Considering ‘Privilege,’ White, Wiccan, and otherwise. Part II: When the language of privilege works and when it does not

Considering ‘Privilege,’ White, Wiccan, and otherwise. Part II: When the language of privilege works and when it does not March 27, 2014

Part II argues the problems with ‘Wiccan privilege’ as a concept are rooted in the current abuse of the term in social and political analysis.  While the term has a narrowly circumscribed realm where it provides important insights, its expansion beyond this realm has led to considerable confusion and worse.  I use the example of ‘White male privilege’ to demonstrate this point, focusing on its analytical, moral, and political shortcomings.

All else being equal, in America it is better to be born a white male than a male of any other race or a female of any race. Despite universal formal equality under the law, the combined influences of childhood socialization, ingrained cultural habits and informal arrangements among police and others with authority and power, means in most contexts White males usually enjoy greater leniency and often economic opportunity compared to other people.

This is true even when they are almost certainly stealing.   The video illustrates one example of a all too common double standard.  It is not unique. New York would never have applied “stop and frisk” to White males, as it did with Black men. We frequently hear of “Black-on-Black” crime, but not ‘White-on-White’ crime, yet in reality both Whites and Blacks are far more likely to be killed by someone of their own race than of another.    When I go on a road trip, about the last thing I need to think about is what Black drivers have to think about a lot: driving while Black.   Driving while White is a ‘privilege’ by Laurie Penny’s definition:  “any structural social advantage that you have by virtue of birth, or position” and whatever we call it, it is unlikely to provoke police harassment, violence, or arrest.

Nor are the benefits of being a White male in this country only racial.  Our dominant religion has a long history of justifying and even commanding the legal and social subordination of women. In many churches they are still told it is their God’s will that they be obedient and subordinate to their husbands, as their husbands are supposed to be to God.  The worst of these people   seek to bring back the worst of those times.  Secular institutions also long differentiated between men and women, usually, (but not always, remember the draft?) to the benefit of the man.

In addition, some white men come from economically prosperous families, inheriting more wealth, and being better situated to enter important social networks useful for gaining additional power, status, and wealth. In this country, powerful elites are mostly White males.

Sometimes too much is made of this.  The longest residing American ethnic group (other than dispossessed Indians) has been Europeans. European cultures long had customs and laws enforcing male supremacy over women and the advantages of the propertied over the propertyless. European immigrants brought these customs with them.  While in time the logic of equality and democracy began a slow cultural change, that change is far from complete regarding gender or race. Issues involving race and gender have been perennial issues in American society and politics.

At no point in the above description did I use the word ‘privilege’ to describe anything other than referencing Penny’s advocacy of the term. Would applying “privilege” to label these advantages some have over others done any additional work deepening our understanding of inequality?

It would not. Worse, outside a very narrow context its use muddies the understandings we do have.  The term has many drawbacks and here, I will examine its intellectual, moral and political drawbacks. Part III will explore the spiritual and occult drawbacks as well as how better to think about equality and inequality.

Intellectual failings

The word ‘privilege’ lumps different kinds of advantages arising from different causes into a single term, in the process confusing our ability to understand equality and inequality in human life. For example, the advantages of inheritance are lumped with the advantages of hard work, racism, and luck.  All four unequally empower some and not others, thereby constituting ‘privilege’.  (Even the likelihood and form luck takes reflects our social positions, and so is influenced by our ‘privilege’.) But their impact on the quality of life varies a lot as does their moral weight.

Failing I: a blanket term for multiple causes with multiple effects

Let’s take one important example.  White men are said to be ‘privileged’ when they bring in better incomes than Blacks.

Years ago when reading Thomas Sowell’s ­­­­­Ethnic America I learned that most American Blacks are members of one of three communities: those liberated from slavery in the north shortly after the American Revolution, the vast majority liberated in the South after the Civil War, and immigrants from the Caribbean.  I had never thought to make such a distinction, nor I imagine have most White people reading this piece.  My best Black friend, who has no use for Sowell’s politics, assures me this fact is well known in the Black community.

