My Understanding of Privilege Theory
Note – I’ve never actually seen a fully written out conception of Privilege Theory, only cartoons and memes. This is my attempt to pass an Ideological Turing Test by explaining Privilege Theory to the best of my ability based on various conversations and readings over the past few years. I am open to rewrites from valid objections to my interpretation of Privilege Theory.
“Privilege” in modern parlance is the existence of unearned advantages over other (non-privileged) individuals
“Privilege Theory” is a worldview based on the notion that the existence of “privilege” explains a significant portion (or the entirety) of the inequalities between individuals in society on virtually all known levels (wealth, education, intellectual ability, experience, propensity to commit criminal acts, etc.).
Furthermore, given the nature of human beings as social animals who are inherently tied to groups and who identify other individuals by their membership in groups, “privilege” is primarily a group-based phenomenon. That is, privilege ultimately resides in group identities which then trickle down to the individual members of said groups.
In addition, due to the nature of human beings as entities which compete for scarce resources in all possible domains (economics, social, romantic, etc.), groups naturally fight for control over their domains. The leading group or groups in any particular domain are considered the “oppressors” and only maintain their dominant position by keeping the “oppressed” groups down. Overtime, oppressor-oppressed relationships ossify into privilege-unprivileged relationships as the oppressors establish long-term social structures to maintain their power. These structures can by physical as in the case of legal and economic systems, but they can also be psychological as in the case of cultural norms which instill oppressive mental beliefs.
Another way to think of the concept of “privilege” is as the tool of the oppressor group to maintain its dominance over the oppressed group. Privilege is a physical or psychological barrier that keeps one group on top and the other group down.
For instance, an example of a physical oppressor-oppressed system was Apartheid South Africa. Racist whites used the power of the state to institute a legal system which explicitly restrained the rights and wealth of blacks in South Africa. The Oppressors in this system were all white South African because they benefitted from the privilege produced by the regime. It should be noted that although not all white South Africans supported the regime, they all benefited from it and therefore were members of the privileged class. The Oppressed in this system were the black South Africans hurt by the country’s laws.
A (primarily) psychological example of an oppressor-oppressed system is the racial hierarchy in America today. Through a variety of cultural norms (as well as legal and economic system components) white people are held to be superior to black people in the general American cultural sphere. For instance, the media chooses to portray black people as irresponsible thugs while white people are portrayed as the default normal. Black people are also massively underrepresented in nearly all high-status career fields, including acting, finance, politics, science, and literature. There may not be Apartheid-style laws against black people in America today, but the country produces norms which teach black people that they are less capable than white people, thereby ensuring the enduing privilege of whites over blacks.
Privilege provides advantages which enable individuals to reach certain outcomes more easily. As an analogy, consider a foot race on a straight track. Ideally racers start at the same point on the course so that the winner of the race is determined by who is the fastest runner. The race would be unfair if some racers started closer to the finish line than others, but that’s what privilege is. There is a theoretical starting point in the race in the middle where everyone would start from in a truly egalitarian race, but privileged racers start ahead of that point and unprivileged racers start behind it. Therefore, this is a fundamentally unjust race.
To convert the race analogy back to society, take a white, middle class, suburban-born, male who went to an expensive liberal arts college in Vermont and now works at a hedge fund making $80 thousand per year at the age of 25. Such an individual will almost certainly achieve a relatively high level of success in life in terms of wealth, career, social status, avoidance of criminality, etc, largely due to his privilege. It is possible that his own efforts have contributed to some degree to his success, and certainly a high degree of laziness or irresponsibility will hinder his efforts, but the “difficulty” of reaching this level of achievement is far lower for him than another individual with an unprivileged background, like say, the average black male growing up in inner-city Baltimore.
If the white individual was lazy in school, didn’t study for the SATs, got caught smoking pot, and generally acted like an asshole, he still probably would have gone to a decent college, ended up working in finance, and would not have been arrested. Meanwhile, if that inner city black kid had worked his ass off every day of his life, did everything he could to stay away from drugs, and was an all-around upstanding gentleman, his odds of getting into a Vermont-based liberal arts college and getting a hedge fund job would still be extraordinarily small.
Hence this white individual did not fully “earn” his educational and professional achievements. Some portion of his achievements are indeed do to his own efforts (will power, perseverance, etc.), but the rest of the credit belongs to his privilege both for setting up the relatively easy path to those goals and for propelling him down said path. In contrast, the black, Inner City female who got into the same school and got the same job deserves full credit for her achievement and then some, since she not only used her own efforts but actively overcame her “unprivilege.”
I’ll try to put some hypothetical numbers on this paradigm. Let’s say that in a perfect egalitarian world without privilege, an individual would get 100 points of moral credit for all of his achievements because he would have no unearned privilege assisting or hindering his progress. In a world of privilege, a privileged individual will get between 0 and 100 points for his achievements, depending on the level of privilege he utilized to succeed. Meanwhile, an unprivileged individual in a privileged world would get 100 or >100 points for both fully using her own efforts and for overcoming privilege. Of course, there’s no way to actually quantify effort and privilege, but as a rule, the moral credit to be awarded to any individual must be restrained within this paradigm.
