Why “Privilege” Is A Terrible Concept And A Terrible Rhetorical Device

If you’ve been on the internet, you’ve heard of the concept of “privilege.”  The most common usage I’ve heard refers to “white privilege” but can easily be also “male privilege” or “heterosexual privilege,” etc.  It can apply to any group that is not a marginalized or persecuted one.  You can even have privilege in one way while being persecuted in another – if you’re a white woman, you can be marginalized as a woman but still have “white privilege.”  The most common context in which you’ll hear this term is likely to be either told to “check your privilege” or being told your position on a topic comes from a “position of privilege.”  The essential gist of the concept is this:  If you come from a position of privilege, then you have not had the same life experiences as someone who has not, and therefore your understanding of that person’s (or group of people’s) plight is limited, which serves to weaken any position you may hold in a debate or argument with someone who does not come from said position.  In this way, it’s a rhetorical device, used to win arguments – or at least end them with no clear winner.

At this point, it may seem like I should put in a disclaimer about being an ally, a non-racist, and all that.  But I’m not going to, because it’s irrelevant.  In fact, that’s point number one about why this concept is terrible.

1.  Hitler Believed A Lot Of Stuff That Was True

I don’t mean the obvious stuff about racial purity and national socialism.  I mean that Hitler believed that the Earth revolved around the Sun, that cats couldn’t fly, and that water boils at sea level at 100 degrees Celsius. Even the front-runner for the title “worst person ever” had a lot of things that you’d agree with him on.  In fact, if you somehow listed every fact Hitler felt was true, you’d probably agree with 99% of it, since a whole lot of it would have been “the sky is blue” and “water is wet” and so on.  The point is that if you can’t automatically discount something as false just because a horrible person said it, then it’s irrelevant to the truth of a fact whether or not the person saying it is… anything.  A really, really dumb person can say “the sky is blue,” and they’re still right.  Now, if you know someone to be especially lacking in intelligence, and they say something not immediately obvious as true or not, such as “Lord Acton was born in 1844,” then you might be correct to be cautious about believing this fact – but the source of it does not ABSOLUTELY discount the fact as false.  In other words, you can’t use the source of a claim as EVIDENCE of it’s falsehood, only as a clue leading you towards investigation of your own.  (Lord Acton was born in 1834, by the way).

So now that we understand that the source of a potential fact does not prove or disprove its validity, we must also understand that this must mean very smart people can be wrong.  Einstein is usually regarded as a pretty smart dude, but clearly he didn’t know everything.  Without getting too technical, Einstein got something very wrong about probability in the way atomic particles behave.  Despite being one of the leading experts in that field, he was wrong on that point.  So the source of a claim can’t be actual evidence of its truth or of its falsehood – only, again, as a clue to your own research.  We’re humans, so it’s natural that if someone you like and respect says something you’re more likely to take it at face value than if someone you dislike or don’t trust says the same thing.  But that’s YOUR bias, and has nothing to do with the validity of the actual fact.

Now, a sharp-minded person may respond to all this with something along the lines of “Of course, but we’re not claiming privilege invalidates your claim of things like sky color and water wetness.  We’re saying it invalidates your claims specifically regarding things that relate directly to said privilege, i.e. matters of race/gender/etc.”  But that isn’t correct either, of course.  Statements are either objectively verifiable facts, or they’re mere opinions.  If it’s an objectively verifiable fact, then the source doesn’t matter, regardless of subject matter.  And if it’s simply an opinion, then you can’t prove it true – you can only try to convince people.  And if you’re trying to convince people of something, you generally debate it with them, and employ rhetorical devices in that pursuit.  Invoking “privilege” is one such device, and I’ll now describe why it’s terrible for that purpose.

2.  “Be quiet ladies, the men are talking.”

Does the phrase “Be quiet ladies, the men are talking” sound incredibly ignorant, dismissive, and downright rude to you?  It does to me.  I can imagine several people I know belting someone in the mouth for such a statement, regardless of their gender.  I imagine it’s because the phrase is dismissive of an entire group of people who the speaker assumes can’t possibly have anything relevant to say on the topic at hand, based solely on their position within the social strata.  “Something important is being discussed here, ladies, and even though it probably affects your life in a direct way, shaping the society in which you live, you aren’t allowed to even have an opinion on the topic, much less defend one.”  Which is exactly what phrases like “check your privilege” do.

“Check your privilege” (or more polite versions, such as “you think that because you come from a position of privilege) are ways of attempting to silence an argument you either don’t like or can’t answer.  If person A has an opinion you’re opposed to, and that person happens to belong to any demographic that is seen as higher than one you belong to in the privilege hierarchy, then you have a perfect, instant out.  You don’t have to address the opinion, you can simply dismiss it.  That’s fine if you just want to live in your bubble and never really have your thoughts challenged or refined.  But if you’re actually trying to convince people to share your opinion, it’s terrible.  It does exactly the opposite – creates artificial divides and convinces people that you’re arbitrary and have no solid basis for your opinions other than your race/gender/etc. – in other words, it reinforces exactly the prejudices you wish they didn’t have.

