Thursday, June 2, 2011

Privilege is not ordered

One of the words commonly thrown around by social justice advocates is "privilege".  A privilege is simply some sort of benefit or advantage that a certain group has.  It's a fairly basic concept, but I'm not sure I'm a fan.  It seems to breed a lot of misconceptions, like the idea that privileges are always bad.

As an example, one privilege straight people have is the ability to go through life without labels for their sexual identity.  Arguably, this privilege is unavoidable, as long as straight people are in the majority.  All the same, if you are aware of this privilege, you should understand why it is insensitive to tell queer people not to bother with labels.

Another big misconception is the idea that groups are ordered from most privileged to least privileged.  In truth, two groups can each be privileged over the other in different ways.  For example, consider white women and black men.  It may be the case that one group has more privileges than the other (supposing that you found some way to quantify "more privileges"), but nonetheless, each group has at least a few privileges that the other does not.

As another example, consider aromantic and romantic asexuals.*  Romantics are privileged over aromantics because people are less likely to think they are devoid of all emotion.  Aromantics are privileged over romantics because in non-romantic relationships they generally aren't expected to be sexual.

*If you don't recall, romantic asexuals are the ones who are interested in romantic relationships, and aromantics are the ones who are not.

I feel this is a fairly obvious point, and if people miss it, it's because they just haven't taken a moment to think about it.  I guess this will be a short post!

For the fallacy geeks: What kind of logical fallacy is this?  I'm thinking it's a false dilemma: either group A has privileges over group B, or group B has privileges over group A.  Or maybe it's tu quoque:  "I have privileges?  You have privileges too!"  This is a fallacy because pointing out another person's privileges does nothing to refute the existence of one's own privileges.


SlightlyMetaphysical said...

Oh goody, more relentless logic. That's just what SJ needs!

(There's nothing I disagree with in your post, especially in as much as it happens to bear remarkable correlation to a series of intense logical flaws committed very recently- your timing is, as ever, wonderfully co-incidental. But just the IDEA that you can subject privilege and oppression and intersection to the laws of logic and the answer will somehow MEAN something has been getting to me recently.)

miller said...

As you know, my timing is not actually coincidental. :-)

Larry Hamelin said...

I tend to look at "privilege" a little more narrowly. The roots of privilege are from the Latin for private law. Of course, I construe "law" more broadly than to refer only to statutes and legal precedent. But for there to be privilege, there has to be some sort of socially constructed "rules" that apply differentially to different groups.

I am not, for example, privileged because I'm a sexual straight; I'm privileged because there are social rules that apply differently to sexual straights than to asexuals, etc.

This view of privilege helps, I think, put the focus on the social rules rather than the inherent qualities of the individuals involved. My privilege is (if there is any fault at all) is not my fault, it is the fault of our socially constructed rules.

Privilege thus fundamentally means the rules are differentially applied: it behooves us, I think, to make that differential application explicit and spoken, so the difference itself can be critically examined.

miller said...

Would you simply consider that to be a different way of looking at privilege, or is it actually a more narrow concept? Can you think of some benefit or advantage that does not fit your definition of privilege?

Larry Hamelin said...

I should probably just say "narrow". Since I don't know all your thoughts on privilege, I don't know how my concept compares to yours.

Can you think of some benefit or advantage that does not fit your definition of privilege?

Tall people have some benefits vs. short people (and vice versa to a lesser extent); physically stronger people have some benefits physically weaker ones don't have; ordinarily-abled people have some advantages differently-abled people don't have.

Is this "privilege"? Might we perhaps say, perhaps counterintuitively, that physically constructed advantages/disadvantages support socially constructed privilege? I.e. should we intentionally create certain kinds of privilege and intentionally treat some people socially differently than others?

miller said...

I see. I haven't really thought my concept of privilege through, I was just trying to get a bit more of an explanation from you.