Problems With Privilege
Posted by Pete Hague on 20 Aug 2012
Today I was speaking with various people on twitter about the subject of "privilege" - a concept I have been skeptical of since first hearing about. User @anarchic_teapot claimed that I did not understand the concept properly, and directed me to an article explaining it. I've read this, and here I will review and critique it. I shall do so by sections, using the headings from the article itself
Many times people have used this concept in debate with me, they have done so in a combative manner, which may have influenced my judgement of the idea. If someone labels me "white, male, straight, cisgender…" in the course of an argument, it sounds very much like an ad hominem attack, and a pretty disgraceful one at that, seeing as it focuses on aspects of my self that are rightfully considered off limits for discrimination in civilised society.
This doesn't automatically invalidate the argument, of course - if somebody obnoxious present irrefutable evidence of their position, I've no rational choice but to accept it. However, if your argument requires even the slightest bit of good faith from me (and the vast majority do, unless you fancy annotating, with good quality peer reviewed work, every single statement you make) then you would do well not to begin making your case by ragging on me for my ethnicity and sexual orientation.
Social Structure and Hierarchy
The article starts of by stating that hierarchies in society, and that these arise initially out of utility (the most capable people having the highest status thus being able to contribute most) but then change into something different:
This is an intriguing hypothesis - but there is no attempt here to back it up with observational evidence. I don't know much about sociology or anthropology (including which of these disciplines would be best suited to assess this idea) - so I wouldn't be very good at assessing evidence if it were presented; however there isn't even an attempt here.
I don't think this is necessarily because there is a lack of evidence (the hypothesis sounds at least plausible to me) - but that this concept stems from a field of study where evidence isn't central. As I have blogged about before, there are different ideas about intellectualism aside from the scientific method. However, it would be nice if there were somewhere that explained what evidence there is behind this model.
Social Determinants of Privilege and Right
This section merely explains that "laws, rules, customs and conventions" exist to enforce the hierarchy that has developed as above - and that what originally arose to improve the function of society ends up being about preserving the social order. If I am to temporarily grant a pass on the underlying hypothesis, I accept that this follows fairly naturally.
Individual Capacity and Social Privilege
This part I find rather unsettling.
I had been led to believe the concept of 'privilege' was used to support egalitarian positions (and although I dislike the concept, I am quite egalitarian.) Then suddenly, things start to sound a bit social darwinists. I hadn't realised that classifying people on a scale of weak to strong was involved. A previous blog post of mine explains one of the reasons I find this very problematic.
Furthermore, in this model, assessment of who is "strong" and who is "weak" cannot be carried out by the ordinary means (such as educational assessment) because these means are part of the system for enforcing privilege. So the obvious question is, how do you determine who is weak and who is strong?
In absence of a good answer in this document, I think it is most likely to be the a subjective matter. The speaker using the concept of privilege, as described here, gets to label people weak or strong as it suits them. If someone they label as "privileged" points out that their actual lack of status in society, for instance, they can be dismissed as "weak", whereas the speaker can label themselves "strong" independent of any outside assessment of whether or not they are on the basis of their being "marginalised" i.e. lacking privilege. This strikes me as a dangerous intellectual trap to fall into, taken to an extreme you can convince yourself you are a misunderstood genius and anyone who disagrees with you is an utter moron.
The Role of Structure in Traditional and Developing Societies
In this section, "traditional" means a society where hierarchies purely to perpetuate themselves, and "developing" means a society where they exist in order to facilitate progress.
Once more, hypotheses about how society works are stated (or, more charitably, argued) as facts, without reference to observations of human society. This is worse here as three real world cases are mentioned; the swift economic development in Japan - which seriously stalled some time ago, but lets assume this document is a big dated - and the comparative economic success of the European societies in North America and Australia relative to those that remained in Europe.
Even granting the initial hypothesis, this doesn't have to follow. North America and Australia both had immense natural resources, and geographic isolation from many wars. No such simple alternative explanation for Japan's period of economic growth springs to mind, but Japan is of course a unique and complex society, so I would be hesitant to apply a single cause to its socioeconomic progress.
According to this document, the concept of privilege provides a complete explanation of world events, without considering other factors that might have come into play. Not only is the initial hypothesis not supported here with observational evidence, but neither the correlations nor the causations implied here are. There is merely anecdotal reference to events, and flat statement that the cause of them is entirely understood.
