How’s that for a provocative, click bait title? I’m looking forward to seeing who will use it, drawing conclusions from the title alone, combined with whatever they can make up in their imagination. Go ahead and post it on Twitter with a link to this page. Use it in your name-calling. You can even try referring to these pages as a “supremacist” site of some kind.
The fail will be humorous. And I will thank you for the bump in page views.
To get down to serious business: I have two important points to make about the word “privilege” and its use in our modern discourse.
One purpose is moral with regard to human nature and economics.
The other purpose is linguistic and has to do with the words that we use – or should use – to maximize our promotion of an improved, more productive society and to assist in raising up those who could use some help in the betterment of their status within our great American community.
Words make a difference. And this word, “privilege” is often used wrongly in our little one-liner byte-sized internet spats.
Let’s look at the moral argument first.
Part of our current culture, especially among some groups, is to look negatively upon wealth & elevated status. This tendency has probably always been part of cultures around the world and throughout history. (See the article “Castles on the Hill”) But this tendency promotes a destructive attitude. And it does nothing to fix the actual problems that it pretends to want to solve. It’s a tribalistic and even non-egalitarian attitude that is expressed most often by those who claim to promote egalitarianism. And it’s even kind of humorous that those who adhere to it are often the same ones who worship the rich and famous of the entertainment industry who tweet the same values that they do.
Wealth, by itself, is not a “bad” thing. It certainly is not something that is necessarily taken away from someone else. Wealth is created from scratch every day. And those who cause its creation naturally hold on to some of it.
And with wealth comes a certain amount of privilege.
To prevent the abuse of that privilege is the reason someone created the concept of a republic – so that the citizens could collectively work to promote a proper ordering of society that will benefit everyone without depending upon the edicts of a self-centered, power-driven royalty class. If that system is not working, then we need to collectively focus our attention on those specific problems and fix them.
But “privilege” as a concept and a principle itself is not, in and of itself, the problem.
And to attempt to make it go away would be immoral, and even disastrous — even to the vast majority of the “unprivileged” masses. Just look at the horrible misery and suffering of the Soviet Union, Cambodia, China, and other places that claimed to try to implement a “classless” society.
Let’s step through a quick example. And, in order to focus on the issues regarding the concept of “privilege” itself, let’s assume that all of the characters in the example are of the same race and/or gender or whatever demographic is our favorite for attempting to divide ourselves into tribal factions these days.
Let’s say we have a company with a set of employees. Now, these are the kinds of employees that I myself have seen many times performing similar tasks in the same department in an average large corporation. And, for the sake of discussion let’s say that they are all decently productive employees. Now, without regard to race, gender, color, religion, or whatever demographic, there will be different kinds of people in the group:
Kind of person #1 does the task that he or she is trained and told to do, exactly according the each step of the training as it is delivered. This is perfectly acceptable and, if the company continues to prosper, they will likely do decently well in their job. In fact, a large percentage of decently acceptable employees are like this – perhaps the majority in any given department of any given company.
Kind of person #2, when he or she finishes the given task that they were trained to do, asks their manager or team leader for more. Or perhaps they look around for other productive things to do. A person of kind #2 is more valuable to the company. And, to be clear, this person is inherently different from a person of kind #1. They have a different attitude toward their work, toward the company, and, often, toward life in general. Sometimes, with training, you can take a person of kind #1 and help them to become a person of kind #2. But not always. And this fact is often not appreciated by people in the political and even the academic realms who point out problems with society and attempt to promote solutions for them.
And then there is a person of kind #3. This person not only finishes their task and looks for more, they naturally look for ways to improve the process. Maybe they go out of their way to get a better handle on the big picture of the company. For example, if they’re in the accounting department, perhaps they occasionally get up from their desk and go out to the production facility and see how the product is made. They get to understand what management needs in order to better manage the operation. And then they build a new spreadsheet or process or computer program or whatever to compile better information. This kind of person is vastly more valuable to the company they work for, to themselves, and even to society than someone of lesser ambition.
It is a problem within our mainstream political discourse that people who promote the idea of a totally egalitarian society often do not recognize that these three are actually different kinds of people. But it’s true. They are. And it’s difficult to take a person of kind #1 and make them into a person of kind #2 or #3. I know. I’ve tried.
The difference between these three different kinds of people is a matter of self-motivation and other intellectual and emotional attributes that are entirely within the psyche of the individual people in question. Management can attempt to promote an environment that encourages better productivity. They can post slogans on the walls such as, “Work smarter, not harder!” And these things can have an effect to an extent. But, in the end, the fact of the matter is that individual people are individuals. Everyone is different. And we all have our own personal desires, drives and ambitions, aptitudes, interests, and attitudes toward life. Each and every one of these qualities of our individuality affects our worth to ourselves and others.
And this illustration only talks about the difference in economic productive value between people within a relatively generic corporate environment. Such differences are magnified exponentially for people who go and take the initiative of entrepreneurship in developing an economic enterprise or even the stress and strain of leadership within that same corporate environment.
Every discussion about economic worth must, if it is to be rational, take these individual differences between people into account. But such nuance seems to be almost entirely lacking from public political and social discussions around anything to do with the topic of “inequalities” in our society.
It is a serious problem that in our discussions it is easy to look at aggregate numbers involving facts about groups of people and come to what appear to be “fact-based” conclusions that are missing the most relevant facts. Because, when you are dealing with people, and the differences between them, the most relevant facts are always individual and personal.
