How many times ’round this particular bush must we beat? The latest spate of intentional misunderstandings about what privilege is and is not has spurred me finally to post my thoughts on this matter, though to be quite honest I’ve made a false start at this particular post about a dozen times now.
Privilege as a term used in social justice circles is fairly well understood. In fact, it strays not one whit from the dictionary definition, regardless of which dictionary you use:
- a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people
Definition of PRIVILEGE: a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor : prerogative; especially : such a right or immunity attached specifically to a position or an office
- Merriam-Webster (presently 19th most popular word on online lookups!)
And even law dictionaries, referring to specific legal privileges, scan in plain english:
A particular and peculiar benefit or advantage enjoyed by a person, company, or class, beyond the common advantages of other citizens. An exceptional or extraordinary power or exemption. A right, power, franchise, or immunity held by a person or class, against or beyond the course of the law.
The concept is a solid one in sociological circles, describing existing behaviour. There are books of essays by sociologists, books by sociologists exploring how privilege interacts with viewpoint, and books of theory by sociologists who are cited often in religious discussion — it’s not exactly fringe science, and it’s certainly better supported and better explored than the present state of evolutionary psychology. It involves no just-so stories, it describes reality as observed by impartial observers, and provides an explanatory framework for how these power imbalances aggregate and perpetuate themselves without any necessarily immoral behaviour by any individuals. It is a powerful framework and it is well evidenced by thousands of years of recorded history aggregated across all our cultures.
The objections to the use of the word “privilege” are once again coming from the same quarter of our community that regularly forestalls progress (and, honestly, even discussion) with regard to social justice causes. Once again, a “leader” of our respective movements has spoken up against the terrible feminists who are “silencing dissent” with our horrible bullying tactics like “blocking people on Twitter” or “disagreeing with them on their own blogs” or “asking them to kindly stop actively talking for just long enough to hear someone else’s perspective”. This leader, and the people rising up to support and defend said leader’s words, fight tooth and nail against these feminists. By attempting to poison the well for this concept, by attempting to sap away our ability to use the concept to describe reality as it exists, they are attacking by extension everyone who happens to think that women are in a disadvantaged position in our society as a whole, and therefore by extension every woman, whether they recognize or do not recognize same.
Some of this leader’s defenders are motivated reasoners; some have a skeptical blind spot when it comes to the possibility that our communities could reflect the same background levels of misogyny and bigotry. Some are Men’s Rights Activists, who run around attacking feminists under the guise of working for the same men’s disadvantages which feminism also addresses by undermining patriarchy (while, naturally, largely ignoring men’s disadvantages altogether). Still others are onlookers, fence-sitters, people who don’t care to attempt to sort out the competing claims, people who’d really rather we return to the very serious work of being rude only to Ray Comfort and Sylvia Browne.
You’ll note I haven’t stated exactly whom I’m talking about yet. There’s a reason for that.