Privilege is the foundation of knowledge and identity, and by extension, is the foundation of the philosophical domains of epistemology and ethics. First we must recognize that both knowledge and morality are subjectively determined by the individual. This is because our ability to understand the world is fundamentally informed (or altered) by our privilege. Our understandings of our minds, bodies, selves, and relationships to all other people and entities is determined by the circumstances in which our minds develop. Individuals brought up in different environments (ie. with different forms of privilege) will have radically different understandings of the world.
It is important to note that there is no way to determine what is “true” (ie. what is the nature of reality independent of human consciousness) either because our privilege will always distort our attempts to ascertain truth, or because the very concept of truth does not apply to epistemology or ethics. Instead, we must accept that all information exists in a state of flux as determined by ever-shifting group power balances.
Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, and serves to inform us on how to attain valid knowledge for our behavioral use. Privilege is the basis of epistemology because all of our knowledge is informed and filtered by our privilege. There is no way “past” or “around” privilege to access a universalizable truth. There is only what our different privileges tell us about particular facts. For instance, to a white, Middle Class, suburban, American teenager it is a “fact” that police officers are friendly protectors of his health and safety. This is a fact because all of the available observations and knowledge that this individual has accessed throughout his life (due to his privilege) logically lead him to this conclusion. In contrast, it is a “fact” to a black, poor, Inner City America teenager that cops are dangerous threats to his well-being because that’s what his unprivileged experience has told him. These facts are contradictory, yet true because they come from different spectrums of a particular oppressor-oppressed dynamic.
Ethics is the philosophy of behavior, and serves to inform us how we should act in different contexts. Privilege is the basis of ethics because how we should act in a given situation is determined by the knowledge delivered to us by our privilege-driven epistemology. Privilege-based ethics can be broken into two domains: Unaware and Aware Ethics.
Unaware Ethics concerns how individuals behave when they are unaware of the nature of their privilege. The system dynamics create different rules depending on what side of the oppressor-oppressed divide an individual is on, and so the actions an individual must take to create good outcomes will vary accordingly. For instance, for a white, Middle Class, suburban, American teenager, it is ethical to respect cops and unethical to fight with cops. Such an individual has been brought up in an environment where respecting cops leads to good outcomes (by the common standards of his security, health, and freedom). But for a black, poor, Inner City America teenager, it would be ethical to resist cops and unethical to cooperate with them for reciprocal reasons. These two teenagers are on opposite sides of the American racial oppressor-oppressed system, and therefore have differentiated ethical prerogatives.
Aware Ethics concerns how individuals should treat each other once they are aware of their own and others’ privilege. This is a bit more complicated.
Oppressor-oppressed systems have been the basis of virtually all human interactions throughout all of history. This is a natural outcome of the in-group-out-group heuristics used by humans and our competitive natures. However, the oppressor-oppressed system is not ultimately just. It is inherently predicated on unjust exploitation and conquest (both physically and psychologically). Therefore, the ethically noblest pursuit of all individuals is to strive to break oppressor-oppressed systems so as to formulate egalitarian systems which add up to an egalitarian society.
Individuals who realize the moral goodness of this goal and act to pursue it are known to be “woke.”
The way to break down oppressor-oppressed systems is to get the oppressor group to acknowledge and dismantle its own privilege. This is easier said than done. Even though most oppressor group members are not explicitly aware of their status as privileged oppressors, they are implicitly aware of their advantages over others and will fight to maintain them. Thus, to break through the oppressors’ defenses, the oppressed must get the oppressor to “check his or her privilege.”
Checking one’s privilege is an act which reevaluates the moral validity of one’s beliefs and actions in the context of their real level of privilege. When an oppressor properly checks his privilege, he will realize that his status in a particular power structure is not built upon his own efforts (which is typically a pro-privilege meme designed to drive oppressors to reject environmentally based causal factors like privilege entirely) but is actually in large part or entirely built upon privilege (which is unearned by definition).
At that point, the individual can work to dismantle his own privilege. This means being conscientious of how one has and gains privilege on a daily basis so that it can be rejected or turned over to a non-privileged person. If enough people within a particular oppressor-oppressed system do this, the system will collapse into a state of egalitarianism in which every individual will succeed based on his own merits rather than systematic privilege. If enough systems collapse, society itself will become egalitarian and just. This is the end goal: to break the privilege system entirely.
Problems with Privilege Theory
Before I get into the specific critiques, I want to note that I believe part of Privilege Theory is true, albeit in a narrow, boring way. It is true that we have innate, unearned individual and group traits which affect our outcomes in life. I don’t think too many people deny that when it is presented in such a straightforward, abstract manner. To explain my problems with Privilege Theory, I will break down my critiques into a serious of arguments going from most-to-least fundamental.
As with the previous section, I am open to rewrites to areas where I am wrong, and additions if I have missed points.
Privilege Theory is based on a Fundamentally Unsound Subjectivist view of Epistemology and Ethics
I think this is probably the single greatest reason why Pro and Anti Privilege theory people can’t persuade each other, or more often speak past one another.
