On Privilege: a Leftist Critique of the Left
On Privilege: a Leftist Critique of the Left
By Nishin Nathwani / harvardpolitics.com

The debate around privilege has spilled over the boundaries of the academic left and is slowly starting to emerge in wider discussions about inequality. Yet, despite its increasing popularity, the lexicon of privilege seems to find itself awkwardly aligned with the very structure of power that it attempts to expose. While initially intended to interrogate the discourse of dominant social groups to highlight how power can pollute the content of seemingly universalistic arguments, the new discussion on privilege has become a powerful tool to silence certain voices entirely. Rather than serving as immanent critique of the ideological content of discourse, the rhetoric of privilege has become a means to divert attention away from the substance of arguments to their immediate origin. The pitfall of this seemingly promising theoretical framework lies in the fact that discussions of privilege can be too easily deployed to dismiss arguments of persons based on features of their personhood—claims that, in philosophy, are called ad hominem arguments.

On Privilege

Let me be clear that my criticism of discussions of privilege is not that they are too radical. My quarrel, to the contrary, is that they are not radical enough. The cultural Marxism of the mid-20th century gifted the left with a powerful tool by which to understand how oppressive social structures are perpetuated through discourse—the critique of ideology. Ideology critique acknowledges that the status quo is enforced not only through a single, centralized node of authority, but through dispersed and diverse forms of discourse from all points of origin on the social spectrum. It is a peculiar feature of oppression that it is often enforced by those who are, in fact, oppressed. Ideology critique uses the term ideology to denote modes of thought that justify the dominant social order that privileges certain groups while disadvantaging others; and, more specifically, it deploys the term false consciousness to refer to the thought process by which marginalized groups justify their own oppression via ideology.The task of ideology critique is not to trace discourse back to its author and to critique its content on that basis, but to understand how oppression is perpetuated from multiple nodes, even unlikely ones. The marginalized are brought under as much critical scrutiny as the members of the privileged classes. The immediate origin of discourse is bracketed for a deeper understanding of how the arguments of a given interlocutor may be manifestations of an internalized mode of thinking that justifies the predominant power structure, whether advertently or inadvertently—in other words, how certain arguments further the interests of those in power at the expense of the marginalized, without explicitly declaring it.

Much of the contemporary left, however (perhaps out of shame of its indebtedness to Marxism in an increasingly hostile neoliberal environment), has done away with “ideology” and has erected in its place the framework of “privilege”. Discussions of privilege, in their most diminished form, uncritically applaud the perspectives of the marginalized by their mere origin in the marginalized classes; and, conversely, they reject the discourse of the dominant classes as inescapably tainted by power. I recall my discomfort with this feature of the privilege framework when, at an Occupy Wall Street gathering two years ago, a protestor addressed the crowd at Harvard dressed as a caricatured bourgeois citizen, performing the stereotype of a greedy individual whose malice is unilaterally inflicted on the innocent oppressed classes. The attack was on bourgeois personhood rather than on economic, cultural, and social structures that permit the person her place of privilege at the expense of the 99 percent.

The privilege framework critic may suggest that power and subjectivity cannot be disentangled, and that the very subjectivity of the one percent is a legitimate target for emancipatory action. This argument, however, ironically mimics the very oppressive structure that it attempts to critique. In entrenching power as a feature of certain classes of people rather than of structures, it inadvertently justifies the exclusion, in the widest sense of the term, of entire groups of people from discourse. Indeed, the privilege framework is used not only by the left to tackle the rhetoric of the right, but also in the right’s critique of the left. A malicious article on Feb. 21 by right-wing columnist Bruce Bawer about Harvard undergraduate activist Sandra Korn’s appeal for academic justice deployed the ad hominem form of the privilege framework inversely, attempting to discredit Korn’s leftist argument by appeal to her socioeconomic origins. This example, among a host of others, sheds further light on the insight that the privilege framework shares a dangerous seed with the tendency of the radical right toward xenophobia—the tendency toward ad hominem arguments enshrined in all proto-totalitarian thinking.

A point of clarification is in order. A friend of mine suggested that it is not the privilege framework itself which is inherently flawed, but rather its frequent misuse. To point to the social position of an interlocutor is not to diminish the content of her words, but rather to add another layer of analysis to the understanding of her argument. The privilege framework, if used properly, is a structural rather than a personal form of critique. To respond, my claim is not that ideology critique focuses only on the content of discourse, while the privilege framework focuses only on the origin of discourse. My argument is that by scrutinizing the immediate origin of a given argument, discussions of privilege display an over-simplified understanding how ideology works, neglecting to take into account that power in discourse can only rarely be traced to the immediate intentions or social position of a given interlocutor. This error in method is the source of the frequent devolution of the privilege framework into ad hominem attacks that merely reproduce the power structure that they attempt to expose.