Responses of the Underprivileged to Extension of Privilege
Here the alarming suggestion is made that the currently underprivileged (also referred to elsewhere as the "marginalised") might not cope with the becoming privileged themselves through social progress.
Again, no evidence is offered, only argument - and that argument seems strikingly paternalistic, and rather arrogant.
Psychological Structure of Privilege
In the final section, the "policeman inside our heads" concept is put forward. The underprivileged have apparently internalised the structures which create privilege.
Once again world events are referenced; this time the independence of India can be explained entirely through the need to conquer the psychological structures imposed on Indians by the British Empire. The two world wars which fatally weakened said Empire do not get a look in. This seems a rather simplistic view of history to me, but I am not a historian.
I accept the concept of privilege is internally self-consistent, and that there are objective differences between (subjectively delimited) groups in society. I am still not convinced that this idea is truly applicable to reality though. My main problems with this version of privilege are:
1. No reference to observation. Much is stated, but no quantitative evidence is supplied. Sorry, but I like data.
2. Apparently subjective concepts of 'weak' and 'strong'. To me, this is far more divisive and discriminatory than the structure that those promoting the concept of privilege claim to fight.
3. Claims to be able to explain world events completely and definitively. People claiming to be able to do this, I generally regard with great suspicion, be they Marxists or end-of-history neoliberals.
4. The vanguardism/paternalism of suggesting that the holder of this concept knows what is better for underprivileged people than those people themselves.
I look forward to any responses.
Posted by anarchic_teapot on 20 Aug 2012
I think the choice of the word "privilege" by whoever first described the phenomenon (I first encountered it in biology) was in some ways an unfortunate one. It does have unpleasant connotations, even though none are actually intended.
The trouble with understanding social privilege while being a straight, white cisgender male is that you don't realise the existence of this privilege society confers on you. It's like oxygen: something you don't notice until it's not there any more.
A good example which I hope as few of you experience as possible, is the loss of privilege entailed by going from able-bodied to disabled. That's when you realise just how much society is oriented to the young and fit. It's not just stairs without lifts or ramps, nor not being allowed onto the bus because there's already someone in a wheelchair aboard. It's also people talking over your head, pretending you don't exist (I recall a Radio 4 documentary on the subject, entitled "Do He Take Sugar?") and social/medical services expecting you to travel in to appointments, while providing no means to travel or anywhere to park once you're there.
Oh and when you're disabled it's also harder to get a job, even if the disability is relatively mild.
In the long run, railing against the concept of privilege as being "divisive and discriminatory" is attacking the wrong enemy. If you don't like discrimination based on gender, colour or whatever, don't try to silence those who talk about it: put an end to that discrimination.
Being in a position to make others' lives better is also social privilege. See? Not all privilege is automatically "bad".
Posted by Pete on 20 Aug 2012
I have no debate with the fact that specific instance of discrimination are wrong, nor with changing legislating structures to promote equality.
However, as the document you directed me to makes clear - the concept of privilege goes much further than that. It seems to me to have pretensions to being a unified theory of the human condition, and is based on philosophical argument rather than systematic observation of how humans actually are (rather than anecdote.) It isn't hard for me to see why people trying to promote such a concept in a skeptical movement have met such resistance.
A further problem is the approach normally used to articulate the idea (which you've sort of followed in your tweets to me, and your response here)
A) State that privileged can't be perceived by your subject because, due to their race/gender/orientation etc., its 'like oxygen'
B) Ask them to accept the existence of this concept on the basis of rhetorical argument, rather than systematic evidence.
By targeting the persons in born characteristics in step A, you undermine the good faith that would be needed to have any chance of getting them to accept the ideas you present in step B - and in the skeptical community step B would be a hard well anyway because that community values the scientific method (with observational evidence) far more than pure argument.
Posted by Tony Ryan on 20 Aug 2012
I know that I'm very privileged.
I'm able-bodied, white, male, European, well-educated. All things that allow me the opportunities that some people can only dream of.
This privilege has afforded me the luxury of choice, and I have chosen a career that enables me to help people with far less privilege and opportunity.
Privilege exists, and always will, but to use it as an insult against someone, or to dismiss their point of view because of their position as a 'privileged' individual is a huge problem.
I know that, because of who I am, my birthplace, my gender, my race, my expensive education, my health, my opportunities, and my experiences, that I could never always empathis with everyone, or see things from their point of view without my own egocentricity having an effect.
