Originally posted on February 21, 2011
Edited on August 30, 2012
Privilege is defined as:
- a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich.
- a special right, immunity, or exemption granted to persons in authority or office to free them from certain obligations or liabilities: the privilege of a senator to speak in Congress without danger of a libel suit.
- a grant to an individual, corporation, etc., of a special right or immunity, under certain conditions.
- the principle or condition of enjoying special rights or immunities.
- any of the rights common to all citizens under a modern constitutional government: We enjoy the privileges of a free people.
- an advantage or source of pleasure granted to a person: It’s my privilege to be here.
- Stock Exchange. an option to buy or sell stock at a stipulated price for a limited period of time, including puts, calls, spreads, and straddles.
As one can see, that is lot of meanings for one word, but at its core “privilege” simply means that a person receives a benefit or advantage he would otherwise not receive. However, what most people mean when they use the term “privilege” is this:
[. . .] a special entitlement to immunity granted by the state or another authority to a restricted group, either by birth or on a conditional basis. It can be revoked in certain circumstances. [. . .] In a broader sense, “privilege” can refer to special powers or de facto immunities held as a consequence of political power or wealth. Privilege of this sort may be transmitted by birth into a privileged class or achieved through individual actions.
The key difference in the definitions is that the latter implies that the privilege is unearned and undeserved. Another difference is the insinuation that a person who receives the privilege is complicit in the creation or perpetuation of it. Both notions are necessary to theories about “privilege” because the theories fault social structures—and proxy the people who created those structures—as the cause for such privileges. After all, someone must be responsible, and in order for most theories about “privilege” to work, it must be many someones. The theories only work if one presumes that all members of a group possess an unfair advantage and that they benefit at someone else’s expense.
There are a number of problems with that kind of absolutism, which others discussed elsewhere. The general problem is that some of the things called “privileges” are not actually privileges.
One of the best examples of this is the Male Privilege Checklist. The list is less a list of male privilege than it is a list of female disprivilege. While some of the items on the list are examples of advantages men have, most are actually disadvantages women experience. The author conflates advantages and disadvantages, but they are not the same thing. One can experience disadvantage without the other person receiving an advantage.
Let us use an analogy. Let us say a family has two kids. The parents set proper rules and boundaries for their son: he has a curfew, must keep up his grades, do his chores, and as a result receives rewards for his good behavior. However, his sister has no boundaries, receives no punishment for breaking the rules, and generally gets a pass on any chores. One could speculate about the circumstances causing this, but let us assume there is no rational reason for the kids to receive different treatment. If so, then this would be an example of privilege: the girl receives more than the boy does.
Let us say the girl does have appropriate boundaries: she must obey the rules, do her chores, get good grades, and so on. Her brother, however, gets scolded regardless of his behavior. He is constantly punished, physically assaulted, not allowed to go outside, to attend school, to eat when he is hungry, to use the bathroom, and so on. If we follow the political definition of “privilege,” we should conclude that the girl is privileged. She does receive more than her brother, and one could even argue that she receives more at his expense. However, would we actually consider the second example an instance of privilege?
No. We would not do so because the girl only receives what she ought to. She ought to have appropriate boundaries and receive non-abusive punishment when she breaks rules. She ought to keep her grades up and do her chores. She ought to earn rewards for her good behavior. This is the default that most people expect and want children to have. To argue that receiving the expected and desired experience is de facto “privilege” is illogical. “Privilege” cannot just rest on a person receiving more than someone else because that would mean any instance of that would be an example of privilege, and as shown above that just does not parse.
Yet that is the core of the political concept of “privilege.”
Looking at the second case again, we see that it is actually an example of disprivilege. The boy receive less than he ought to. Few people would think the boy ought to be abused, starved, or denied basic freedoms. Most people would agree that by default everyone deserves basic rights and respect. Denying that for some is not the same as giving it to others. To deny the boy decent treatment does not mean his sister is privileged because she received decent treatment.
We also would not consider the second case an example of privilege for another obvious reason: doing so would fault the girl. She is in no way responsible for her parents’ actions. She “benefited” from their abusive behavior to the extent that she was not abused, but not being abused is not a privilege. She is “complicit” in the abuse to the extent that she did not put an end to it, but that is not her responsibility. It would be admirable for her to step in and protect her brother, but no one would expect her to, nor would most people fault her for not doing so (assuming she is still a child).
Yet those who use the term “privilege” appear to assume that any advantage, real or perceived, means a person is always privileged. Perceived is a key term because some things look like unfair advantages for others when one is disadvantaged. That perception allows one to see whatever one wants to see. It allows one to paint the world in stark black-and-white terms. While that provides some level of comfort to those who feel maligned, it detracts from the actual situation. Advantages and disadvantages rarely occur in such stark contrast. They exist on a spectrum, and they hit three major points: privilege, disprivilege, and privilege at someone’s expense/disprivilege to someone’s benefit.