The central poststructuralist insight is that power bounces through multiple nodes and is formally transformed before manifesting in discourse. This is why it is generally more useful, in my opinion, to ask how the content of discourse furthers ideological structures while bracketing the immediate origin of a given argument. Ideology critique assumes neither that a given interlocutor has hidden intentions masked in her words, nor that her social position reveals a determinable relationship to power at play in her argument. It begins merely with the possibility that an argument may serve to legitimize the existing social order or factional interests, regardless of the intention or position of its author. It may turn out, for example, that some claim furthers capitalist interests, and that the author is also a major shareholder in a company; however, this convergence of power and identity is neither assumed nor required by ideology critique.

As an example, consider responses to a recent article in The Harvard Crimson, “How Gay Pride Backfires”, which criticizes movements such as gay pride on the basis that they reinforce “the sharp distinction between ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ […] that perpetuates a notion of otherness, when all sexual affinities should be understood as part of the same spectrum.” In the flood of responses to this deeply ideological article, two general camps of leftist criticism emerged. The first argues that the privilege associated with author’s ‘straightness’ is the reason for his opposition to gay pride, because it prohibits him from understanding the importance of pride parades to the empowerment of sexual minorities. The second argues that the article serves to reinforce straight hegemony because it implicitly argues that middle-class, conjugal, heterosexual ideals of ‘sexual decency’ should trump more open, fluid, and expressive experiences of queer sexuality, such as those expressed at pride parades. The first criticism is anad hominem privilege framework argument, while the second has the form of an ideology-based critique. The privilege-based critique assumes that the author’s ideology stems from an essential feature of his identity—his ‘straightness’—and that his argument should be discounted or disqualified on that basis. Notice that both the privilege and ideology critiques concur in their denunciation of the argument. However, while the former uses the author’s identity as a proxy for the power of heterosexual privilege that it finds operative in the argument, the latter demonstrates how a certain ideology—one that favors straight sexual expression at the expense of the distinct sexual expression of queer minorities – pervades the argument, without reference to the sexual orientation of the author.

My argument is twofold. First, I am arguing that no one’s participation in public discourse should be denigrated by appeal to essential features of their identity. If we, as leftists, want to be unashamedly critical of discourse—as we should be—we should do so with reference to structures of power, such as heterosexual hegemony, rather than with reference to essential identities, such as the ‘straightness’ of particular individuals. The mode of argumentation associated with the privilege framework invokes an era of right-wing political thought that is both dangerous to democratic values and divergent from the ideals of inclusion, representation, and equality at the core of leftist politics. Second, I am arguing that to situate ideology in identity can not only be malicious, but also fallacious. If a self-identified queer person were to have written “How Gay Pride Backfires”, the privilege framework would collapse as anexplanans, as it would no longer be able to appeal to the heterosexual privilege of the author to explain the danger of the argument. Importantly, however, in this alternative scenario, the queerness of the author would not render the article any less ideological and detrimental to the interests of sexual minorities. Ideology critique, through its understanding of false consciousness, is better equipped to demonstrate how both the privileged and underprivileged can be complicit in marginalization and oppression, without depending on the intentionality or identity of particular individuals.

This elucidation brings further light to my admittedly strong and provocative claim that the privilege framework shares a root with totalitarian thinking, and that it ultimately perpetuates the power structure that it attempts to expose. The collapse of power and identity is characteristic of totalitarian thinking—a mode of thought that categorically excludes certain classes of people from discourse by appeal to insurmountable limitations of their identities. By assuming that the identity of a person can shed insight on the structure of power pervading her argument, the privilege framework—even in its milder iterations that avoid an explicitly ad hominem form—finds itself awkwardly aligned to this mode of thinking. While its aim is to expose how a seemingly universalistic argument neglects to consider the experience of an oppressed or marginalized community, the privilege framework establishes its claim by invalidating or diminishing the privileged interlocutor’s participation in discourse by appeal to an essential feature of her identity. Although its objective is inclusion in discourse, it formallymimics the exclusion that is central to totalitarian thinking. Insofar as the privilege framework endeavors to expose power in discourse, it is thus self-contradictory, as it merely substitutes one form of exclusion with another. To be absolutely clear, my argument is not that left-wing activists are totalitarians; to distort my argument in this way would be to misunderstand the distinction between political forms and modes of political thought. I am by no means claiming that those who use the privilege framework are totalitarian in the sense of endorsing the political and institutional forms of totalitarianism. Instead, I am highlighting that the privilege framework mimics the identity-based exclusionary politics unique to totalitarian thinking, and that, therefore, we, on the left, ought to be extremely wary of its uncritical use.