However, I do expect to be afforded the respect that my point of view is equally valid, and that although I'm statistically nowhere near as likely to be raped (unless I go to prison, where that likelihood rises) I can still have a valid opinion on the objective nature of what effect rape has on people, and how sexualisation and dismissal of others can lead to a perpetuation of a problem.
Simply put, it's the dismissal of people in 'privilege' by those who are less so (albeit still often very privileged themselves) has caused a rift. When people on both sides can accept and openly admit to those mistakes, we can all get back to working together.
Posted by anarchic_teapot on 21 Aug 2012
I expressed myself badly: I should have said something like "don't often realise". Too often, I come up against a cognitive barrier - on various subjects - which broadly boils down to: "I don't understand it, therefore it cannot exist".
The argument that everything should follow the scientific method is a simplistic and inaaplicable rule, and those who employ it - if such exist - play directly into the hands of the quacks and charlatans who often accuse us of exactly this.
Should you wish evidence, there is plenty: starting with the well-documented fact that women are systematically paid less to do the same job as a men (the feminisation of a profession generally sees individual practitioners' income plummet e.g. law and accountancy) and have a higher rate of unemployment.
Similar tests have been done for white/non-white. Experiments have been carried out with two identical CVs being sent for job applications, one with a local-sounding name, the other more exotic. The candidate presumed to be coloured got significantly fewer offers for interviews. All this can no doubt be found on the Web.
As for the privilege of being straight & cisgender: the reaction of one of the Twitter participants - mocking me and saying I dressed like a clown, when all I said was that my style of dress cast doubt on my gender - surely gave you an idea of what LGBT folk go through. And I'm lucky. Most of my friends have deep scars, physical and/or emotional. A far higher proportion of LGBT youngsters suffer bullying than straights; approximately 25% of the homeless youth in the USA are LGBT. Yet they represent 10% or less of the population.
I won't bother to cite links. there are plenty of documents available online. There's a EU study that closed recently, so it will be interesting to see the results when they're published - hopefully soon.
So anyway: sometimes privilege is not being bullied or exploited for what you are. Lucky you. I don't want to take it away, but it would be nice if everybody could have access to that privilege.
Posted by AdamTM on 21 Aug 2012
"So anyway: sometimes privilege is not being bullied or exploited for what you are. Lucky you. I don't want to take it away, but it would be nice if everybody could have access to that privilege."
If everybody could have access to the privilege, it wouldn't be privilege.
Not to mention that vision is entirely utopian.
"starting with the well-documented fact that women are systematically paid less to do the same job as a men (the feminisation of a profession generally sees individual practitioners' income plummet e.g. law and accountancy) and have a higher rate of unemployment."
That is true, although these studies and their conclusion have been contested recently (at least in western society). Especially since a documented fact that women are paid less and are more often unemployed is not an argument for or against privilege in of itself.
Similarly for gays and transgendered, if you want to define "privilege" as "being bullied less" that is not sufficient, as privilege, in a philosophical sense in context of rights, is strictly speaking equivocal to liberty which is not contingent on a negative in its definition.
Everybody has the privilege to not be bullied for example under human rights, cisgendered and heterosexual do not have the privilege -to- bully however, not societally nor legally.
Again, the data showing that its happening more to one population than another is not in itself a proof of privilege, as you would need to demonstrate a necessary cause instead of a correlation.
Posted by Pete on 21 Aug 2012
The problem with using large group statistics to derive a hypothesis (privilege) that says things about individual humans is the large variation in human circumstances.
Whilst I certainly have advantages from membership in certain groups, knowing this doesn't tell you to what extend I personally have been helped by them.
For example; you could argue that being male made it more likely for me to do a PhD at Leicester (gender ratio in my office is consistent with undergraduate intake ratio for a physics degree, but that is only about 25% female) - however, I probably wouldn't have been able to go back to university at 26 without the support of my wife, who I met by total chance after bumping into mutual friends whilst walking home one day, who then invited me out for a drink.
The null hypothesis for why a person has a particular position (either a job, or a social position i.e. being less likely to be bullied) in society has to be coincidence and dumb luck. To show privilege, you would have to show that for each specific case, a socioeconomic category played more of a part than random chance. The ordinary framing of the concept of 'privilege' doesn't attempt this.
I'm going to close this conversation now, as I want it preserved whilst at a length that is readable and potentially interesting to newcomers. I'm happy to continue the discussion but I think it should now move to twitter and to response blogs.
If any of you posts such blogs, I shall add the links to the end of this comment.