According to Sowell, Caribbean immigrants’ descendents have educations and incomes close to the level of the White community and are disproportionately represented among the leaders of the Black community.  The differences between Caribbean and non-immigrant Blacks are certainly not racial, nor are they the outcome of White society discriminating less against Caribbean immigrants because Whites generally are unaware of this distinction.  Sowell argued the basic differences between these groups are cultural.

Sowell is wrong. The differences exist because Caribbean immigrants tended to be skilled and literate, in fact even more so than most European immigrants or America’s Black residents.

The explanation needs no talk of ‘privilege.’  Caribbean immigrants disproportionately came from the best educated and most prosperous classes of Blacks in the West Indies.  Today we would call their coming here a “brain drain” from the West Indies to the US.  They arrived with skills and attitudes that empowered them in their new country, enabling them on the whole to do better than the less educated American Black population. But in time White immigrants’ incomes surpassed those better trained, more literate, and fluent English speaking Caribbean Blacks.  The reason was White racism. Their skills did not enable them to overcome the invidious racism of dominant American culture.

Were White immigrants ‘privileged’ with respect to Caribbean Blacks?  Were Caribbean Blacks ‘privileged’ compared to American Blacks?  Were American Whites more privileged with respect to American Blacks than they were to Caribbean Blacks?  All these uses of the term  fit Penny’s definition of privilege.  But does this line of questioning shed any light on anything of interest? Not that I can see.

Failing II: analytical incoherence

The video I linked to showing people’s very different reactions to a young white man and a young Black man apparently stealing a bicycle is about as clear an example of “White male privilege” as one could find. In these examples the ‘privilege’ is to be given the benefit of the doubt.  If ‘privilege’ meant getting more benefit of the doubt than others in ambiguous situations it gives a useful name to phenomena too little acknowledged by its beneficiaries.  Here the term does useful work expanding our understanding.

Even so, if viewed to the end,  the video shows White women get even more privilege in this case than do White men.  Yet White women are universally regarded as less ‘privileged’ than White men.

This example demonstrates ‘privilege’s’ inadequacy as a general term for describing, let alone understanding, differences in advantages and disadvantages between groups. The advantage women have in this case is rooted in sexual dynamics: straight men want to come to the favorable notice of women they find attractive.  White male privilege with regard to stealing bicycles is rooted in considering Blacks as more dishonest than Whites.

‘Privilege’ usefully describes advantages largely invisible to the advantaged but visible to others, advantages that when absent encourage fear, distrust, and hostility.  What I put into italics is crucial.  In contexts like that the term “White male privilege” or equivalent uses identify something real. If there had been no White male advantage of this sort Trayvon Martin would be alive today.

But when applied more broadly, as Penny’s definition does,  ‘privilege’ leads to the problems I discussed regarding ‘Wiccan privilege’. For example, evolutionary theory is ‘privileged’ compared to ‘creation science’ or ‘intelligent design’ and for reasonable people science is ‘privileged’ compared to the Bible. But unreasonable Christians ‘privilege’ a ‘literal’ reading of the Bible over science.  Indeed, success in just about any context no matter how achieved is ‘privileged.’

The term is too broad, too all encompassing, and too abstract to do much serious work. It needs to be kept on a tight leash.   Broad applications of  terms such as “White male privilege” should be abandoned when more specific terminology does justice to the complexities involved, such as prejudice, racism, and sexism.

Moral failings

In discussing ‘Wiccan privilege’ I covered the moral failing of not appreciating how significant differences between people help create and sustain a better world for all.  The zero-sum logic underlying the widespread use of privilege is anti-human.  We are not mostly interchangeable ants or termites.  But there are two additional moral failings to the widespread use of this term.

First, the language and logic of ‘privilege’ is weakening and often replacing the language of rights.  Second, terms like “White male privilege” are applied to a group rather than an individual and yet individual members of the group may have done nothing to create or strengthen their privilege nor could they do anything to diminish it.  In fact, the term is often applied to individuals who in fact are victims of the very processes and actions associated with creating and maintaining ‘White male privilege.’

