While it is common for social justice activists to invoke the concept of”privilege,” as critical thinkers, we are obligated to consider the simple fact that the word is being used in an activist context. And that means it is commonly used in a propagandistic context. This fact should not be ignored or downplayed.
Note how the word is defined in this propaganda poster:
Unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group.
Yet consider how the word is defined in the dictionary:
a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor
The dictionary definition is important because it reflects how most people define privilege in their own minds. It is the common meaning. Yet that definition is not the one social justice activists are using.
When we compare the definitions, note that the social justice version equates privilege as something that is unearned. Yet in the real world, privileges can be earned. A good employee, for example, might be rewarded with certain work-related privileges. A parent might confer certain privileges to their child as a reward for good behavior. Thus, in the real world, privileges can be earned and unearned. But in the social justice world, they are all unearned.
A second change can be seen when social justice activists define privilege as something conferred to the “dominant social group.” In the real world, privileges can be conferred to individuals (see the examples above). They can also be conferred based on membership in a non-dominant group. Children, for example, are not the dominant social group. Yet if a child commits a crime, the child has certain privileges that the adult lacks when it comes to the legal system. Furthermore, I would not consider the elderly a dominant social group. Yet many businesses confer the privilege of various discounts to them.
The concept of privilege in the real world is a complex one involving multiple variables. Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is bad. But in the social justice mindset, this complex reality is reduced to an overly simplistic formula that not only fails to reflect reality, but also exploits and manipulates emotions. For the basic message of the social justice definition is that all privilege is bad, as it is akin to a boot being placed on the throat of the non-dominant social groups to allow the dominant groups to revel in their unearned rewards. This message is designed to elicit resentment, anger, and even hate – the very emotions activists need to arouse in order to manipulate and mobilize their followers. Clearly, the social justice concept of privilege qualifies as propaganda.
What’s more, the social justice concept of privilege becomes nonsensical if we look closely at it. Let’s take the first example of “privilege” as being able-bodied physically and mentally. In other words, according to the social justice activists, being healthy is a privilege. Really?
It’s estimated that there are around 30,000 diseases that can afflict humans. Let’s be very conservative and assume each disease has an average of two symptoms/signs that put the ill person at some form of disadvantage compared to the healthy. With social justice logic, that would mean a typical healthy person has around sixty thousand privileges. Does that sound right to you? According to social justice logic, your ability to get about 6 hours of sleep, to wake up in the morning and get out of bed, to walk to the bathroom, to urinate into the toilet, to pick up a tooth brush to use on teeth that you actually have, all of that is one package of privileges. And it continues. No migraine? A privilege. No anxiety disorder, so you have the privilege of leaving the house. No digestive system disorder, so you are privileged to get a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. The privileges rain on you all day long. You are soaked in them.
But does it really make sense to insist that the healthy have thousands and thousands of privileges they experience each moment of every day? If just about everything becomes a privilege, including use of the bathroom and eating a McDonald’s sandwich, haven’t we drained the word “privilege” of any substantive meaning?
I think a core problem here is that we commonly associate privilege with a special status, such that privileges can be revoked causing one to default back to a non-special status. Yet when someone comes down with a disease, we do not think of that person as having a privilege revoked. We do not think of the diseased state as the default state that one reverts back to. A secular person can consider herself lucky for being healthy and a religious person might consider himself blessed (and is thankful). But privilege? It’s a bad fit.
Consider the fact that as I have gotten older, I need to wear glasses. I never needed them when I was younger, so I can speak from experience of living with and without them. One thing I have noticed is that it is sometimes hard for me to read the ingredients on a package of food or medicine while I am in the store. The font is much too small. Clearly, I need to get some new glasses. But those with perfect vision don’t have this need nor experience this obstacle. Does this mean I view people who don’t need glasses as being privileged? Do I look back and consider my younger self as being privileged? No. Not. At. All. The word ‘privilege’ doesn’t belong in such reflections.
And I think it gets worse if we try to impose that social justice template on this. The unspoken, but universally assumed, essence of privilege is that it is tied to oppression. For that is what makes the “privilege” a problem. That’s why it is supposed to be a bad thing. Yet this entire theme collapses if we consider specific examples of “privilege.” When we do so, we’ll notice that in most cases, the “privilege” has nothing to do with oppression.
Consider the fact that, thankfully, I have never suffered a spinal cord injury. As such, I have the use of my legs. The USA has a population of 325 million people. Among us, there is between 240,000 and 337,000 people who are currently living with a spinal cord injury. We’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that they all have lost the use of their legs. That would mean 99.9% of Americans have use of their legs putting us in the dominant social group.
And the use of our legs does give us social power, as enhanced mobility is going to correlate with greater advantages. Take, as just one example, the ability to use stairs. It is easy for me to access the second story of any building because of stairs. Those without the use of their legs cannot do likewise and are restricted to using an elevator (which I too can use if I want). This gives me an advantage in terms of choices, convenience, and time management. And that can translate as power. But is this truly a privilege?
Stairs were not invented to oppress the disabled. They were not invented to give special favors to those who can use their legs. They were invented for the simple brute fact that 99.9% of us have the use of our legs. If you have a population of 325 million people, and 324+ million can use their legs, these 324+ million people will create an environment built around their ability to use their legs. That’s all that is happening here. There is nothing immoral or sinister about it. No one was trying to secure a privileged status. No one set out to exclude the disabled. It’s just a majority working together and coming up with a way of getting its needs met. In fact, if disabled people magically disappeared, stairs would continue to exist and be widely used as they have always been. If stairs had anything to do with oppression, shouldn’t their existence depend on the existence of the group that, by definition, is supposedly being oppressed by such a privilege? How can stairs be a sign of privilege/oppression when they would exist in the same way if there was no one to oppress or exclude?
The same principle is at work where any suggestion of oppression would be laughable. Consider the Miami Dolphins’ fans who live in Miami. If they want to watch the Dolphins play football while wearing Miami Dolphin clothing, it will be relatively easy for them. Most stores will sell the gear and tickets and the stadium is a short drive away. But if you are a Green Bay Packers fan living in Miami, you will not have it as easy. If you want to watch the Packers play in person, you have a very long drive. And you’ll have a much harder time finding Green Bay Packers gear in the Miami stores. Being a Dolphins fan in Miami gives you “unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group.” But is it privilege? Is it oppression? Of course not. Being a Dolphins fan in Miami simply means you are part of a very large group that is transacting with each other based on their shared wants and values. But it is not tied to oppression. No one is out to keep the Packers’ fans under the boot. And if no Packers’ fans existed, Miami Dolphin fans would continue to exist.
I think it time to abandon the whole concept of “privilege” as it is currently being used by social justice activists. The term generates more heat than light and certainly seems to be a propagandistic term designed to create “oppression” and the resulting resentment for manipulative reasons. If someone wants to address some form of social inequity, fine. But stop trying to sneak this misleading and loaded term into the discussion.