In an individualistic culture, it can be difficult to get people to recognize structural inequality without making them feel as though they are being accused of personal wrongdoing. Privilege discourse is one of the most widespread methods for bridging that gap. It does this by pointing out the ways that certain people’s everyday experience is not natural, but is undergirded by a social structure that benefits some and hurts others. These goals are laudable, if limited, because making people aware of a problem is of course only the first step. It’s also been pointed out that certain privileged people view privilege discourse as a new form of political correctness, a way of policing their speech — so that they respond to this attempt to break out of the cycle of personal accusation as though it were a personal accusation.
For me, though, the biggest problem is that little word “privilege.” Why should precisely that be the key term? A privilege is something extra — and from a very young age, I knew that when something was referred to as a privilege, I was in danger of losing it. How does that make sense, for instance, with something like being free from fear of police harrassment? Undoubtedly, that is part of my privilege as a white, straight, cis, well-dressed man. But when it is called a “privilege,” my initial thought is that it is something unjustified that should be taken away — i.e., we should all have to be stopped and frisked. Something similar came up in my post about how I had some degree of autonomy and dignity in my work — do we really want to say that that’s a “privilege”? In both cases, aren’t we dealing with something more like a right that’s been denied to a great many people?
There are admittedly some cases where those implications of the term “privilege” very precisely describe the phenomenon in question. No one should be able to assume that their experience is the norm for everyone. No one should be taken more seriously simply because they belong to a particular demographic group. Yet there is no way to limit the term to those cases, and even here, perhaps a meme along the lines of “yet another oblivious white dude” would be more helpful.
More alarming to me, though, is the way that the term “privilege” plays into the rhetoric of austerity. We’ve all seen the dynamic at work, for instance when people talk about how teachers have summers off and a good retirement plan, etc. The response is always to say, “That’s unfair, that should be taken away” — never “my job should be like that too!” Deprivation is taken as the baseline assumption, and anything above that is an unfair imposition. There’s no hope that my situation will get better, and my only source of satisfaction is to tear others down. The language of privilege resonates a bit too closely with this embittered hopelessness, fits in a little too neatly with the ideology of permanent austerity.
And so, privileged though I may be, I propose that we move beyond privilege discourse and find a rhetoric of hope and aspiration to replace this rhetoric of zero-sum despair.