Dissing Privilege

Originally posted on February 21, 2011
Edited on August 30, 2012

Privilege is defined as:

  1. a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich.
  2. 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.
  3. a grant to an individual, corporation, etc., of a special right or immunity, under certain conditions.
  4. the principle or condition of enjoying special rights or immunities.
  5. any of the rights common to all citizens under a modern constitutional government: We enjoy the privileges of a free people.
  6. an advantage or source of pleasure granted to a person: It’s my privilege to be here.
  7. 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.”


16 thoughts on “Dissing Privilege

  1. Well said. I am so tired of the misuse of this terminology. Being treated appropriately is not “privilege.” Being mistreated does not mean that a person who is not mistreated is privileged.

    The way the term is used by many today is an attempt to make it seem like all of X or Y or Z have easy lives with everything handed to them on silver platter. The term destroys and disrespects individuals and individual experience and minimizes the traumas and tragedies experienced by those who don’t fit into their pretty little boxes.

  2. I understand what you are saying, but I think that in this context privilege is relative. If you are a woman and the norm is that you are denied things that are routinely given to men, then men are privileged relative to women. If you are a man and the norm is to receive things that are withheld from women, then women are disprivileged relative to men. The norm depends on which group you are in. That said, privilege generally comes at a price and is often not privilege at all. A couple months ago, I wrote Exposing the Male Privilege Checklist (http://thedamnedoldeman.com/?p=1444). In this article I documented the corresponding disadvantage for each “privilege” listed. The checklist was compiled by our friend Ampersand. My comments are in bold following his.


  3. I agree, James.

    It’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed away from gender debate as its slanted in the “Men against Women” narrative.

  4. Good God, again with critiquing that list.

    The reason that list is so popular in feminist circles is because one of the great tasks of feminism is to deny at all costs that women have any privileges whatsoever.

    Credibly buying that list requires you to 1. not notice that for every item, women can claim a corresponding privilege of equal or greater value, 2. not notice that a number of those “privileges” have flip-sides which make them disadvantages in certain situations and 3. the last privilege on the list is either boneheaded hypocrisy or, can be similarly applied to traduce any feminist claim that women have no privileges (So is Amp an anti-feminist or a lying propagandist? Take your pick).

    In other words, to accept that list uncritically, you have to have a completely stunted mind.

  5. I was just talking about that a short while ago.

    That said, privilege generally comes at a price and is often not privilege at all.
    The selective use of this fact is one reason I usually don’t talk about privilege that much. It seems that when talking about one group’s supposed privileges those prices, while they may be mentioned, apparently don’t matter. But when talking the others all of a sudden those prices are front page and are proof undeniable that that group is not privileged in any way. Which group is which seem to vary depending on the group discussing them.

  6. Danny, It’s way simpler: So you want to have cookies. Therefore, you point your finger across the room and scream: “WELL JOHNNY’S GOT COOKIES!!! JOHNNY ALWAYS GETS ALL THE COOKIES HE WANTS! AND I NEVER GET WHAT I WANT!!” In hopes that some parental authority figure will take pity and intervene.

    And if you’re going to attempt that kind of manipulative scam, It wouldn’t be a great idea to flaunt the gigantic bucket of ice cream you’re currently wolfing-down.

    I’m developing a new toy concept. It’ll be called Feminist Princess Barbie™. You pull the string in the back and it’ll say stuff like: “Equality is great, but I expect Ken to change the oil in my dream-car” and “Selective Service? (Giggle) What’s that?”

  7. I was just talking about that a short while ago

    It is quite ridiculous to consider it a male privilege that men cannot give birth. How can one be privileged based something one cannot control? Am I privileged because I was born with certain talents? Am I privileged because outside of my eyesight I am healthy? Am I privileged because it is easy for me to jump start my metabolism?

    I think posts like the one you commented on show how trivial the whole concept of privilege is and how it is really about guilt-tripping people rather than discussing actual problems.