Failing I: ‘Privilege’ is almost always an inferior standard to ‘rights’

All White males benefit from some of the phenomena labeled ‘White male privilege,’ such as more considerate treatment by police officers, special preferences in hiring, or more trust in ambiguous situations, but other advantages accrue to only a very few, such as good economic opportunities.  Most White males are neither particularly powerful nor particularly privileged. There are many millions more  poor White males than poor Black males, and the benefits they receive from being White are usually overridden by the price they pay for being powerless with respect to powerful White males. The alternative argument is to argue poor White males would be even more poor in the absence of White male privilege.  I hope everyone sees it is false.  These poor White men are not in a position to make or enforce the laws that generate an oligarchic class greatly benefiting some Whites and in less central ways benefiting most.  Nor did they have any role in establishing that situation.

Nearly all the ‘privileges’ that apply to all White males are better described as rights that should apply to everyone by virtue of their being a person.  For example, everyone should be treated courteously by police officers and everyone should be evaluated for a position by virtue of their qualifications alone unless close personal relationships are important, as in renting a room in your house.  Here ‘privilege’ simply means someone’s rights are not violated.

As illustrated in the bicycle example, the case of advantages in ambiguous situations involves stereotyping.  Stereotyping is probably unavoidable.  The best we can do is be aware of our tendency to give the benefit of the doubt when it is not justified to some groups and not to others, and the converse, and so not to act on our inclination. ‘Privilege’ describes those who automatically benefit from a stereotype that advantages them beyond their merits just as its opposite penalizes those falling into a negative stereotype for actions and attitudes of which they are innocent. “White male privilege’ is also a stereotype, and this injunction should apply to those holding it as much as to those distrusting young Black men because they are Black.

Stereotypes are tricky. In the bicycle example one could argue passers by acted appropriately in questioning the Black man sawing through the bicycle lock and inappropriately in not questioning the White man and woman.  The language of rights does not work.  This is why ‘privilege’ works better in this case.  But it always has to be applied to a specific context because, as we saw when we included the woman in the bicycle caper, applied abstractly, ‘privilege’ implies women are more privileged than men.  In some contexts they are.  Consider again the military draft during the Vietnam War.   In many other cases men have the advantage.

When applied to adults ‘privilege’ normally implies those possessing it possess an unearned advantage over others denied the ‘privilege.’ ‘Privilege’ and ‘rights,’ as we saw in Part I, are usually mutually exclusive. When ‘White male privilege’ describes both the freedom to travel unhindered by police and preference in hiring, a right is blurred with actions undermining others’ rights. 

Rights recognize and legitimize some important differences arising from their use whereas using ‘privilege’ in their place shifts our focus towards legitimating only identity. Every difference has to be justified against this standard.  Our focus turns from identifying guilty parties to focusing on the beneficiaries of others’ bad (or even not bad)  acts, who may themselves be entirely innocent and powerless.

Basic rights apply to individuals by virtue of our common humanity or our common membership in a community of political equals.  Reference to rights focuses on whether a person has them or is unjustly denied them.  It has proven a powerful term for social transformation, from the inalienable rights (not privileges) enumerated in our Declaration of Independence to the civil rights movement (not Black access to White civil privileges), voting rights for women (not women’s access to mens’ voting privileges), and gay rights movement (not gay people’s access to straight people’s privileges).

Shifting from demanding rights due to all to attacking privileges enjoyed by a few weakens the moral foundations of a free society because those foundations are not simple equality of influence but rather equality of rights.  Equal rights always lead to unequal influence.

Moral failing II: promoting collectivist ‘morality’

I believe we are predisposed to identify with those with whom we have the most concrete relationships, and who are the most like us.  This predisposition is the first step in the progressive opening of our hearts from narcissism towards the wider world of other individuals. Unfortunately at some point this process often comes to a halt.  Some people are considered morally significant, others not.

Much of human history can be viewed as the slow expansion of the ethically relevant community to encompass ever more of us.  Viewed in this way nationalism is a step beyond tribalism because it includes a larger and more diverse group as morally worthy, but it still maintains a tribal distrust of others and willingness to demonize them when conflicts arise, as demonstrated by many Americans’ indifference to Iraqi deaths at our hands, despite their having done us no harm.

