Why the Political Use of the Word “Privilege” is Not Very Helpful

Some people absolutely have unfair advantages over others. Some of these unfair advantages are based on the results of the genetic lottery, while others are based on deeply rooted systems of injustice. It’s very important for the latter to be pointed out for the purpose of moving us closer to a just society. However, not all ways of pointing out unjust advantages and disadvantages are equally helpful.

These days, it’s hard to avoid hearing the political use of the word “privilege”. People are made aware by others of the importance of being aware of a particular unearned advantage or entire set of unearned advantages they have. Awareness is good, but the problem arises with the limitations within the political language of privilege.

A big problem with the political use of the word privilege is that it doesn’t differentiate between an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage. You may think that these always go together, but that is not actually the case. Let’s take the example of two men being pulled over by the police in separate incidents. In the first case the driver is white and the police officer displays a certain amount of patience with the driver’s frustration toward him in an attempt to avoid an escalation to the situation. In the second case the driver is black and the police officer is from the beginning more on guard and less patient with the driver though his behavior is identical to the man’s behavior in the prior case. Within the political language of privilege, the white man’s “white privilege” would be pointed out. However, though I can see how the white man can be seen to hold a privilege in this situation, I believe there is an alternative language that can be used that brings out greater accuracy and clarity.

In the situation discussed above, the white man isn’t being treated in a special way: we would hope that all people would be treated with a reasonable amount of patience when interacting with a police officer. So this man received treatment that was in line with a socially agreed upon standard of appropriate treatment from a police officer. Thus, it’s odd to view how he was treated as a privilege. Instead, it was the black man that was treated unfairly and thus held the unfair disadvantage coming into the situation, based on the unfair racial bias held by the police officer. In this case, the white man did not hold an unfair advantage, but the black man did hold an unfair disadvantage.

Let us now imagine another situation where two equally qualified men are applying for the same job. In this case, the white man receives the job over the black man nine times out of ten simply because his race is preferred by the hiring manager. In this case the white man holds an unfair advantage at the same time that the black man holds an unfair disadvantage.

While the political language of privilege doesn’t differentiate between situations of unfair advantage and unfair disadvantage, the alternative language I’ve introduced here does.

There are additional problems with the political use of the word privilege. This blog post is in response to a tweet I saw from Kim Tran that struck me as as odd:

Earning money for doing something that aligns with your values is a privilege.

To this I responded:

In what sense do you mean?

In the same way that having quality healthcare is a privilege? Or having emotionally supportive parents?

What’s the difference between a privilege, a human right, and a moral entitlement?

To this, Adhlere Coffy responded:

Oooo yes this is a weird take on both sides. Your examples, christian, point to valuable nuance often left out in these convos. Kim’s point still resonates w/ a lil bolstering: getting paid [a living wage or more] for values aligned work is a privilege. More to unpack though

Me: What are your thoughts on the meaning of the word “privilege” in this type of context? Privilege as opposed to what? Also, what is the point that is attempted to be made by naming something a privilege in this way?

Kim Tran: Two points. 1. You’re working with the world as it should be (i.e healthcare) and I’m working with it as it is. So we’re talking across each other. 2. Generally, people who make a real living on the meager wages of political work often inherit wealth or are supported by affluence. 3. By definition, privilege is an unearned, unrecognized advantage (i.e inherited wealth)

I discovered in the process of this dialogue that I find the concept of moral entitlement to be the most relevant to the pursuit of social justice. I believe every human being deserves to be able to earn a living doing work that is aligned with their values (given that their values are ethical, of course). So to highlight the fact that a person didn’t earn an opportunity that they were already morally entitled to, strikes me once again as odd. What’s the point of that? Why place a somewhat shaming spotlight on the people whose lives are in line with their inherent human moral entitlements, when we could instead place the spotlight on the moral entitlements themselves and how to progress toward a world where no human being’s moral entitlements are violated?

My final criticism of the political language of privilege is regarding its impact on political discourse. The word privilege in its political sense is very much out there in American culture these days, along with other terms associated with certain left-of-center notions of social justice. We’ve experienced in America great polarization around issues of prejudice and justice regarding race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and class. To be clear, conflict is not something to be avoided when necessary. The fight for the just treatment of human beings is absolutely essential and needs to continue until we achieve a just society (and the work must continue thereafter to maintain that justice). People are inevitably going to feel uncomfortable when confronted about their unjust prejudices and contribution to injustice in society. The goal is not for everyone to be comfortable; the goal is not to pretend the uncomfortable truths do not exist for the sake of short-term harmony. Instead, the goal ought to be awareness, understanding, and clarity for the sake of moving closer to a just society. With this understanding, we must then ask whether the political use of the word privilege serves or hinders the mission to achieve a just society. Is the word being used to bring forth clarity and insight and confront people in an honest and constructive manner? Is the word being used to shame people for the sake of egoistic motivations? What I come back to is the lack of clarity the word’s use produces, at the same time that there exists an alternative terminology that avoids this problem. What I also come back to is the unconstructive shaming of people when the issue at hand is not their advantage at all, but rather the unfair disadvantage of others. It is these problems that I see as contributing to an unnecessary and destructive moral-political polarization in our society. Thus, my hope is that we move away from this language and adopt in its place the clearer and more constructive language of unfair advantage and disadvantage.