Most people (at least outside of academia) have an implicitly “realist” understanding of the world. They believe that there is an objective reality and a means of understanding this reality through empirical observation and science. This means of ascertaining truth is difficult and often leads to errors, but is possible, especially with repeated testing.
However, Privilege Theory is thoroughly postmodern. It contends that the truth is either unknowable or nonexistent and therefore irrelevant to our understand of reality, let alone to our ethical systems.
As a result, Pro and Anti Privilege people tend to talk past one another when discussing the validity of concrete facts. To Anti-Privilege Theory advocates, the question of whether or not a form of privilege exists is ultimately an empirical question to be determined by a combination of our observations, logical inductions, and social science research. To Privilege Theory advocates, that question can only be answered by the observations of the unprivileged individuals within an oppressor-oppressed system.
This tends to lead to a great deal of confusion in conversations with Privilege Theory advocates. Such people correctly state that personal experience is a valid tool for ascertaining the truth of a given claim. However, they tend to give a massive over-emphasis to experiential data at the expense of all other forms of truth seeking activity. Some Privilege Theory advocates go as far as to claim that only experiential data matters when determining the validity of a claim.
For instance, consider the question of whether blacks are targeted and oppressed by police officers in America. By my understanding, this is essentially an empirical question to be answered by social science research. We need field studies, survey data, laboratory experiments, and many other types of data collected from police departments, universities, ordinary citizens, and laboratories across America to discover statistical trends which demonstrate a correlation between police overreach and black citizens. Then we can start suggesting potential causal explanations as hypotheses and “test” for those explanations through regression analyses and targeted data comparisons. Yes, an individual’s experiences with the police, black people, or both can tell you something about the question at hand, but ultimately it only serves as one data point among many.
Yet in my experience this is a classic instance in which “privilege” is invoked as an epistemological tool. To many Privilege Theory advocates, the question of whether or not police abuse blacks in America can be answered simply by gauging the subjective experience of blacks. Since blacks are the proposed oppressed group in this power dynamic, their subjective opinion is taken to be the accurate one, whereas the police opinion is distorted by privilege. Hence, as long as most blacks feel oppressed by police, then they are in fact oppressed by police.
Some Privilege Theory advocates might counter that they are in fact using valid scientific methods to prove their claims because a widespread feeling in a group can only be generated by widespread experiences. So black Americans feel oppressed by the police in response to the widespread experiences of so many black individuals, as well as the well-publicized cases of legal abuse like Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin.
Widespread beliefs based on personal experiences may very well be true, but they not enough to definitively prove the existence of a trend. The first problem with that claim is that purposeful attempts to amplify or alter messages may cause distortions between perceptions and reality. This can occur on a large or small scale. On a large scale, media outlets might know that focusing on isolated incidents of police brutality towards black people boosts their ratings, and therefore focus on such incidents disproportionately, while ignoring the comparable incidents of responsible police behavior towards blacks. This creates an environment where people are constantly reminded of police brutality towards blacks and increases their estimations of its prevalence.
A small-scale distortion is likely even more common but less noticeable. Imagine a black person walks down a street, passes a cop, and the cop turns to give him a dirty look for no discernable reason. In one scenario, the black individual doesn’t buy into Privilege Theory. He will likely notice the dirty look, but shrug it off as a random cop having a bad day and think nothing of it. In another scenario, the black person believes in Privilege Theory and that he is an oppressed individual in the American racial hierarchy. This individual will be outraged by the cop and see it as an instance of oppression. He may go tell his friends about it, blog about it, and consider it yet another incident in a series of incidences of oppression that indicates his lack of privilege. In reality, we don’t know why the cop gave the dirty look, but the reaction to the look and how it promotes the Privilege narrative, is entirely up to the individual’s outlook, whether right or wrong.
Another problem with relying on widespread feelings as evidence for trends is that there is plenty of counter-evidence through other individual and group experiences. For instances, lots of American police officers would say that they never see racism amongst their ranks and therefore none exists. A Privilege Theory Advocate might counter that the police officers are biased towards their side and therefore might be genuinely mistaken or even lie. That could be true, but the same could be said of black people who are utterly convinced that all cops are out to oppress them.
An even bolder claim from Privilege Theory advocates would be that cops cannot validly deny the existence of this particular oppressor-oppressed system because they are the oppressors. This is claimed to be a sort of epistemological limitation for privileged people. The only way for privileged people to overcome this limitation is to “check their privilege” at which point they will automatically realize that they are part of the oppressor class. Similarly, individuals in oppressed classes who agree with oppressed viewpoints have merely been mentally manipulated by the power structure and therefore are having their epistemology artificially altered.
In any other context, such an argument would be easily dismissed as an instance of the ad-hominem fallacy: an argument is false because the identity of the individual making the argument. The way Privilege Theory advocates escape that accusation is to claim that the very nature of epistemology is subjective. This means that an individual’s ability to understand the world is entirely determined by the nature of that individual and not the world itself. Therefore, Privilege Theory advocates claim that ad hominem is not actually a fallacy.
