August 2013 Archives

The "Privilege" Fallacy

Let me be very clear: I have never disagreed that it is a truth that some people in western culture have it easier than others.  To deny that heterosexual, Christian white males in the United States have the deck stacked in their favor would be to deny reality. Though things have gotten better in the last few decades, and we're on a trajectory toward a more inclusive culture overall, we still have much progress to be made.  I don't deny any of these things, and in fact I am one of the people working to even the odds a little.  Being a gay atheist has also given me some insight into what it means to have to work a little harder because you're not automatically included.

Having said all of that, I have seen and experienced firsthand a disturbing trend among the more sanctimonious hipster crowd in which this unfortunate facet of current social norms is not used as a reminder that we must do more to level the playing field, but rather as a mechanism to attack others, insist upon their guilt, and, perhaps most egregiously of all, to exclude them from the conversation entirely.  If you should dare to attempt to express an opinion, play the devil's advocate, or otherwise question the conventional wisdom or party line, you can almost set your watch by how long it'll take before someone hisses "privilege" at you, should you happen to be any combination of white, male, heterosexual, or Christian (in the US at least).

The implication, of course, is that you cannot possibly have anything to add to the discussion, nor is it even possible that you might have a point of value to make or something thought-provoking to say, because, simply by virtue of your genitalia, you are such a sociopathic monster that you are utterly without empathy for anyone else and incapable of seeing the world from another person's perspective.  By any standard, this is an ad-hominem, a logical fallacy of the most trivial order.  Your idea cannot be discussed, because you are de-facto "bad" and probably not even a human being.  You belong to the "privileged" few, like it or not, and so nothing you could possibly say (unless it toes the party line) could possibly have any value whatsoever.

You could be volunteering in women's shelters, fighting AIDS in South Africa, feeding the homeless in soup kitchens, voting for candidates who support equality for everyone, contributing money to help open schools for underprivileged girls in far corners of the world while yodeling and drinking a glass of water at the same time, and none of that would count for anything.  You're "privileged" so you're not invited to the discussion (if you could call it a discussion; most real discussions have more than one side or at least consider multiple points of view) and nothing you could ever say could possibly be considered for any reason. You are a monster by birth.

"Privilege" isn't even the right word to use, but those who spit it at others enjoy it for the negative connotations it has.  The word conjures up ideas of being fed with a silver spoon, having everything handed to you with little or nothing asked in return, living a life of luxury and ease.  And while it's true to say that heterosexual white male Christians may be playing the game of life on the easiest setting, it's not correct to say that anyone growing up in middle-class or poor America is really living a life of "privilege."  It's not easy, even on the easiest setting.  Sure, it's definitely harder if you're, say, a dark-skinned woman, but that doesn't mean it's trivial otherwise.

Of course people puking out this sort of attack know that, but it wouldn't be as much fun to say something like, "I question whether you're able to empathize about this situation due to your background."  Why?  Because that's an affirmative statement that someone can actually be asked to defend.  Oh really?  Why do you think I'm incapable of experiencing empathy, exactly?  Conversely, the projectile-diarrhea of "privilege" just means that you have light skin or male genitals, to which the accused (presumed guilty) can't really mount a defense.  That is, of course, the intention.  It's a cheat, not a thoughtful response.

(Using a word like "privilege" in this manner also allows its users to avoid being accused of any impropriety themselves.  Imagine if, instead of shouting "privilege," someone shouted, "you're only saying that because you're white" or "you just think that because you're a man."  When you put it like that, it sounds like the mean-spirited, shallow, sweeping generalization that it is.)

It is among the most intellectually lazy of fallacious arguments, but more egregiously, it is used to prevent a conversation from happening, rather than having a conversation with someone who has already expressed an interest in hearing different points of view.  It is saying, "I cannot provide (or can't be bothered to provide) an intelligent or reasonable response to what you've said, therefore let's just assume you're horrible and you lose."

In effect, this blanket, targeted exclusion of certain people from even being invited to participate in the discourse demonstrates the very height of hypocrisy in many cases: in response to people being treated unfairly because of their gender, skin color, sexual orientation, etc., those who assert "privilege" as a mechanism of exclusion are, in fact, targeting others to treat them unfairly based solely on their gender, skin color, sexual orientation, etc.

Now some might argue that this is only fair; after all, isn't it just a question of the tables being turned?  That depends on whether you want a discussion or you want revenge.  It depends on whether adding more wrongs on the pile make the world more fair.

So if you want revenge, and if you think the best way to resolve egregious behavior by others is more egregious behavior on your part, then by all means, accuse someone of having "privilege". It'll make you feel better, because launching personal attacks on others always does.

But if you don't want to be intellectually lazy, avoiding questions to which you may not have good answers, perhaps you could try listening to what the other person has to say, evaluating what they've said to see if perhaps they could have something worth thinking about to say, and providing an adequate and thoughtful response.  Yes, even if you feel like you've said it a thousand times before, maybe you haven't said it to this person before, or maybe there's a better way to say it. This is how civil discourse is supposed to work.  It's supposed to be civil (maybe even free from personal attacks) and involving discourse (multiple people being permitted to contribute to the discussion).

Yes, it's more effort to explain to another person your different perspective and to elucidate how your own experiences led you to have a different point of view.  Sorry.

Think about it carefully: when you already have someone's ear, and they're receptive to communicating with you on a topic, why would you deliberately shut them out with such a thoughtless accusation?  You have a teaching and a learning opportunity when you engage with another person.  Don't throw it away out of spite.

Postscript: Let's open a betting pool on how long it'll be before someone says, "well this is exactly what I would expect a privileged person to say!"  (rather than actually offer any counterpoint to anything I've said, of course).
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