A social-justice promotional tweet or even a 600 to 1,200 word article can hardly contain sufficient nuance to have much real meaning regarding even the materialistic economic worth of differing individuals in a large group of people. Unfortunately, such a publication can pull on the heartstrings of readers who are rightfully sensitive and caring while it promotes its entirely inadequate message. And thus, it can push people to desire to implement the wrong solutions to problems which, in some cases, may or may not even exist in the first place.
Now, if you seriously want to try to create a totally economically egalitarian society where everyone is treated as having “equal” economic worth, there are several things you can attempt to do. They won’t work well at all. And they will have seriously harmful unintended consequences. But you can attempt to do them anyway.
You can provide an environment that requires obedience and nothing else. This will take people of kinds #2 & #3 and make them work the same as a person of kind #1. And by doing so, you will horrendously sub-optimize your productivity, as well as the health and wellbeing of your employees who want to do more than just obey orders. This is the first immoral choice.
The next immoral choice is to let each kind of employee work at the level and in the way that they prefer, with some being, in fact, more valuable than others, but then just not recognize their differences and not reward their greater value with greater pay or other benefits. This is the immoral choice that many companies often choose. And it is the immoral choice that is sometimes forced upon them by labor unions and other standardization rules for certain kinds of tasks.
In an optimal situation, where people of different levels of ambition and aptitude who produce or contribute different amounts of value are compensated according to their actual value, they will eventually produce their own “privilege” or lack thereof, depending upon their situation and their own personal choices. And this, as far as it goes, is as it should be.
But another kind of “privilege” comes with the next generation.
Some of all three kinds of people will have children.
The children of the highly achieving kinds of people, if their parents are successful in attaining the recognition of and compensation for their economic contribution, will automatically be born into a more privileged position than the children of kind #1.
And there is no moral thing that you can do that will change that fact. It is immoral and destructive to society to try to “fix” such resulting privilege in any way that you can attempt to implement.
In articles on other pages here, we make the argument that taxation, per se, is not “theft” as some people claim it is, because a certain amount of taxation is required to support the infrastructure of running of a decent organized government in a well ordered society. And it even can be argued that more successful people use more of that infrastructure and so are due to pay somewhat more taxes.
And, even beyond that, it can be argued that a sufficiently healthy and successful society ought to be able to afford, through taxation, to provide for a minimum of support for people who fall upon hard times so that they do not starve and so that they can get back on their feet.
But “redistribution of wealth” to the point of eliminating “privilege” is entirely immoral. The concept of it completely ignores the inherent differences in ambitions, aptitudes, attitudes, and drives between different individual people. And it has led to ruinous devastation in those countries who have tried to implement it.
So that was the moral argument. Now, let’s take a look at the linguistic argument regarding the use of the word “privilege” in our contemporary social dialog:
It’s simple. The thing is that “privilege” is not really the word you ought to be looking for if you want to fix inequity that has come about due to unfairness (or for any reason, for that matter.) To look at “privileged” people and say, “check your privilege” is not useful. They, for the most part in our society, and especially with regard to the above examples, are not the source of the problem.
If you look at people who have achieved a high, or even moderate amount of success and tell them as a group that they are somehow being “unfair” merely due to their success, or if you imply that their success is somehow the source of the problems for some large group of others, all you will do is to alienate them. You will not win them over to your side. They will oppose you, both in the ballot box and in the public discussion of social issues — as they should, because you are not making a valid argument or even attempting to fix the actual problem.
Now, we should not ignore the fact that there are, in fact, people who, due to some happenstance of their birth, whether it’s prejudice against them due to their race (which does, in fact, still happen) or whether it’s their childhood neighborhood and associates, or whether it’s a physical disability, are born and raised in a position of exclusion from some of the opportunities that others have had.
But casting aspersions on successful people does nothing to help the situation of those who are less fortunate.
That’s not the right focus.
I know the claim is that referring to the “privilege” of successful people or people who do not face oppression is not meant as blame. But it sounds like blame. And that’s the problem. And no, it’s not that the so-called “privileged” people are overly sensitive. It’s that the use of the word in that way places the focus in the wrong place and does not property highlight the problems that those who use it in that way claim they are trying to highlight. And, frankly, the use of it in that way just sounds like whining.
The problem is not that successful people are successful. Some modicum of success in life is not a “privilege.” It should be the normal condition.
Likewise, the problem is not that those who are not facing prejudice are not having problems with prejudice. Lack of prejudice is not a “privilege.” It should be the normal condition.
The problems that need to be highlighted are in the causes of the disadvantage for those who are at a disadvantage. And our language should focus on highlighting and fixing the problems where they exist and not on words that can easily be taken as whining or implicit blame of others.
Has a lack of a quality education caused a disadvantage for some people? Then highlight that problem and fix it.
Is racial prejudice negatively impacting lives? Then highlight that problem, too, and fix it.
The problem is not that the “normal” people of the rest of the world have excess “privilege.” The problems that ought to be highlighted are the actual problems and conditions of those who are affected by them.
It might not fit as well into our small-minded internet one-liners. But we should focus on raising up the people who ought to be raised up and not on spouting our twitter-based spat at those who are not the ones who are in need of having their situation improved.
And if, instead of pointing fingers at what ought to be the normal condition in life and calling it “privilege,” we offer reminders that there are people who ought to have help in improving their situations and opportunities in life, we will meet with a much more positive response.