But as long as you have a realist understanding of reality and epistemology, this claim holds no water.
To go in another direction, there are some white people in America who have become convinced based on their personal experience that racial minorities are the oppressor class and whites are the oppressed class. After all, they see it’s harder to get into college because of affirmative action. They find it hard to get work because Hispanic immigrants took all the local jobs. The neighborhood their parents grew up in used to be safe, but now local minority drug gangs have made it a hellhole. These are the real, lived experiences of many individuals; who are we to deny their validity?
There is another core problem with Privilege Theory’s epistemological approach: how do we know which group is oppressed and which is oppressor? That question is supposed to come down to lived experiences, but often lived experiences of different groups contradict.
In practice Privilege Theory advocates have arbitrary pre-conceived notions of which groups fit in which category and will fall back on their subjectivistic understanding of epistemology to defend them. To be fair, under the Privilege Theory epistemology there is no way to empirically validate claims except by personal feelings, so it makes sense to arbitrarily choose whatever viewpoint feels best and defend it.
Privilege Theory Epistemology Destroys Civil Conversation
Privilege Theory epistemology is subjective. It claims that an individual’s ability to understand the world is primarily driven by his privilege, and that objective reality cannot be accessed (or does not exist). It has no reality-based standards for truth. Most Privilege Theory advocates default to granting epistemological validity to the oppressed since supposedly the privilege of the oppressors blinds them of their power.
Under this paradigm, civil conversation is impossible. There is no way to use reason and appeals to empirical evidence to prove one’s point. In fact, Privilege Theory advocates often claim that the very concept of rational discourse is in and of itself a product of a privileged epistemology, and is therefore inherently immoral. Thus the only way to settle a dispute is to force the opposition to surrender his epistemology for your epistemology. For example, black people can try to get white people to submit to a black understanding of the world absent white privilege.
If there is no way to reason with an opponent, then you must defeat your opponent, even by forceful means if necessary. Since Privilege Theory does not condone the use of reason as a means of understanding the world, the implicit worldview of Privilege Theory is chronic rhetorical warfare. There is no way to settle disputes between oppressors and oppressed. There is no way just way for the privileged to maintain their privilege. There can be no compromise between good and evil. The only moral way for an unprivileged individual to deal with a privileged individual is to either assimilate the privileged person into the Privilege Theory paradigm so he voluntarily “checks his privilege,” or to otherwise force the privileged person into submission by any means necessary.
This is why Privilege Theory advocates so readily resort to methods which in any other context would be considered uncivilized and immoral. Whether it’s screaming in people’s faces, shouting down speakers, promoting journalistic censorship, condoning open racism, rioting on campuses, physically assaulting ideological enemies, among many other extreme rhetorical practices, Privilege Theory advocates clearly do not grant their ideological opponents the basic premises of rational discourse.
While not all Privilege Theory advocates resort to such extreme means, these practices are the logical extension of their ideological beliefs. The practices are not just wrong by nearly all common standards of modern, liberal, secular morality, but they directly contradict the very basis of civilization. Either individuals can work out their differences through reason or through force: the modern world has been increasingly leaning towards reason for the last 250 years, while Privilege Theory leans towards force.
Privilege Theory Assumes an Impossible Standard for Genuine Moral Credit
To reiterate on an example I used in the opening section, imagine John is a white male is born into an upper-middle class suburban home in an affluent neighborhood. As he grows up he goes to high-quality schools and uses an excellent SAT tutor to help him get into a Top 30 American university. He majors in economics, gets good grades, and lands a high-paying job at an investment bank upon graduation at the age of 22. An advocate of Privilege Theory would assert that John did not fully “earn” his achievements because his privilege did most of the work, and therefore he deserves <100 points of moral credit, while a theoretical individual in a theoretical egalitarian world without privilege would earn 100 points for the same achievements. In contrast, if Mary, a black female from an Inner City ghetto, got into the same university and got the same job, she would deserve full and extra credit for her achievements due to both for the effort she put in and for the privilege she overcame. Therefore Kelly deserves 100 or >100 points of moral credit.
If everything in John’s life were the same except he was black, we would expect he would have a harder time attaining his achievements, and his moral credit points would increase marginally. The same could be said if John were black and came from a single parent home, except with even lower odds of achievement and with a greater increase in moral credit. If we tweaked enough of John’s attributes we would eventually flip John from a net-privileged individual to a net-unprivileged individual, and his moral credit would surpass 100 points. The same analysis could be applied to Mary in reverse.
This paradigm doesn’t work because it’s built on the Theseus Paradox. Human beings cannot have essential parts of their being switched out or altered like parts in a car or ship. Every human being is the sum of his characteristics and experiences as part of an irreducible bundle. To claim otherwise is to ignore the nature of humans biologically and psychologically.
