Privilege …

In a lot of discussions lately, you hear the term “privilege” tossed out a lot, usually by a perceived minority against a perceived majority. I think that at times there is an interesting point to be made when accusations of “You’re just speaking from your privilege” are tossed out, but I dislike the term privilege for it. The reason is that the term privilege always implies that the “privileged” side has it good and the “unprivileged” side has it worse. While in some cases this might be objectively true, in a lot of ways it doesn’t even make sense to try to compare the two, because the people being compared have lives so different from each other that trying to determine who overall has it better or worse makes no sense, and comparing things in a specific case misrepresents how things are overall.

Ultimately, arguments from this only are legitimate when they reflect this sort of thinking, to quote Tom Petty: You don’t know how it feels to be me.

Despite the fact that, in general, we do seem to have empathy and mindreading skills and so have the general ability to put ourselves into the shoes of others to see what they’re feeling or thinking and what things are like for them as opposed to how they are for us, these mechanisms are far from perfect. Like it or not, we seem to be far better at understanding the circumstances of people who are more similar to us than those who are far less similar to us. It’s hard for an extrovert to understand an introvert, a man to understand a woman, a non-shy person to understand shy people, non-autistics to understand autistics, non-psychopaths to understand psychopaths, and so on. And, of course, vice versa. What this means is that when we start interacting with people, and start talking about things ranging from public policy to social convention to where we’re going to dinner we run into all sorts of issues based on our differing perspectives. We don’t know how it feels to be the other person, so we translate our perspective onto them and then wonder why they get upset when we do. We think we’re simply disagreeing; they think we’re insulting them. We wonder why a little joke is such a problem; they wonder how we can be so incredibly obtuse. We think of it as mild flirting or hitting on; they take it as a real threat of sexual assault.

These differences, though, aren’t due in any way to malice, nor do they imply any notion of one person having it better than another. Even in the same circumstances, the different perspectives clash. To take an example that I’ve talked about in the past, we can run into issues where on the one hand approaching someone for any kind of romantic or sexual liason is considered rude to do when surrounded by people, but some people feel that if it’s done when they’re alone it becomes more threatening. Neither side is trying to cause issues here; both are, in some sense, trying to argue for what the right thing to do is. But without taking all perspectives into account, that won’t succeed. The one side will really feel that an attempt is being made to eliminate “hitting on” entirely, due to the contradiction, while the other side will feel that their feelings and legitimate fears aren’t being taken into consideration.

The way out of this is not to start the conversation off with a tone of accusation or a tone that implies that one side has it better than another. The way out of this is to allow all relevant perspectives to be brought to the discussion, and then for compromises to be worked out that allow for all perspectives to “win”, in that they get to keep what they really want and get what they need out of the discussion or policy or convention. Starting as “privilege” doesn’t do any of that; it immediately puts one side on the defensive, no matter how much protest is made that that isn’t what is going on.

So I suggest that we change the term, and stop using the term “privilege”. Instead, just replace it with “perspective”. So instead of talking about the person speaking from “male privilege”, use the term “male perspective”. Or “female perspective”. Or “religious perspective”. Or “atheist perspective”. And so on and so forth. It’s not perfect — because there are many different perspectives inside those groups — but it’s a lot better. And if you don’t, don’t be surprised when you get defensive reactions.


6 Responses to “Privilege …”

  1. Alex Jones Says:

    This use of “privilege” against people suggests the user is playing “victim” and thinks they are “entitled” to some benefit for being a victim.

  2. skepticalmath Says:

    The term privilege used in these circumstances means a hell of a lot more than just “persepctive.”

    It is a *privilege* to not have to worry that the man hitting on you is a rapist, it is a *privilege* to be able to expect your relationships to be recognized by society and government, it is a *privilege* to not have to worry about racist cops and judges, all these things are *privileges*, and calling them something else is pointless.

    In fact, it is a *privilege* to be able to think that all of this is just about perspectives.

    And people who get all fired up and defensive about anyone even thinking to suggest that society grants them certain privileges? Need to realize that as much as it might suck to be called privileged, it sucks more to lack that privilege.

  3. Héctor Muñoz Says:

    Too much enraged finger pointing has been made to disqualify anything anyone says using this vague word instead of engaging in actual dialogue.

  4. verbosestoic Says:


    You’ve walked right into the problem I have with any notion of privilege, which is that you immediately get into trying to compare who has it better and who has it worse. Most of the recent cases I’ve seen where privilege is discussed come after someone says “This is bad and we have to fix it” and someone else either doesn’t see it as that big a problem or doesn’t think the fix is right. In these cases, the use of “privilege” almost always means that they don’t have the perspective to understand, and is usually used in lieu of an objective argument for why the thing is bad or why the fix is right.

    Take your examples. We can all agree, I think, that an objective case can be made for showing why racist judges and cops is bad and should be fixed. There’s no need at all to appeal to privilege there; you only need to appeal to the objective facts. So, you could argue that in this case and part of the justice system, one group is privileged and another is not. And then white males, for example, could complain about how the divorce system seems stacked against them. Or about the draft. And then you get into trying to compare who has it better or who has it worse, and the original point — racists cops and judges are bad — gets lost. So, why talk about privilege at all? Why not just give the evidence and argue that this is wrong?

    The same thing applies to the relationship example. Either it is objectively the case that the particular relationship example you are talking about should be recognized or it isn’t. If it is, then it is wrong for it not to be recognized and it should be. If it isn’t, then it should not be recognized. Again, we need not get into any comparisons of who has it better or worse, and so don’t need to either get people defensive or to drag in other cases like, say, polygamy/polyamory or single people who see there suddenly being more married couples getting benefits that they end up paying for through their taxes. Again, these aren’t comparable in any reasonable way, so why get stuck on trying to compare them?

    And since the example you give there is in fact the one I mentioned in my post, I would have rathered you addressed my comments on it directly instead of bringing in the other examples as it would likely have been more productive. Here, the whole discussion is over perspective; no one is saying that rape or the threat thereof is good. But on the one hand you have the perspective of being hit on and having that potential threat, and on the other side you have the perspective of people wanting to know how not to seem threatening and seeing no reasonable way forward. Talking about privilege immediately drags it into “you have it better than me!” arguments instead of working for that compromise that gives us the best possible solution.

    So, in my mind, there is no case where talking about privilege does any good. If you have something objectively bad, then that’s the case you need to make. If you don’t, then it is about perspective and that’s what needs to be discussed. Bringing in privilege only gets into comparisons of who has it good and who has it bad, and that doesn’t solve anything.

  5. Colbert, Park and Perspective | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] is why I hate the term “privilege” and prefer the term “perspective”. We all have a different perspective, which is informed by all sorts of things that happen to us […]

  6. Dr. Nerdlove Weighs in on Aaronson. | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] reflects self-centered thinking … the kind that we all engage in, which is why I prefer to replace the word “privilege” with the word “perspective”. Men don’t know what it’s like to be women, but women don’t know what it’s […]

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