For example, let us say a parent has two kids and ten pieces of candy to give to the kids. The fair split would be five for one kid and five for the other.
Let us say the parent gives one kid five pieces, but gives the other kid seven (the parent must have been holding out, stingy bastard). That would be an example of privilege. One kid received more than the other. Let us assume there is no valid reason for one kid receiving more. If all things are equal, it is unfair for one kid to receive more than the other does.
So if a man is allowed to voice his opinion during a meeting while a woman is not, when normally neither would be allowed to do so, that is an example of privilege. The key is that the person must get something he would otherwise not receive and has not earned. That can come from bias or favoritism, but it must be something wholly undeserved. If the man created the presentation, therein earning the right to give his opinion during the meeting, he is not privileged if the woman is not allowed to speak.
What if one kid receives five pieces while the other kid only gets three? This would certainly look like an example of privilege to the kid who received less. However, it is not; it is disprivilege. This is because the first kid received exactly what he was supposed to: five pieces of candy. Again, if we assume all things are equal and there is no reason for one kid to receive less, it would be illogical to argue that simply receiving what one ought to counts as a privilege. Even if we assume there some factor caused the parent not to give the kid his fair share, such as the parent disliking the kid, that does not change that the unfair element is solely that the one kid received less.
The reason is because the de facto expectation is that each kid should receive five pieces. In other words, if a person receives what we as a society and culture expect to receive, it is illogical to argue that receiving that is a privilege. This is important because some of those arguing the political notion of “privilege” apply it in situations like the one below.
If a woman gets raped while a man does not, feminists will argue that this is an example of male privilege (despite that men also get raped). The problem is that people expect not to get raped, and most people—including most women—are not raped. That is the de facto experience. The same goes for most crimes. Most people are not victims of crime and do not expect to be. That some people are victimized, maybe even targeted for victimization, does not imply “privilege” because those not victimized receive exactly what they ought to.
It would only count as privilege if the de facto situation was that violence is the norm. For example, a man who lives in a violent neighborhood who never gets assaulted because he is related to one of the top bosses in that area is an example of “privilege.” A man who lives in a violent neighborhood who never gets assaulted because no one attacked him yet is not an example of “privilege.” However, there is a way that privilege can result from disprivilege, and vice versa.
Let us say the parent gives one kid gets five pieces of candy, but the other kid is not around. When he arrives, the parent does not give him his five pieces, but instead takes two pieces from the first kid and gives them to the one with none. That is an example of privilege at someone’s expense or disprivilege to someone’s benefit. That is not the only way that can occur, but it demonstrates the general concept, which is that a person has something they ought to receive given to someone else. A good example of this would be a black man who has been at a company for years and is first in line for a promotion being side-stepped so that the new white woman straight out of college can get the promotion instead. That is privilege at the black man’s expense and disprivilege to the white woman’s benefit.
Depending on one’s position, all of these may look the same. Nevertheless, they are not. The Male Privilege Checklist makes that readily clear. Most of the items on that list are examples of things not given to women, not things intentionally only given to men. In the case of sex and gender, the situation is problematic because there are only two groups, so it will inherently look like favoritism regardless of the situation. However, if we step back and look at the overall context of the situations, we would see that most of the time the issue is not a favoring of men, but a disfavoring of women.
This also applies to race, religion, and sexuality. Most discrimination stems from disprivilege, i.e. people receiving less than they ought to. In some cases there are clear examples of privilege (such as white people being favored over black people for jobs) and instance of privilege at someone’s expense (such as men’s sports programs being shut down in order to form and fund women’s sports programs). Yet the majority of the time is simply that someone receives less than they ought to (such as denying gay people the right to marry).
This may be driven by social and culture norms, by bias and bigotry, or by hatred and misunderstanding. Some of those who receive what they ought to may perpetuate those factors. Yet that does not mean that they are “privileged,” nor does it make every member of that group collectively or individually complicit in creating privilege or disprivilege. It also does not mean that the disprivileged cannot be privileged in certain areas. Society operates in a very complex way, and the notion that the complexity can be parsed down to a single “all of X group are to blame” argument is illogical.
The best way to address advantages and disadvantages in society is by seeing them for what they are rather than what we want them to be. We can do this by avoiding loaded political language, blame-and-shame tactics, and scapegoating groups of people. One cannot cure a disease by treating the symptoms. We have to address these kinds of social problems not symptom by symptom, but as a whole. We need to see the cause of them, and we cannot do that by looking through the narrow lens of “privilege.”