To use a less abstract example: it is not meaningful to say that John would have a harder time attaining his achievements if he were black because there is no realistically conceivable means to test that proposition. We cannot peer into an alternate dimension in which every aspect of the world is identical except for John’s color to see how he would fare. John, as he exists at the age of 22 is the product of the genetic and environmental contributions of his parents as well as the aggregated experiences of his entire life. If John were black, then he couldn’t have come from those particular parents, and other parts of his environment or personality may shift as well, thereby creating a cascading series of effects which all impact the eventual outcome. Hence the individual factors which effected his ultimate position cannot be separated from the rest of his life in any meaningful scientific or conceptual manner.
The closest we can get to examining the “what if John were black” question is to look at broad statistical data of the outcomes of black and white individuals. This sort of analysis can tell us something about the effects of race on outcomes (though it is highly debatable what that is) on entire populations. But it is impossible to apply the results of such an analysis on an individual level because the unique web of characteristics of any individual are too complicated to statistically control.
This argument is highly abstract, but it is essential to understanding one of the central flaws of not just Privilege Theory, but the very concept of “privilege.” Privilege can be used to explain effects on population groups, but at an individual level privilege is next to useless at predicting outcomes. The human psyche is so complex that it is extremely difficult to reduce an individual’s outcomes to discrete variables, but it is impossible to accurately predict an individual’s outcomes based on tweaking variables in a non-existent counter-factual world. Hence Privilege Theory’s system of assigning moral credit is nonsensical.
Privilege Theory Assumes that the Unprivileged Lack Privilege Because of the Privileged
Privilege Theory has taken over the “God of the Gaps” (GoG) fallacy.
Back in the 19th century when the existence of god was still one of the most topics of debate amongst intellectuals, atheist Henry Drummond invented the GoG. Drummond found that whenever an atheist couldn’t think of a scientific explanation for a natural phenomenon, theists would claim that god was the cause. In other words, the lack of a non-divine causal factor was somehow evidence of a divine causal factor. This argument rhetorically elevated the theist position to the “default” explanation for all events and placed the burden on the atheists to come up with scientific explanations for everything, lest they leave “gaps” for god to fill.
Privilege Theory advocates put privilege in god’s place.
The average income of the American woman is about 78% of the Average income of the American man. That’s an interesting statistic. Given the biological, psychological, and social differences between men and women, there are likely dozens of major causal mechanisms and hundreds of minor causal mechanisms for that gap. Yet Privilege Theory advocates by default assume that sexist discrimination against women, the presumed most aggressive form of gender privilege in America, is the cause. For instance, Barack Obama publicly declared that the gender pay gap indicates that “Women are not getting the fair shot that we believe every American deserves.”
But there is no reason to assume that is the case. It’s entirely possible (and has since been empirically demonstrated) that women get paid less on average for many reasons which have nothing to do with sexist discrimination, let alone privilege. Given the innumerable factors which effect such a large trend, it’s entirely possible that sexist discrimination plays a role. But it is epistemological hubris to assume that discrimination is the only or primary causal factor of such an obviously multi-faceted trend.
Granted, a more sophisticated Privilege Theory advocate would claim that some or all of the specific explanations for the gender pay gap are themselves forms of privilege. For instance, one of the major causes is that women tend to gravitate to lower paying professional fields than men. One interpretation of that trend is that society is sexist towards women and therefore exerts a variety of cultural and social pressures which encourage women to go in that direction.
But this is just taking the GoG to a deeper level. Again, there is no reason to assume that differences between male and female career paths are based on discrimination or privilege. There are plenty of biological and non-privilege based social explanations for this phenomenon. For instance, there is evidence that men are more biologically inclined on average to mechanical tasks while female brains incline towards nurturing tasks, and thus men go towards high-paying jobs like engineering while women move towards lower paying jobs like nursing.
A side effect of this GoG reasoning is to implicitly take away the agency of individuals, especially unprivileged individuals. Assuming that women go into low paying careers due to societal discrimination, implies that women don’t have the willpower to make their own career choices, or worse yet, that they don’t really prefer their chosen path, they’ve just been brainwashed by subversive cultural memes. Aside from being inaccurate, this line of thinking is insulting and belittling.
Privilege Theory Makes Suffering a Moral Virtue and Well-Being a Moral Vice
This is the single worst product of Privilege Theory. Imagine this scenario:
You are a white, straight, cis-gendered, wealthy, able-bodied male. You are an in argument with a Privilege Theory advocate on the strength and propensity of various forms of privilege like race and gender in modern America. Eventually your opponent retreats to core Privilege Theory doctrine with the claim that you cannot possibly grasp the effects of privilege in America because you are severely privilege. After all, everything your opponent knows about your appearance and background suggests a high state of privilege. If you want to win this argument, what do you do?
I have both seen this occur and have been in the defensive position many times. The optimal response in this situation is to come up with every possible sob story about your own life and being that you can.
