Saturday, July 27, 2013

Confused Ideas From the Lefty-Left Creep Into the Mainstream: "White Privilege" Edition


As I've discussed before, "white privilege" (like "male privilege," and most other alleged versions of "privilege" that the lefty-left likes to natter on about) is a confused and inapt concept.

The problem isn't that whites have some type of "privilege." The problem is discrimination against (at least some) minorities. Take the case of Oscar Grant, the topic of the movie in question in the article. If illicit "privilege" were the problem, then the problem could be solved by eliminating that privilege. So we could solve this particular problem about race by making sure that whites were unjustifiably hassled and shot by the police as frequently as non-whites. Obviously, however, that does not solve the problem. So the problem is not "privilege." The problem (or, rather: a problem, a notable problem) is discrimination.

Ideas matter. The political correctness madness of the '90's eventually became a laughing stock (and, sadly, pushed many people to the right); but it did lasting damage when their favorite mantra "that's offensive" made it into the mainstream. Sadly, many otherwise liberal people came to unreflectively believe that offending people is a moral felony. But the fact that you are offended by my words does not always give me reason not to say them. Offense is a largely subjective phenomenon...and some people need to be offended. Smith might be offended by the idea of same-sex marriage. But that would be Smith's problem...

The "social justice warriors," gender studies crowd, and assorted internet lefties would now like to push their latest terminological fad--"privilege"--into the mainstream. But ideas matter, and this idea is confused from the get-go. With respect to race (and sex), at least, the problem is not that whites (or males) have "privilege"--the problem is that non-whites (and women) have rights that are not respected. Discrimination is the relevant concept here, not "privilege." As is so often the case, the center-left has a clearer view of the problems than the lefty-left.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I commented on the "privilege" locution here before, and thanks to your links I started paying close attention to its use around these wide internets. In the end, while I continue think that "privileged" is a wrong-headed way of analyzing most racial/sexual/class injustice, I don't really think that it's actually dangerous in the way you seem to believe. My reasons:

1) Use of the "privilege" accusation about 75% of the time is just an easy way of shutting down interlocutors when you know them to be of the "privileged" class. It's a reliable method of inducing a state of defensive sputter ("SoDS"), which is the apparent goal of most internet argumentation. Users of the term in this way clearly have no idea what it entails and would be appropriately horrified if one suggested a major increase in male-on-male rape as the appropriate solution to sexual "privilege". In this, "privilege" joins tossed off accusations of fascism as just a particular example of the internet's medium-wide attraction to ad hominem attacks. It's not harmless, but only insofar as getting caught up in dopey internet arguments isn't harmless.

2) About 20% of the time, users of "privilege" really are members of the lefty-left, who really do believe that the rights promised by liberalism are not universalizable and can only be enjoyed at the expense of some marginalized class. They believe that "power" is basic currency of social life and that all political action is essentially the struggle of who gets to hold the cudgel. They worship resistance as such, regardless of object or effectiveness.

The lefty-left's use of "privilege" is dangerous, or would be, if it caught on. But the lefty-left, as you call them, are the 60's new left, version 3, and this echo of an echo is now very weak. (Of an echo: new left thinking is pretty much just Marxism with the theoretical foundations and positive proscriptions hacked out.) New left thinking was always a campus phenomenon, but it used to be able to able to marshal support from a big chunk of the campus, first the bulk of the students, then in the 90's students in particular departments. Nowadays, arguments coming from self described feminists and minority and gay activists are usually squarely within the liberal democratic paradigm: they tend to focus on coalition building, the assertion of rights, and particular policy changes, eg: stop and frisk. The love of violent "action" for its own sake is practically gone: compare protest to the Zimmerman verdict to the Rodney King verdict, when rioting was commended (from a safe distance) as "insurrection" by many a professor.

The point is, dangerous concepts are only really dangerous when they are widely propagated. The lefty-left and their structuralist "all rights are really privileges" argument is dwindling away. Were it not for the internet actual examples would be very hard to find. As it is, we mostly hear about this stuff from conservatives whose entire job is digging up lefty-left outrages.

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

3) "Privilege" talk, like most lefty-left concepts, is fundamentally illiberal, and therefore ripe for adoption by hard-right conservatives and autocrats. When that happens, people of good will recoil, and even radical-chic professors move on to something less outre. We stopped hearing much about the social construction of scientific epistemology with climate change deniers started using the same arguments. We stopped hearing that human rights were Western cultural imperialism when the Chinese government started repeating it. Again with the internet, the conservative adoption cycle has shortened considerably, so we should be seeing this soon. "Liberal elite privilege" just sounds too good for Sarah Palin to resist.

Sorry for rambling a bit. But my overall point is simply that you should not worry much that "privilege" talk is going to get mainstreamed with the ill effects that "offensiveness" or "hate speech" had. The social conditions are just not right.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Pete Mack said...

I am not really following this argument. "White privilege" may be overused, but it's a pretty well-defined concept: People who don't see a problem personally are also less likely to see the problem globally.

It's a useful term, because it's a lesser problem than outright racism.

Yes, the basic problem is that enough innocent black people get arrested, frisked, shot or otherwise unfairly targeted that blacks have a name for discussing it: "The Talk." But to fix it, most everyone else needs to accept that it is a problem.

5:10 PM  

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