Tuesday, June 10, 2014

On privileges and advantages

I recently watched the movie The Fault in Our Stars -- we saw it for family home evening and really enjoyed it.

In part of the movie the "villain" of the movie goes on a rant about the privilege position of dying children. Of course the narrator (a dying child) disputes his analysis.

But it made me think of the various discussions of privilege I've run across.  Which made me think of a discussion a friend of mine had on privilege where he linked to a Black Academic who talked of things in terms of advantages rather than privileges. I thought the discussion was brilliant and have been trying to use it since.

Some people get it.  Privilege is a class marker, a way to identify those who benefit from the existing structures.  Applied to a homeless guy on the street it seems a little out of place as he or she is one of the people being chewed up and spit out by the class structures of wealth and power and prestige that mark out society.

Advantages captures what most people who are on the down side of the power structure may have.  Every neo-Calvinist virtue someone has (wealth, beauty, ability, power, race) is an advantage.  In addition, there are some societal markers (such as sex, race, height, hair color and age) that give advantages.

Rather that spark a discussion of the oppression Olympics, a discussion of advantages sparks a realization that the literate, the athletic, the tall and the strong have advantages. Most of those do nothing by themselves, but in application, well, look at all the 5'1" pro basketball players out there ...

It helps provide a multi-dimensional look.

I tell the guy on the street he has privilege he will just look for a better place under a quieter bridge to sleep.  I talk to him about the advantages he has and he'll agree with me that he has it better than other homeless types.  He inherently rejects things that reek of class warfare benefits, he instinctively accepts things that point out where he has hope and a leg up.

It is the difference between comparing being a white man to playing the game of life on its easiest setting, and comparing being a white man to using cheat codes.

If you are a white male academic, of course, admitting privilege costs you nothing and makes you look good.   To quote:

I get that "privilege"---race, sex, gender, disability, etc---has become something of an overplayed and diluted idea in debates about social justice and activism. But it's still a super important concept. I am vexed by the resistance to it by so many who benefit from it, and at the risk of further diluting it, I offer just two observations to skeptics:
1) When you say "look, it's not my fault that I benefit from being [white, male, straight, whatever]" that's _exactly_ what we're talking about. You benefit from something you didn't choose and that you have no role in. You shouldn't be blamed, but you don't get credit. It's the basis of your unearned benefit.
2) The best part of acknowledging that you benefit from, say, straight white male privilege is that, even in acknowledging and accepting that it exists, you don't have to give it up. You get to keep it. YOU STILL GET TO BENEFIT FROM IT.
Compared to a Jewish friend of mine, who when told of the great advantage he had in life because of the "Jewish Conspiracy" kvetched to me that whoever was running it had somehow managed to forget to include him in on it.  ;)

Anyway, the idea is not mine, and I get enough negative feedback on it I'm not comfortable pointing out where I got it, but I do think that there is a lot of progress to be made by talking about advantages rather than privileges.


SilverRain said...

I think perhaps the reason there is so much resistance is because everyone has to fight for the things that matter to them. Suggesting privilege/benefits suggests also that they only have what they do because they got lucky. It carries with it this feeling that your efforts earned you nothing, and you are ultimately lazy, just soaking in the things life hands you on a silver platter.

Also, along with advantages there are disadvantages. Even the very wealthy have challenges brought them by the wealth that also brings them advantages. I have mostly heard "privilege" invoked as a way to discount ideas without having to actually engage them. Of course that isn't going to sit well.

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