You need to bring to light every bad thing that has ever happened to you, is happening to you, and will ever happen to you. If you’re depressed, anxious, or suffer from any mental illness, bring that up. Same for genetic predispositions to physical diseases, especially those which are more visible and gruesome. If you were bullied at school, bullied by your siblings, or better yet, physically abused by your parents, bring that up. You’ll get bonus points for flashier abuse like if your parents were alcoholics or your sibling was psychotic, or best of all, if the abuse was sexual since that’s so much worse. The deaths of close people are good too, and the closer the better. Losing an aunt, uncle, or cousin isn’t much, but a friend is better, though a sibling or parent is optimal. Again, you’ll get bonus points if the death is more brutal or impacting, like if your friend died of a sudden drug overdose or your relative died of a slow wasting disease.
Your opponent asserts that you cannot win this argument because you are too privileged. Hence, to win the argument you need to lower your privilege. The lower, the better. The way to lower your privilege is lay claim to more and more bad things about your being. The worse off you are, the more powerful your rhetoric becomes within the Privilege Theory system. It ultimately doesn’t matter if your claims can be objectively validated or are logically presented, all that matters is that you can prove you are worse off than your opponent.
Within Privilege Theory, privilege doesn’t just lessen rhetorical power, it lessens your moral power. Maybe moral isn’t the right word, spiritual might work better. I’m not sure what to call it, but when dealing with Privilege Theory advocates it’s impossible to ignore. Being privileged might help you make money, get a good education, and stay out of jail, but it hurts you within the Privilege Theory paradigm. Privileged people have a diminished understanding of the world, their viewpoints should be less respected, their opinions should be less appreciated, and in general their beings are on the bad side of the social-morality paradigm. In contrast, people who are unprivileged have a better understanding of the world, their viewpoints should be respected, their opinions should be appreciated, and in general they are on the good side of the social-morality paradigm.
This creates a paradigm in which having good attributes in reality causes you to have bad attributes in the Privilege Theory framework, and vice versa. If, like me, you consider Privilege Theory to be a moral framework for society, then to be privileged is to be immoral and vice versa.
This is difficult to explain because I admit that Privilege Theory advocates would not use this terminology. Rather, this extension of their framework is merely implied by their doctrines and behavior, often through the Motte and Bailey Doctrine.
If you are privileged than Privilege Theory advocates consider everything you say and do less meaningful, less relevant, and less “true.” A privileged person’s thoughts are literally considered to be less valuable in conversation. If the same form of condemnation was leveled against any other groups of people (ie. blacks, women, gays, etc.), it would rightfully be considered a form of bigotry within a moral paradigm which attached morality to group characteristics. The only difference is that rather than consider black people’s opinions to be less valid because black people are immoral, now privileged people’s opinions are less valid because privileged people are immoral.
The worst part of this Privilege Theory moral paradigm is the psychological incentives it creates in its followers. It makes privilege a vice, and lack of privilege a virtue. By extension, characteristics which are ostensibly good in reality are bad in morality, and vice versa. Having money, not being arrested, being treated with respect, and not being sexually abused are all objectively good things in our lives, but basically make you a bad person whose opinions are tainted and irrelevant. Meanwhile, being poor, being arrested, not being respected, and being sexually abused are all objectively bad things in life, but make you a good person whose opinions are accurate and relevant.
The result is genuine psychological destruction in two different forms.
On one side are privileged people who learn to despise themselves and all the good things in their lives. They are told that enjoying prosperity, security, and social success is irrational and wrong. They didn’t earn any of that and it ultimately makes them worse people. Their privilege factors become sins on their soul which they will never erase, especially those factors they were born with or were provided by their parents – these are “Original Sins” which can never be stamped out. Thus privileged people end up psychologically marginalized, self-hating, and with low self-esteem.
On the other side are unprivileged people who are taught that suffering is virtue. All the bad things that happened to them actually make them better than other people. They may be poor, or in physical pain, or emotionally scarred, but they get to bully their classmates and claim a moral superiority over those who haven’t undergone the same extent of purifying suffering. They learn to cherish their suffering and seek to protect their status as chronic victims. After all, when any psychological phenomenon is socially championed, it will be pursued, and pain and suffering is no different. An unprivileged person can’t risk overcoming too much of their unprivilege lest they accidentally drift into privileged territory, at which point their power is lost. Thus unprivileged people end up self-destructive and masochistic while simultaneously self-righteous and vindictive.
I’m not sure which side ends up worse in the end.
Privilege Theory Arbitrarily Focuses on Particular Groups and Particular Outcomes
Why do Privilege Theory Advocates obsess over race, gender, and class? If privilege is merely the existence of unearned benefits then the list of privilege granting characteristics is seemingly endless, yet a handful of particular attributes get a disproportionate amount of attention.
Take race for instance. As far as I can tell, race is one of, if not the most discussed forms of privilege among Privilege Theory advocates. Much ink has been spilled to demonstrate the prevalence of white privilege and reciprocal minority unprivilege in American society. Typically these claims are based on widespread anecdotal data but get pulled into longstanding historical and statistical debates involving hundreds of years of American history. Or alternatively, consider male privilege. The much cited gender pay gap in America has been a central point of contention between Pro and Anti Privilege forces who argue over how much of the 23% gap between average male and female wages occur due to privilege. Opponents claim that the gap can be explained by biological and psychological differences between the sexes, like a man’s ability to do heavy lifting, willingness to take dangerous jobs, propensity to go into high-paying careers, and a woman’s ability to get pregnant. Privilege advocates resort to complex multi-tiered arguments which claim that many of these causes are culturally determined by privilege, and ultimately the two sides end up digging into an ever-growing literature of biological, psychological, economic, and anthropological data sets to prove their points.