It’s true that my life experiences may lead me to think different things than someone with different life experiences.  But the things that I think are either objectively true/false, or they are opinions.  If they have an objective truth or falsehood to them, then the way to get me to refine my belief is to show me the evidence.  If something I believe is an opinion, however, and you want me to have a different one – and isn’t that the goal of all civil rights movements? to change minds? – then you need to convince me.  Lots of people use lots of terrible rhetorical devices when arguing – people get louder instead of clearer, they misdirect or backpedal, etc.  Silencing dissent in any way is one of the worst and most counter-productive.  If your goal is in any way to truly advance the cause of equality, then you should avoid doing so yourself, and strike the word “privilege” from your debate lexicon.

Compassion Within The Lines

Immigration is a difficult issue for me to talk about.  Not that I have any difficulty expressing my opinions!  Rather, because I don’t have a lot of patience for cruelty to my fellow man, and I find that even people that are self-stated supporters of immigration are generally pretty cruel.

Why do I say this?  Because when I bring it up, here’s an extremely common position I’ve heard people espouse to me:  “We should definitely make it easier for skilled immigrants to enter this country legally, but we shouldn’t allow illegal immigrants, criminals, low-skill workers, etc. in.”  I find that to be a heartless position.

I often counter – imagine you live in a nice part of town.  Mr. Jones lives in a bad part of town, with his family – lived there his whole life.  Generations, even.  But he’s worked hard at his job and has managed to save up enough money to buy a house in the nicer part you live in.  He’ll probably still have his terrible job for the rest of his life (or a similar one), but he wants to break the cycle and give his kids a chance at something better.  When the moving truck rolls into the Uptown Heights, would you post armed guards and tell him he can’t come?

After that, I usually get a “that’s different.”  But of course it’s not different – and no one’s been able to even come up with an argument (let alone a convincing one) as to why I should think it is.

“They’ll have kids that will burden our system.”  So will natives.  I don’t want to support those kids, either, but I’m supposed to, because they’re red, white and blue?

“They get in and vote Democrat.”  That just means Republicans should be trying twice as hard to get them in, not futilely attempting to keep them out.  The ones they succeed in keeping out don’t mail in red-ticket votes, do they?

“We should be spending our money on helping real Americans, not letting immigrants come in.” Where do I even start?

In case it’s not obvious, these are all actual things I’ve heard.

People that cry for social justice claim that we shouldn’t limit our compassion to those of our gender or color, and I agree.  But their geography is fair game?  At the end of the day, this isn’t even about helping people – open borders don’t “help” people, any more than oxygen “helps” people.  But like oxygen, taking away open borders sure hurts them.  So I’m not even asking you to help; I’m asking you to just stop hurting people.  To do literally nothing; just stand aside, and let hardworking people help themselves.  It doesn’t matter which side of an imaginary line they’re on, because they’re humans.

The Definition of Capitalism

The culture of language is a powerful thing.  Words often have a cultural meaning that goes considerably beyond their literal meaning.  Many budding intellectuals miss this point when they debate, framing their arguments in the literal while ignoring the (vastly more important) cultural meaning of their words.  Lots of people that could be coming to genuine compromises instead end up talking past each other as a result.

Today’s example:  The word “Capitalism.”

The literal, dictionary definition of the word is pretty simple.  It’s an economic system in which wealth and means of production are owned and distributed privately.  That’s it.  But is that really the extent of what people think when they think of that word?  Go find a liberal, a conservative, and a libertarian and ask them what they think of capitalism.  Not only are you virtually guaranteed to get three different answers, paying close attention will probably reveal that they don’t seem to be talking about the same thing at all.

People often equate “capitalism” with “democracy” – as if the two were incontrovertibly intertwined.  Some people equate “capitalism” with “freedom” – as if, if you had one, you automatically had the other.  Still others can’t help but conjure dystopian visions of oppression, poverty and enslavement – as if “capitalism” were synonymous with theft, fraud, and assorted villainy.

At its core, the literal definition of capitalism is a very good thing.  Private distribution of wealth is responsible for tremendous human advancement.  But in the public discourse, we may be beyond the point of saving the actual word.  This can be painful for those that understand that what it truly means is so good – but you have to pick your battles.  The amount of effort we might put towards changing the popular definition of this word would be significantly better spent pushing for actual policy improvements, rather than semantics.

So here is my advice to the freedom-minded today:  When next you hear someone bash “capitalism” because it oppresses the poor, embroils us in wars, or removes civil liberties – agree.  Agree vehemently, in fact.  Accept that the person you’re talking with isn’t using the word as you would use it.  Accept that they’ve taken “capitalism” as a proxy for “crony corporatism,” and jump right in with them.  Don’t talk past them – if you forget the battle over one little word, you may find a tremendous amount of common ground.

If we stop trying to save the word “capitalism,” we might just save capitalism.