Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In Defense of Privilege

It's the latest buzzword on the left, or so it seems, given the frequency with which I hear it.  The name of the problem is now "privilege."

What it means for a person to have privilege is that they are advantaged in an array of different ways.

I am, for pointed example, "privileged."  I live comfortably, in a way that renders me indistinguishable from much of the culture around me but that would mark my household as radically privileged globally.  I am well educated, and well fed.  I have enough leisure time to recreate, and to think, and to be creative.  I do not live in fear that what I say or do might result in my abduction or torture by an oppressive government.  I do not view my ethnic or gender identity as a radically defining category, because neither has caused me to experience significant repression or societal hostility.

In those very significant senses, I am privileged.  Having traveled to places in the world where the majority of human beings do not live with such privilege, I have no desire to set it aside.

So I am aware of what constitutes my privilege.  What I can't quite get, though, is why any of those things are bad.  Should I be actively oppressed?  Would that make me somehow more authentic as a person?  Must I be hungry to stand in solidarity with the hungry, or poor to desire the well-being of the poor, or oppressed for my sexual identity to understand the difficult cultural place experienced by gays and lesbians?

And here I was assuming that hunger, poverty, racism, and oppression were things we wanted to be rid of.

What I also can't quite get is the peculiar irony of the term, as it is used now.  Concern about "privilege" seems to rise most intensely from those who are educated, well-fed, and living in the Global North.  Meaning, thems who is most excised about privilege are themselves creatures of privilege.

If they weren't privileged, they'd be too busy with the struggle for survival to overthink such things.  African  subsistence  farmers and struggling three-job red-state Americans do not have time to whip off long snarky missives about how being playful and at ease with your life is a sign of white heteronormative privilege.  They do not have time to write academic essays on the structuring logics of privilege.  They have neither the time nor the patience for twitter.

Long and short of it: if you're reading this blog, odds are that you are a net-connected, literate human being with time enough on their hands to do such things.  You are as privileged as I.

The issue, as I see it, is not the state of being free of oppression, or free to do what one wishes.  That is not "privilege."  Assuming that it is fundamentally misses the meaning of the word.

And yes, pomo kids, words have meanings.  That's their purpose.  They point us to a particular state of being.  They are signs.  You know, semeion, the Greek root of the term semiotics.  If we muck around with the very idea of meanings, and say words are social constructs that can mean anything we wish them to mean, then language becomes tuna flavor bit crumpet.  Utterly bit crumpet.

The issue with privilege is not that some are free to live as they choose.  It is that others are not at liberty as I am at liberty.  It is that the fundamental human rights of others are not given play.

If you are a gay man in Nigeria, that you are not able to be as free as I am with your identity offends me.  If you are a black man in America, and you can't walk through a neighborhood without people sketching on you, that troubles me.  If you are female and find yourself paid less for the same work or viewed only through the lenses of marketized sexuality, I see, in your struggles, my own self oppressed.

From that position of strength, what I do not want is more privilege for myself.  I do not want it to be something that gives me advantage over another, whoever that other is.  What I want is for you to be equally blessed.  You should have the same opportunities, and where culture makes that unnecessarily harder, those barriers should be removed.  You should not experience any negative ramifications from your sense of your own identity, to the point where you view it as an interesting part of yourself, but not something that limits you or that must be hidden.

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