Monday, December 22, 2014

A Small Thought on Privilege

You know, on white privilege or male privilege or whatever type of privilege someone might refer to.  It just occurred to me (probably light years after it occurred to everyone else) that the way the term privilege is used upends the common way that oppression and inequality have been used:  Instead of focusing on a group that is mistreated, that has too few rights etc. many now focus on a group that is treated too well, that has too many rights etc.

Which is interesting.  Whether it works similarly to the older terminology in psychological terms is also an interesting question. 

I've written before that the concept of privilege is an excellent introspection tool.  It reminds us that other people's lives can be very different, without us knowing anything about it.  It's as if the automatic doors at the store which always open for us never open for them and must be tugged and pulled hard, and that information is valuable.

But will the linguistic upending lead to the kind of change we wish to see?  I'm not sure.  In theory there is some level of treatment which might be regarded as fair, a level which we all should be entitled to receive. 

Where is that level in the privilege debate*?  Is it when nobody has any privilege left? And how do we get to that point?  By relinquishing all our privileges (because all but the most miserable person on earth will have some "privilege"** over that person)?   Can privileges be relinquished? 

Or by bringing everyone else up to the same level of privilege? But is that still privilege then?

I think the discussion needs that third level; otherwise we just pull up and tug down and there's no objective standard about the correct treatment.
*In the older debate that level was assumed to be everybody else except the oppressed group under discussion, where oppression was defined on the basis of one dimension.  For instance, women in Saudi Arabia should have the same rights of driving cars as men do.  From the privilege approach the men there should stop driving cars, I think.
**This is because privilege has been extended from its roots in class or wealth privilege to gender and race privilege and then to religious privilege, privilege of the slim and slender, privilege of the still-healthy etc.