The morality of individual rights pushes against this tendency, and has proven more successful at doing so than anything else in history. As we incorporate others increasingly different from ourselves into our moral universe as right holders our capacity to cooperate and live peacefully with others increases.

Collectivism pushes in the opposite direction, taking to an extreme our all-too-human tendency to over identify with an in-group at others’ expense.  The well-being of the group transcends both those outside the group, and even the individuals within it, who acquire their worth only by serving the group.  People’s identities are subordinated to the group of which they are a member.  To refer again to Iraq, when the Dixie Chicks criticized President Bush they were vilified, their recordings destroyed, and right wing corporate radio no longer played them.  They were no longer worthy of respect because they disagreed with America’s collectivists.

From this perspective young women killed for having brought ‘dishonor’ to their families or Whites killed by Southerners for supporting civil rights are the victims of collectivist morality as are the 300 Black American killed in White attacks on their neighborhoods in Tulsa, Oklahoma or fellow Whites (“race traitors”)  often murdered  while supporting Black civil rights.  The parallel to Communist views of “class enemies” is exact.  Collectivist attitudes ultimately encompass the greatest crimes in human history, such as the millions of “class enemies” killed in Maoist China.  The difference between an honor killing and genocide or class annihilation is the size of the victimized group, not the nature of the thinking that led to the murders.

‘White male privilege’ is a collectivist concept.  To see why, compare it to Jewish banker privilege. Within American society more male Jews do better in terms of economic wealth, education, and cultural impact than a simple description of their population would indicate.  Banking is a profession Jewish professionals are well represented in.  The logic behind using these labels for Jewish bankers and White males is the same.  But most of us would probably feel considerable unease using the term ‘Jewish banker privilege’ and for good reason.

Long ago Jews were prevented from joining many professions, but were permitted to engage in banking. Christians were not supposed to charge interest but kings wanted to borrow money for their wars. Jews were going to Hell anyway and kings wanted money. Jews got into finance early and, once in, stayed in.   In addition, bankers are a profession and Jews are disproportionately represented in American professions.    It would be strange if Jews were not disproportionately represented in banking.  Current Jewish banker ‘privilege,’ arose in large part out of their being a oppressed minority allowed to enter a profession from which others were barred, a profession that became increasingly important.

Does any new insight came from using the term ‘privilege’ with respect to understanding the greater presence of Jews in banking?  None at all.  In fact it masks the historical reality that their current ‘over-representation’ arose out of prolonged discrimination combined with a changing economy.

The depredations against American society by Jewish bankers and money men like Lloyd Blankfein have nothing to do with their being Jewish and everything to do with their being people of a certain amoral stripe. That amoral group includes many non-Jews and excludes most Jews. WASP bankers acting similarly are as guilty. Of course, the WASPs could have been said to have ‘White male privilege.’  But again, what does the term ‘privilege’ tell us? Again it focuses attention on a group most of whose members had no role at all in the problem.

The crimes against the Jewish people have many causes, but a major one is viewing them from a collectivist perspective, as a disliked group of crooked bankers and money-men or Christ killers or aliens within the Völk. Those thinking in this way are focused on the group they have defined, not the individuals.

Morality concerns relations between individuals.  Any effort to subordinate individuals to collective criteria separated from their actions weakens morality and if the group is weak enough increases the likelihood of their oppression.  Unlike Jews in Hitler’s Germany White males are too strong to be directly threatened. In fact, they dominate our society. But the error is the same, only the power of different groups leads to different outcomes.

Political Failings

Political Failing I: assisting the oppressor

When powerless white men are lumped with those who are powerful because both are White and so have advantages over Blacks, and are then attacked as a class, their similarities with those who dis-empower them are emphasized and their similarities with the victimized, who are not White males, are de-emphasized.  Yet it is their common victimization that is important. It is people’s ability to identify with others that leads the oppressed to ally with one another and also leads some who are not oppressed to ally themselves with those who are.