    TDOM: That said, privilege generally comes at a price and is often not privilege at all.

    Danny: The selective use of this fact is one reason I usually don’t talk about privilege that much.

    If it comes with a price that affects the person receiving the privilege, then it arguably cannot be called a privilege. Privilege implies that a person received something for nothing. What TDOM mentioned sounds more like equivalent exchange. i.e. something of equal value is given in order to make any gain.

  8. TS:
    If it comes with a price that affects the person receiving the privilege, then it arguably cannot be called a privilege. Privilege implies that a person received something for nothing. What TDOM mentioned sounds more like equivalent exchange. i.e. something of equal value is given in order to make any gain.
    I think you may be right.

    I haven’t looked at that Male Privilege Checklist in a while but I’ll bet money there is something on it about how men are privileged over women when working outside the home. I wonder how many of them mention the other side of that coin about how men are socialized to think that working outside the home is the ONLY way they can contribute to their families. As in if they are not out there working the outrageous work weeks then they are not “real men”.

  9. I wonder how many of them mention the other side of that coin about how men are socialized to think that working outside the home is the ONLY way they can contribute to their families. As in if they are not out there working the outrageous work weeks then they are not “real men”.

    It does not, and that is part of the problem. Things are viewed from a narrow perspective, so the broader impact of a given problem gets completely lost.

  10. Danny: “I wonder how many of them mention the other side of that coin about how men are socialized to think that working outside the home is the ONLY way they can contribute to their families. As in if they are not out there working the outrageous work weeks then they are not “real men”.”

    Don’t forget, Danny, about those corporate jobs where they’re stuck at a desk in their office for the duration of the day well into late hours and the only “Family Time” they can scrounge up is if they intiate small talk with their family photographs if they’re aloud to have them around.

  11. TDOM at http://thedamnedoldeman.com/?p=1444: “7. If I’m a teen or adult, and if I can stay out of prison, my odds of being raped are relatively low. (More). But my odds of being arrested and imprisoned due to false allegations are probably just as great as a woman’s odds of being a real rape victim. I will have to adjust my lifestyle and habits at work and in public to protect myself from such allegations.”

    You forgot one thing: “And if I am raped, either by a man or a woman, I won’t be believed or my experiences won’t be believed, especially if it’s a woman raping me, since many times it isn’t even legally recognised as rape (but this also happens sometimes with male victims of male rape, although this is slowly changing at a slow pace, unlike with male victims of female rape).”

  12. Pingback: Dissing Privilege | Manosphere.com

  13. I think your first example needs more looking at. While closely tied in with how you talk about ‘privilege’ it is something slightly different. It is the reality of most ‘male privilege’. They boy gets rewards and the girl does not, he is so ‘privileged’. Never mind the fact that he earned the reward by doing chores and getting good grades. He got a reward the girl didn’t. This is the entire “Wage Gap” argument in a nutshell.

  14. Genderneutrallanguage, it is true that sometimes boys receive awards that girls do not. It is also true that girls sometimes receive rewards boys do not. The issue is why this happens. For the matter part, it is due to favoring one group over the other. Boys may be given more physical freedom while girls may be given passes on punishment. Yet both instances come with cost. Boys are more harshly punished for their misdeeds while girls are limited in what they can do.

    I would argue that this balances things out to a degree because neither one is necessarily preferable to the other. I am sure many boys would like to get away with the things girls get away with while many girls would like to be able to do the things boys do. It depends on the situation and circumstances, and it is difficult to call such a thing ‘privilege’.

  15. I fully agree that such things should not be called ‘privilege’. I was pointing out that they are. The different pay for different work of “The Wage Gap” is one such example.

    I’m claiming that the different benefits for different costs “Privilege” is more common than even the conflations of “Privilege” and “Disprivilege”. Further developing the idea that different benefits for different costs IS NOT ‘privilege’ is something we need to do.

  16. Pingback: Thursday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion | Clarissa's Blog

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