Why is so much time spent debating the existence of minute privilege-based outcomes which can only be argued with complex academic research when there are plenty of instances of blatantly apparent privilege all around us?
What has a greater impact on your life than your race? How about your IQ, memory capability, attention span, social comfort, quality of parenting, quality of siblings, predisposition to physical and mental illness, predisposition to aging, hormonal disposition to body weight, level of physical attractiveness (hair, facial symmetry, cheekbones, eye shape, boob size/shape, butt size/shape, hip-to-waist ratio, leg length, foot size, skin clearness, teeth whiteness/shape, etc.), the justice of the legal/economic system under which you reside, etc? But that’s just the big stuff, you could come up with a million more subtle privilege factors, including physical factors like voice tenor and height, or societal factors like the frequency of nearby individuals whose personalities and interests qualify them for potential friendship with you.
In other words, the number of privilege factors is endless. And there is no reason to think that race, gender, and class are more significant than any of these factors. Actually, I’d argue that they are fairly insignificant.
For instance, take the privilege effects of beauty. The way being physically attractive effects one’s life is so enormous that it’s difficult to comprehend. Attractive people are given access to sex and romantic relationships with a far greater portion of the population than non-attractive people. That’s a much bigger deal than it sounds. Imagine how the likelihood of finding a romantically compatible (or optimal) partner increases with each increment of the population that gets added to your potential range of partners as your attractiveness increases. Assuming equal social abilities, a 5/10 straight male might have romantic access to 60% of the female population while a 10/10 straight male has access to 100%. Considering the in-built value of sex and romance to our biology, that alone would make attractiveness one of the most powerful forms of privilege in existence, but it’s just the tip of the ice berg.
Attractive people make more money and are more successful than ordinary people because everyone assumes they are better at everything for no reason. Attractive people tend to be more confident and acquire better social skills probably because others are more accepting of their errors. Straight people prefer their same-gendered friends to be attractive both for the aforementioned reasons and because it makes them look more attractive. Ugly people are more likely to be convicted by a jury. Although the causal direction is unclear, attractive people are healthier in general and less likely to get many diseases.
(For more examples: see this entire thread on Reddit.)
How about IQ privilege? According to Clinical Psychologist Jordan Peterson, there is literally “nothing that will provide you with a better life advantage than a high IQ.” IQ tests have a strong predictive ability when it comes to nearly all typical life outcomes, like income, education, and criminality. You probably need an IQ of 110 just to get through college, and people with IQs below 87 are practically incapable of performing any jobs in the modern world. According to Peterson, even the vast majority of one’s social ability, including the much-vaunted EQ, is likewise determined by IQ (or to be more accurate, it is IQ).
The crazy thing is that almost nobody disputes these results. Yes, there might be some debate on the strength of effects, but no one denies that being attractive or smart makes your life way easier and gives you access to so much of life that unattractive or unintelligent people simply can’t reach.
Compared to attractiveness or intelligence privilege, race or gender privilege are minor in modern America. I don’t think anyone could honestly say that (on average) a black female with attractive features and a 110 IQ will have worse outcomes in life on average than a white male with average looks and a 100 IQ. Of course it’s not impossible, there are endless privilege factors at play, but when all else equal, the empirical evidence is clear.
Privilege Theory Typically Assumes Unipolar Privilege instead of multi-Polar Privilege
This point was demonstrated brilliantly by Scott Alexander in his essay, Untitled, but to briefly restate Alexander’s argument in my words:
Privilege Theory advocates assume that privilege between groups can only work in one direction. Whites are privileged over blacks. Men are privileged over women. Wealth is privileged over poverty. What this assumption ignores is that privilege can be a two-way street, with both sides of the group dynamic having privilege over each other.
For instance, men are privileged over women because (putting aside for a second the validity of these object-level claims) men are physically stronger, are better able to defend themselves from attacks, make more money on average, face less sexual harassment, face less sexual objectification, and are socially assumed to be better leaders. However, women are privileged over men in that they have less social pressure to be aggressive, have less social pressure to hide emotions, have easier access to sex and a larger number of sexual partners, have easier access to romantic relationships and a larger number of romantic partners, are less likely to go to jail, are less likely to commit suicide, are less likely to be autistic, and live longer.
There is no way to quantify and compare the relative values of the privileges generated by being male or female, at least not in a way that can lead to the conclusion that one set of outcomes is “better” or “worse” than the other.
So why are men considered the oppressor class over females? Men have some advantages and women have others. On particular narrow domains like “income” or “sex availability,” one group has an advantage over the other, but the bundled privileges don’t indicate one group’s general superiority over the other.
