On the Value of Privilege Theory: A Summary

Mutual Exchange is the Center’s goal in two senses — we favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to the Center’s audience.

A lead essay, deliberately provocative, will be followed by responses from inside and outside of C4SS. Contributions and comments from readers are enthusiastically encouraged. The following Mutual Exchange will begin as a feature by ’s, “What’s the Point of Checking Your Privilege?”. , Casey Given and  have prepared a series of articles challenging, exploring and responding to the themes presented in Given’s original article. Over the next week, C4SS will publish all of their responses. The final series can be followed under the categories: Mutual Exchange or The Point of Privilege.

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Reading Casey Given‘s final installment in our Mutual Exchange on the value of privilege theory, I have less confidence than ever that he understands what privilege theory even is.

He continues, perversely, to treat intersectionality as an alternative to privilege theory, when it in fact intersectionality presupposes privilege theory and uses it as a building block. And he continues to refer to oppression as a real thing, despite the fact that privilege is, by definition, nothing more than the relative advantage that not being oppressed confers on you compared to those who are. In Cathy Reisenwitz’s succinct phrase, privilege is nothing more than the fact that “you began the race a few steps ahead” of someone else. You may not like the term “privilege” for that fact, but the fact itself is common-sense reality. And “privilege” happens to be the name for it commonly used by social justice activists.

And, I repeat, it doesn’t matter whether learning the concept of privilege and considering the forms of privilege they have makes people feel bad. Sometimes I feel bad when my bank balance falls to zero and I have no clear idea how long till my next check comes in, but the laws of mathematics don’t depend on how I feel. Given says “heightened awareness of one’s privilege will not end systematic poverty or oppression.” Heightened awareness of the laws of gravitation and ballistics won’t get you to Mars, either, but ignoring them and proceeding as though they don’t exist is one way to guarantee you don’t get there.

Given also treats the privilege framework as “infamous” for “collectiviz[ing] people,” and juxtaposes to it intersectionality as a way “to analyze the numerous axes of privilege and oppression that an individual stands at the intersection of (hence the name)….” But as Given himself suggests here, the very word “intersectionality” implies that something is intersecting; and that something — as he explicitly admits — is axes of privilege and oppression as they intersect in specific individuals. If the practice of intersectionality was created by those using privilege theory as an outgrowth of that theory, and is seen — by both them and Given — as the application of intersecting forms of privilege to individual cases, then it stands to reason that Given’s view of privilege as “collectivist” and at odds with intersectionality reflects his own failure to understand the concept in the first place.

Intersectionality is fully consistent with privilege theory, because privilege itself rightly conceived is not a monolithic identity or an absolute value. A good comparison is the various positive and negative differentials — exhaustion, morale disruption, fuel or ammo depletion, suppression by nearby artillery, etc. — that might be assigned to a combat unit counter in one of those old hex-grid map war games like Avalon Hill and SPI used to make. Applying a specific negative differential doesn’t necessarily mean one combat unit is weaker than another as an absolute value; it just means it’s that much weaker than it otherwise would have been. A black upper-middle class man in the corporate managerial hierarchy may be more privileged in aggregate terms than the white woman working in the mail room, but his race as such reduces his total status differential compared to what it would be if, say, the circumstances were identical except for the woman in the mail room being black or the male executive being white.

In a sense, intersectionality is a remedy. But it’s a remedy, not to the concept of privilege as such, but to the misunderstanding and misapplication of privilege theory entailed in the so-called “identity politics” of the 1970s. To repeat, intersectionality is a remedy, not for privilege theory, but for identity politics. Given seems to confuse the one with the other. There were indeed problems with the method of analysis associated with identity politics in the 1970s. They did treat racial or gender identity as absolute, monolithic forms of oppression that trumped everything else. We see survivals of that today, among radical feminists who trace their ideological roots back to second-wave feminism. Some upper-middle class white feminists from this background argue — seriously! — that they can’t be guilty of class or racial oppression, or in possession of class or racial privilege, or guilty of oppressing sex workers or trans women, because as women they by definition cannot oppress anybody. The concept of intersectionality was created as a remedy for such people’s faulty understanding of privilege; as such, it is not an alternative to privilege theory but its fulfilment.

Given expresses puzzlement that Cathy Reisenwitz, Nathan Goodman and I seem to agree with him on so many of the particulars in his premises, and yet don’t draw the conclusion he does that privilege theory is pernicious. But the reason is that his conclusions don’t follow from his observations, because his observations don’t apply to privilege theory in the way he thinks they do.

In fact I’m equally puzzled, given some things Given says in his latest contribution, that he continues to disagree with us. The “one decent message” behind the idea of checking your privilege, he says, is that individuals should be self-conscious of — and presumably act on — “the oppression that other people have experienced throughout their life” and “the societal advantages and disadvantages they hold when interacting with others.” Well, yes. Being aware of these things, and acting on them, is what privilege theory and intersectionality are.

Given says they’re just “common courtesy” or “good manners.” But guess what? Although the concepts and practices of social justice are dismissed on the cultural Right as novel, radical or exotic (“political correctness,” “thought police,” etc.), in reality they are nothing but moral principles as old as humanity, applied universally and consistently.



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