Blurring the differences between powerful and powerless White men while emphasizing the differences between powerless Whites and powerless Blacks has long been the successful strategy of Southern elites. Many poor Whites identify more with being White than being poor.  At least, they think, they aren’t Black.  Both poor Whites and poor Blacks are the worse for it and oligarchic racist elites are the big winners.

The same strategy seems to be being pursued today by those leading the political right. Starting with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority through Pat Buchanan’s “culture wars” to the endless wars we hear about today on Christmas, on religion, on Easter, and other simple minded appeals, they endlessly stir up resentments and ultimately hatreds over differences between people in lifestyles and gender.  As the targeted weak or foolish focus angrily or defensively on where they differ from one another the powerful are assisted mightily in securing and increasing their domination over us all.

A focus on the ‘privileges’ of members of one’s own weak community or their allies is deeply destructive. When Black nationalists attacked those considered too ‘moderate’ despite their gains, as well as their White allies, and drove them out of the Civil Rights movement, that cause withered.  The same stuff has repeatedly afflicted feminism, and now we see this cancer, and it is a cancer, growing in the Pagan community.  When ‘privilege’ is misused in communities of the weak, those who use it are doing the work of the strong, whatever their rhetoric to the contrary might claim.

My heart expands when I can put myself in the place of another, and it expands most when I put myself in the place of someone unlike me.  Emphasizing what the oppressed share in common helps them build networks of understanding, identification, and ultimately resistance.  When divisive differences are emphasized within a community, it falls apart.

There is another important way this kind of analysis gets in the way of understanding society.

Political failing II: Undermining freedom

When differences are perceived in zero sum terms, they become problems to be overcome.  But any time people are free to act, society generates differences benefiting some unequally.  Those differences reflect historical, cultural, biographical and purely fortuitous events as well as our own more personal qualities. They are the outcome of people acting freely within a historical and cultural context they did not create and do not control.

Differences that matter to us are intrinsic to who we are and are often increased when we are free to make our own choices.  To call the successful outcome of these choices “privileges” is to do violence to what the term has traditionally meant and denigrate the results of living with freedom of choice.

Because our choices are influenced by our environment, and all environments reflect their past, including past injustices that leave their ripples across millennia, there will always be cases where “privilege” sort of fits to describe differences we do not like.  Any advantage anyone has today will to some degree reflect some unjust action committed by someone in the past.  I would not exist if Hitler had not come to power and WWII had not happened, and most of you would not either.

In addition, virtually any significant advantage someone acquired peacefully will in fact benefit many who might consider them ‘privileged.’ I earlier gave the example of the Pagans whining about ‘Wiccan privilege’ who benefited enormously from the work many Wiccans have done over many decades educating the broader society that Pagan does not equal Satanist or monster of some sort.   This is the normal pattern of relationships within a vital and creative society. A society where on balance the inequalities emerging out of cooperation benefit many more than those immediately involved.  Outside the realm of legal privileges and fortunate upbringings, the term’s utility rapidly degenerates and the distortions it introduces into understanding what is happening rapidly increase.

A free society is an complex network of relations many of which are unequal. It is a social ecosystem. As in biological ecosystems, these networks shape individual lives, the institutions within which we live, and ultimately society as a whole.  It is not a hierarchy of privilege such that if privilege is eliminated, all would become equally free and influential in the same way.  That ideal might fit a Hutterite  community in Montana, but it will not fit anything much larger or ideologically less homogenous.

The word ‘privilege’ should be used very carefully and exactly, or not at all. When there are legal privileges such as those of the 1% as compared with the rest of us, the term is accurate because it harkens back to aristocracy.  It refers to the privileges of class. It can also be legitimately used when focused on specific contexts like our bicycle example.  But as we saw, it is easy to expand that context to where the term causes far more confusion than understanding.

Beyond this the word “privilege” is too abstract to do the work that needs to be done when we discuss the intricacies of equality and inequality and how to make life better.

To this point I have written as a social scientist who could be 100% secular in his outlook.  But I am not secular and there are important occult and spiritual issues at work here as well. Part III will deal with them.

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