    In the high school I attended, a large fraction of students dropped out when they reached the age of 16 because their families wanted them to get jobs.

     In those days, graduation from college was not a universal ambition.  Staying in high school long enough to graduate was considered an achievement.  Very few of us went on to college.

     I was one of the few—predestinated because of the choices of my parents—and therefore in those days (the 1950s) assured of a comfortable middle-class life.  I have been aware throughout my life that I did nothing to deserve having a better fate than my classmates who dropped out of school.

     I was taught from a young age by my parents, teachers and Sunday School teachers that prejudice and discrimination against Negroes (as they were called then), Jews and Catholics was morally wrong.  I came to understand the evils of male chauvinism, homophobia and prejudice against transgendered people about the same time as most liberal education straight white men did.

     I never thought of immunity from prejudice and discrimination as a “privilege.”  I thought of it as something that everyone should enjoy.  The fact that I can drive at night through [a certain suburb] without fear of police harassment does not necessarily mean that some black person has to suffer police harassment in my place.

     It is true that what you call “presumption of competence” is a kind of privilege.  I hadn’t thought of it in exactly that phrase.  But, yes, it true, in competition for scarce resources, such as jobs, I as a straight white Anglo cisgendered male enjoy an unearned advantage over someone who is  gay, black, Hispanic, transgendered, female or some combination.

    Of course such privilege I enjoy is much less than the privilege the privilege of those born to inherited wealth and legacy admissions to elite universities – people such as George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and Donald J. Trump.   They begin life from a position of wealth and power that was out of reach for most people after a lifetime of effort.    The chief means by which people are sorted into social and economic classes are (1) inherited wealth and (2) educational credentials.

     For at least 40 years, a tiny minority of people at the top of the economic and social pyramid have been leveraging their advantages to amass wealth and power at the expense of everybody else.  Most (not all] members of this group are white males, but the vast majority of people, including white males, do not benefit from this group’s privileges.

     I think I have the same problems as Matthew Crawford with the current use of the world “privilege.”  First, it is limited usefulness in addressing the problems arising from racism.  To change the practices of Irondequoit police (assuming that is a problem – I don’t have specific information about that town) requires efforts by people in authority in [that suburb] and by the citizens of [that suburb].  They may be racists or racially prejudiced; they may simply be indifferent.   If I am part of the problem, it is to the extent that I am too lazy or cowardly to take on the duties of citizenship, not my white privilege.

     Second, the use of the word “privilege” to refer to the benefits of being a straight white male erases the old meaning of the word.  I am a white male; the CEO of Goldman Sachs is a white male; therefore, according to the new meaning of the world, we occupy the same position in society.

     The word “diversity” can be used as a cover for defense of privilege in the old sense.  (Of course I do not accuse you of doing this.)  The problem then becomes not the gap between the people are the pinnacle of society and the vast majority, but the lack of women, people of color, LGBTQX people and so on at the top.

     Diversifying the power elite would be a good thing, not a bad thing, but it wouldn’t change the nature of the power elite.    “Diversity training,” as I experienced it at Gannett 20 to 30 years ago, seemed to me to be more an exercise in divide and rule than anything else.

     Matthew Crawford’s argument, as I understand it, is that the great push for diversity at elite universities is, in practice, a means to divide and rule.  It is used as a red herring to divert attention from those who hold the real power in American society.

     That is why large corporations welcome diversity.  To challenge the privileges of the elite—what the Occupy movement called the 1 percent, although they probably are closer to 0.1 percent—requires solidarity among the rest of us.

     None of this is to deny the existence of prejudice and discrimination against women, people of color, immigrants, people in the LGBTQX categories and so on.  Solidarity means everybody working against police abuse of black people, sexual abuse of women and all the other oppressions that various groups suffer, within the context of a vision of the good of all.


Privilege by Matthew Crawford for The Hedgehog Review.

Privilege, class and diversity by Alex Small for Physicist-at-Large.

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3 Responses to “The changing meaning of ‘privilege’”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I have the privilege of free access to the Oxford English Dictionary using the number on my county library ticket. This wondweful resource makes clear that words don’t change meaning so much as add new ones. The English language doesn’t simply bend to governments, pressure-groups and social media. In its written form it evolves, it’s an historical record, like all printed material and manuscripts before that.

    “Privilege”, I’d suggest, has joined the arsenal of weaponized words. A reader added a long comment on my latest post, in response to my invitation to do just that, but I had to remove it as being too off-topic. Here are some extracts:

    [your article] seems to consider all material life as equal, and that’s a message steeped in privilege. For many of us who still have hopes of being treated fairly and are consigned to the edges by gender, class and/or skin tone, the game is worth the fight…
    … in our legal culture women are less important than flies, and when they are choked, beaten, broken and otherwise assaulted, the law still doesn’t actually do much. If, that is, the man assaulting them is from “a good family.” (If he’s black, he’s locked up for life.) …
    You see, in the US, young boys of 17, 19,* and much much older – quite old “boys” some of them – are assaulting and raping women still, and if they come from privileged families, they’re scolded, declared good, and set free

    I don’t have any problem in being labelled as “privileged”. I’m retired so I have a lot of time to spare doing exactly what I like, unlike those who struggle to survive, whether from physical need or passive submission to the economic system. I would prefer to think I now enjoy various types of blessing.

    My correspondent (we’ve known one another online for ten years) is privileged too, in the sense I believe she intends it. My spouse happens to be a black woman from Jamaica who arrived here 13 years ago. In that way she missed the racism faced by immigrants in the Seventies—which has never been anything like that faced by blacks in the States. She has exactly the same privileges as I. Both of us had the privilege of a good education, but there you are.

    But this is not the point. What weaponizes the word “privilege” is its use by some of its number who make sweeping assertions about others’ lack of privilege. Implicit in their attitude is that the “under-privileged (by reason of being black, female etc etc) are ipso facto helpless victims who required the privileged (e.g. white liberals of good family) to campaign on their behalf.
    My correspondent adds:

    in the US, young boys of 17, 19, and much much older – quite old “boys” some of them – are assaulting and raping women still

    I wonder what she means by the word “still”. I suspect she wants to justify her continued campaign of activism against “privileged” men.

    Perhaps needless to say, she’s enraged by the thought that Brett Kavanaugh might “get away with it”, which from my point of view is taking sides without knowing the facts, which may or may not emerge in due course.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Vincent Says:

    There do seem now to be some facts about Kavanaugh which could make the alleged assault against the woman or women irrelevant: see this piece in The Daily Telegraph with supporting documentation and the personal experience of its journalist author :
    It seems to implicate the FBI rather negatively. I would be interested in your thoughts, Phil.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. philebersole Says:

    I started to write a long comment and then decided to use it as a separate post.

    The friend that you quote seems like she may be speaking out of bitter personal experience.

    Sexual abuse of women and young boys seems to be everywhere – in show business, in prisons, in the Catholic church, among Congressional pages, in the arts and sciences and on college campuses.

    I don’t know what to make of all this. I don’t have a good way to separate actual crimes from mere offensive behavior or from misunderstandings and lies.

    I think there needs to be a better way to deal with sexual abuse than in a court of public opinion in session on the Internet, but I don’t have anything to propose.

    I do believe that Dr. Ford is telling the truth of her experience. But I would not judge anyone by the worst thing they ever did or said, but by the totality of the person’s life.

    I think a Supreme Court justice should be someone of outstanding wisdom, learning and character, and, looking at the totality of Brett Kavanaugh’s life, I think he falls short of that standard.

    Liked by 1 person

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