Privilege Theory has no Means of Weighting the Value of Outcomes Against Each Other
If you knew nothing else about two individuals except that one was born in America and the other was born in Nigeria, who would you say is more privileged? I’m assuming the vast majority of people would say the American. Why? Because even if you know nothing about Nigeria, you would probably guess that Americans are wealthier, live longer, and have more freedoms than Nigerians. And that’s true.
But according to UK’s New Scientist Magazine, Nigerians are more likely to be happy than any other people on earth. While not everyone would agree that happiness is the ultimate goal in life, surely most people think happiness is one of the most important things in life. A lot of people would even give up their wealth and possibly some of their freedoms to achieve happiness. So does this mean that Nigerians are more privileged than Americans?
Ok, so that happiness poll is from 2003 and according to the recent data Nigerians aren’t especially happy anymore (despite Nigeria now being the “China of Africa” and getting a lot wealthier over the last decade, which might lend credence to the previous paragraph’s argument, but I digress). But then again, Chinese people are no happier today than 25 years ago despite massive increases in wealth and longevity. Or to get even more extreme, there’s some evidence that slave owners had higher rates of suicide than the slaves they owned in the American South.
(I’m not 100% sure any of these statistics are true and I think Happiness Surveys are statistically worthless, but ignore that for the sake of my argument.)
I’m not saying that it’s better to be happy than have money (or vice versa), or that there is no relationship between money and happiness (or vice versa) or that it was better to be a slave than a slave owner (obviously).
I’m saying that it’s difficult to compare the relative value of different life outcomes, and by extension, to declare one group privileged over another because of outcomes is incoherent. Income, happiness, propensity to depression, life expectancy, etc. are all outcomes which can be effected by privilege, but the effects are not always in the same direction. A singular form of privilege could cause good outcomes in one area and bad outcomes in another, and ultimately there is no way to determine which outcome is “greater.” Therefore to claim that any singular characteristic results in positive or negative privilege doesn’t make sense.
The Vast Majority of an Individual’s Privilege is Impossible to Determine without Intimate and Extensive Knowledge of the Individual
I think a big part of the reason why Privilege Theory advocates arbitrarily focus on race, gender, and class is because all three factors are easy to identify in individuals. That is, you can typically determine an individual’s position in all three categories at first sight, or at least after a brief conversation. However, if Privilege Theory is supposed to account for all unearned attributes that effect outcomes, then the vast majority of relevant factors to any particular individual require much more effort to ascertain.
This leads many Privilege Theory advocates to presumptuously claim to know others’ level of privilege without the information necessary to make an accurate determination. For instance, a white, male, middle class, suburban high schooler would automatically be assumed to be highly privileged. However, an individual could easily have all those attributes and still suffer from depression and anxiety, be abused by his parents, have a low IQ, and possess many other unprivileged factors which will ultimately lead to worse outcomes than his other privileged factors would suggest.
This is one of the many problems with affirmative action (AA). AA arbitrarily focuses on the racial privilege factor at the complete exclusion of other privilege factors. An individual can have the unprivilege of being black while having the privilege of many other attributes like high IQ, wealth, good parents, etc. As a result, often net-high privileged individuals are unjustly given an advantage in professional and academic admissions processes over less privileged individuals simply because of one solitary, arbitrarily chosen privilege factor.
This point doesn’t necessarily challenge the validity of the concept of privilege, but it does reduce its usefulness in our ethnical calculations. After all, how can we evaluate how to treat other people on the basis of their privilege when we can’t accurately determine their level of privilege?
Privilege Theory Arbitrarily Focuses on Groups instead of Individuals
Simply put: In-group differences are nearly always more significant than out-group differences.
Privilege Theory advocates have a reductive understanding of individual abilities which often overlooks individual variation in favor of group association. Thus all white individuals are considered to have white privilege even though many individuals within the “white” group demonstrably don’t have privilege by many metrics. For instance, there are plenty of whites in America which share all of the common hallmarks of black unprivlege, including low incomes, low education, and high criminality.
While it’s possible for Privilege Theory advocates to carefully make distinctions between individuals and their groups, the oppressor-oppressed dynamic makes doing so very difficult, and as such, individuals are nearly always judged by their group associations rather than as individuals.
It’s Difficult to Determine Which Privilege Causes Which Outcome
I think it’s likely that the vast majority of alleged “black unprivilege” is actually “poor unprivilege.” Consider the similar trends of black people and poor people in America: lower education, higher criminality, more police brutality, lower social standing, etc. The reason for this is simple: there’s a lot of overlap between the two groups. A much higher proportion of the black population is poor than any other racial group in America (besides Native Americans).
Of course this doesn’t make anti-black racism “not a big deal,” but it does indicate a flaw in the Privilege Theory view of the world: it’s very difficult to untangle different strands of privilege.
This argument applies to both privilege and unprivilege. Do rich people have low rates of criminality because of the privilege of their wealth, the privilege of their race, the privilege of their education, the privilege of their IQ, etc.? All of those attributes are correlated, and all of them are plausible causal explanations for low rates of criminality in modern America. Ultimately we can attempt to untangle the variables through statistical analyses, but the results will always be messy.