Privilege in the COVID-19 Era

Privilege in the COVID-19 Era May 4, 2020

In our current ongoing discussion of when we should open our society back up, there is a new argument being laid out. That argument is that support of the lockdown is tied to the privilege of the elite class. Take Robby Soave’s argument that the lockdown protesters are ill-advised but understandable given the destruction of the financial place of many of them. Or Matt Walsh who stipulates that those with jobs should not “sneer” at unemployed protestors. Glenn Harlan contends that those attempting to shame the protestors are financially better off and generally insensitive to the concerns of the protestors. The basic premise is that those condemning the lockdown protestors have access to the media and can promulgate their message. They are well placed and not in danger of losing their jobs. So, who are they to condemn those who are protesting when the protestors are in a vulnerable economic situation?

I have not condemned the protestors (although those carrying firearms are very concerning to me), but a lot of my fellow professors have. If they are in my position, financially things have not gotten harder. Perhaps they are stressed at placing their courses online or trying to do research at home with their noisy kids. But their jobs are secure and whenever the lockdown ends, they will be able to resume their lives with minimal problem. This is especially the case of those of us at larger well-funded universities which are not likely to close despite the economic damage done to our economy. Most professionals also are still being paid enough money that we can have our food delivered during the lockdown. This lockdown is not easy for us, but to be honest things definitely can be worse.

So if professors or well-placed media personnel are condemning the protest of a restaurant worker who is quite unsure if he or she will have a job, or even if the restaurant will open up, then is it fair to say that they are speaking from a position of privilege? It probably is. In this situation the people with power and privilege are generally more likely to argue that we should weather this out and go for a long lockdown. Those who are marginalized are the ones who seek a quicker end to the lockout.

But everyone knows where we hear the language of privilege quite a bit. We hear white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, Christian privilege and such in attempts to apply critical theory and/or identity politics. The use of the term in that situation is defined as certain individuals have unearned advantages they take for granted. The changes the privileged want, or will oppose, in society is shaped by those advantages. When marginalized groups struggle such individuals will be somewhat callous to their struggles. So unless they recognize this privilege and then do what they can to support those in marginalized groups then the privilege will continue to act in ways that maintain their unfair societal advantage.

Anyone who has paid attention to the discourse arising out of intersectionality and identity politics will recognize that demands are often placed on the majority group to do what they can to help the marginalized groups. And some of those demands make sense. Confronting institutional forces that work against people of color that are often invisible to whites is a bit of insight that can arise out of discussions of privilege. But other demands do not make sense. For example, it is not uncommon for individuals from a group that is seen as marginalized to demand that majority group members just shut up. In the very comments in my blog I have seen people argue that whites do not have the right to speak on racial issues. I have a friend who looks white, but is not, who often critqued the critical perspective on intersectionality. He is consistently told he has nothing to say as a white man about those issues. This is an unreasonable and indefensible stance and yet it is commonly used by defenders of identity politics, and critical theory.

So what would it look like in our situation of COVID-19? Do college professors have more of a right to critique lockdown protestors than whites to critique the protest of Colin Kaepernick? Should media personnel shut up about a situation they do not face, such as the loss of their livelihood? Should only those in dire economic situations be allowed to comment on the lockdown protests?

To be clear it is true that individuals living in a given social situation have insights that others do not have. And when those individuals have been marginalized, then we do need to hear from them. Too many times people have spoken for those who are marginalized rather than allow them to speak for themselves. But that does not mean that other voices must be silenced. One should hope that we can move from a society where we only hear majority group voices to one where we hear all voices. Yet what is most common is that when people gain power, they find ways to justify ignoring the needs of others. And that includes those who were once marginalized. There seems to be a belief that individuals who are victimized should have control over others. As if they have a nobility so that what they desire is something we must deliver. That is simply not true. People who have been victimized can and do victimize others. In fact a sad reality is that often those who have been victimized will grow up to engage in the same type of victimization that was visited upon them. We need to listen to them. But we should not listen only to them.

This is not to say that there is not a time to be silent in our listening. Sometimes people just need to be heard. Sometimes they need to vent. It is appropriate to just listen in that situation. But if the person talking to us wants something tangible that may cost us or someone else, then we have a right to do more than just listen. I get to play a role in what happens if you want me to act on your behalf and not just listen to you vent. Any other standard merely makes me a slave to the whims of others.

So, this means that protestors have a say in talking about what to do in the lockout. So do the cultural elites. Blacks have a say in the use of government money to fund reparations for blacks. So do whites. Women survivors have a say in laws about sexual harassment and how due process will be defined. So do men. If we are going to act in a way that will impact multiple parties, then multiple parties have a say in what happens.

I have previously blogged about the often unrecognized costs of efforts to flattening the curve. Those are costs endured more among lower class individuals who do not enjoy job security nor have the resources to easily deal with the challenges linked to the shutdown. To be sure there are those who are being economically victimized and still want the lockdowns and those doing well economically who want to end the lockdowns. But generally we are seeing a struggle between the economic haves and have nots.

Ironically those who are in a better position to endure the lockdown are more likely to be politically progressive. They are the ones who are quick to see privilege in other situations. It seems that when those issues of privilege involve their own advantages that they are also quick to abandon recognition of privilege. It also does not escape me that some who are calling out the privilege of those elites tend to dismiss that notion when applied to people of color. There is hypocrisy all around on this issue. Consistency would demand that we treat all situations of privilege with similar principles, something that I find is often not done in the far left or far right.

I offer no solid answer as to what we should do about the lockdowns. My guess is that what they are doing in Georgia is ending the lockdown too fast, but what is happening in Michigan is the other extreme. At this point in time, I like what is happening in my own state of Texas as we slowly end some of the excesses of the lockdown. But I do not know if I am right on this. Know what? Neither do you. A modicum of humility seems to be in order. We are all trying to figure out our way around this situation. We need more voices, not fewer, with different interests and in different social positions to have the best chance to figure this out.

To this end we also should consider listening to everyone in our dealing with other social problems as well. We need to change the polarized atmosphere so that we can solve some of the problems deeply embedded in our society. In some ways this controversy represents the larger polarization in our society. A polarization that continues to play itself out even in a life or death situation. We can do better. We must do better.

Update: Some of you have stated that you are not seeing signs of protestors seeking to feed their families. I assure you such individuals are out there and are part of the effort to resist the lockdowns. I would not trust the media to show you those folks. There is a natural tendency in the media to focus on the most controversial elements in a protest. That makes for good television.

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