Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Privilege and charity

I like the idea of translating social justice concepts into critical thinking concepts.  Once I wrote about "I" statements, and compared them to anecdotes.  And twice I wrote about the social justice concept of privilege as it relates to the skeptical concept of bias.  Today I'm going to talk more about privilege, but under a completely different lens.

A common contention is that "privilege" is just used to shut down arguments.  When you tell someone that they're speaking from a position of privilege, it seems like you're telling them that they should stop speaking.  For example, a few weeks ago, lots of blogs were talking about Ron Lindsay's welcome speech to the Women in Secularism Conference.  Instead of welcoming people, Ron decided to caution the audience against using "privilege" to shut people up.  True story.  But I won't focus on this example, because it's only the Nth iteration of a very common argument, where N is very large.

It seems clear to me that privilege is used to shut down arguments at least sometimes.  And sometimes certain arguments need to be shut down.  For example, I don't think it's appropriate to start an argument in a welcome speech.

However, it's unclear to me how often privilege is used to shut down arguments, and how often it is justified.  People argue about this issue a lot.  But I'm going to ignore the issue and move on.

I propose that when people say, "You're speaking from a position of privilege", what they mean is "I have reasons to be uncharitable to you."

Earlier I discussed the principle of charity, which says you should read your opponent's arguments as if they are reasonable people arguing in good faith.  But the principle of charity is not a perfect rule, because sometimes people are not being reasonable, or they really don't know what they're talking about.  For example, if a white person is talking about black experiences, there's a decent chance that they are just talking out of their ass.

Of course, there's also a chance that the white person actually has something useful to say.  How likely is it?  I have no idea!  Personally I would try to be charitable to a white person talking about race.  I would also be charitable to a man talking about women's experiences.  But I would begin to be less charitable if I hear the man using one of the standard terrible arguments against feminism.  I don't have any numbers to back me up, but it seems that when men make lots of standard terrible arguments against feminism, it usually doesn't get better from there.  So I'm not very charitable.  Depending on external factors of course.

As an example, whenever I see some random person arguing that "privilege" is a problematic concept, my suspicion levels rise up.  On a substantive level, I actually agree that privilege is a problematic concept, and I've seen feminist-minded people argue against it (eg). But most of the time, such discussions are not productive because they're driven by ignorance.  If you want to critique the concept of privilege, it's not that you should shut up.  It's that you should be careful, clear, and precise so I can distinguish you from people who just don't know what they're talking about.

But the principle of charity and uncharity doesn't quite cover the myriad ways in which "privilege" is used.  Much of the time, when you say someone is privileged, it's not a negative accusation!  Lots of us have privilege.  It's not necessarily a bad thing, and doesn't necessarily mean we should keep quiet.  The principle of charity is a decent lens to understand the ways in which "privilege" is used in arguments, but it will only get you so far.


slightlymetaphysical said...

See, this is one of my problems with the way people use the idea of 'privilege.' It's this blanket word with a lot of different meanings, and I think sometimes people use it as 'Look at this model of interconnected systems of oppression' and sometimes they use it to mean 'shut up and stop derailing this conversation with basic and bad arguments that we've all heard 50 times already, even if that's not what you're intending to do.' Which is a really worthwhile sentiment, but somehow it got caught up in the word privilege, which doesn't mean that. So it's understandable that people hear it as 'shut up because you're white/male/middle class/whatever' because that's pretty much what the social justice people are expressly saying with their words. It might not be what they mean, but intent isn't magic.

So 'I'm not going to assume you have a decent argument (ie give you charity) because loads of people who sound the same as you only have shitty arguments' is a worthwhile thing to say, it just shouldn't be expressed through the word 'privilege.'

(in part because unprivileged people can often have crappy arguments- there's a ton of sexist women with misogynistic views, for example)

miller said...

I'm inclined to agree. When I described this particular us of "privilege" I was not necessarily endorsing it. In fact, I hope to give people tools to avoid using the word "privilege" when they want to avoid it.