Ultimately, I am not proposing that we evaluate arguments in a vacuum; that would be simply to perpetuate ideology. No one can deny that public discourse is both embedded in, and has embedded within it, systems of oppression. I am instead suggesting that we evaluate arguments with reference to dominant power forms, rather than with reference to the subject positions of particular interlocutors. In other terms, I am appealing for the preservation of a strong power-identity distinction in leftist discourse analysis. Only in this way can leftist critique avoid the often fallacious (and frequently malicious) assumption that entire social groups have determinable relationships to power that manifest in the arguments of their members. It is true, for example, that whiteness or patriarchy are real power structures that are often unnoticeably exalted in public discourse; however, it is methodologically dangerous to appeal to the whiteness or maleness of a particular interlocutor as a proxy for the power structure assumed to be latent in his argument. Likewise, it is equally dangerous to validate the discourse of a person of color or a woman by assuming that her ethnicity or gender exonerates her from perpetuating the power structures of whiteness or patriarchy. We are all potentially culpable of false consciousness, just as we are all capable of enlightened thinking. It is for this reason that the mainstream left must reject categorical, identity-based exclusion from public discourse as an acceptable means to achieve the inclusion of the marginalized classes—a goal which I applaud wholeheartedly as the central legitimate endeavor of leftist critique.

Marxian ideology critique is certainly not perfect. I admit this wholly. It neglects to understand that ideology critique itself may be deployed ideologically. It also has no satisfying answer to the charge of unfalsifiability—that, if deployed uncritically, ideology critique can relapse into a framework that dismisses all counter-arguments as ideology and all concurring arguments as ideology-free. Still, if we are to talk about oppression, ideology critique trumps the privilege framework because it resists the ad hominem argumentative form that too easily devolves into a mode of thought that mimics totalitarian thinking. In ideology critique, there is no class of interlocutors who, qua class, are excluded from critical interrogation. All discourse—across socioeconomic classes, races, genders, political positions, and sexual orientations – may be, at least potentially, culpable of consciously or unconsciously serving as an outlet through which ideology is promulgated. In its most critical form, ideology critique grants no one immunity from scrutiny – not even the critical theorist herself.

My aim in putting the privilege framework into direct comparison with ideology critique is to highlight a larger troubling trend in the mainstream left exhibited in the Occupy Wall Street episode that I described earlier. Much of the left is ignoring that the old binaries of social thought—the state and civil society, the bourgeois and the proletariat, knowledge and power—have become too blurred to relegate the role of “oppressor” to any given group qua a fundamental characteristic of that group. Power, though perhaps still centralized, is exercised through decentralized nodes. Consciousness itself is complicit. The mainstream left can no longer remain contented with aligning itself blindly with the welfare state, the proletariat, or even the subaltern. A heightened critical awareness begins with a definitive shift away from theoretical frameworks that exalt the idea that some individuals are culpable and that others are exempt from complicity in oppression merely by virtue of elements of their subjectivities. Not only is this shift truer to the world in which we live, but it resists the turn to totalitarian thinking that we must avoid at all costs.

I am admittedly skimming over a deep and crucial question—that if consciousness itself is complicit in ideology, and that if the critical theorist is thus fully embedded in the ideological context that she attempts to expose, then ideology critique is, at best, self-contradictory, and, at worst, a masked agent of ideology. This supremely troubling problem is certainly not one that I claim to have solved. I can merely assert that insofar as the left yet clings to the hope of human emancipation from oppression as a legitimate political aim, it must undertake a mammoth effort, both in theory and praxis, to lift itself out of the blind complicity of the genre exhibited by the privilege framework. A heightened critical self-awareness and an uncompromising unfaithfulness to any ideology, even the ideology of ideology critique itself, are perhaps the sole tools at the disposal of the leftist critical theorist if she is to begin to overcome her own embeddedness in the structure of power that she endeavors to dismantle. The world in which we live is much more sinister than the simple, dichotomized image of “oppressed and oppressor” central to the politics of the old left. The mainstream left must reinvent itself self-critically or face the charge of complicity. There is no other option.


Nishin Nathwani was selected as a British Council Global Changemaker in 2010, during which time he was invited to present at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Nishin is a co-founder of the LGBTQ youth advocacy organization, the Ontario Youth Rainbow Coalition, and has worked extensively with the Upper Grand District School Board in Canada to integrate the recommendations of minority students into the equity policy formation process. He recently devised a social impact assessment framework for Project Dharma – a social enterprise based in India. Nishin is an undergraduate student at Harvard University and sits on Ashoka’s Young Advisors Network. He is the recipient of a host of youth awards, including the 2008 Centre Wellington Youth Citizen of the Year Award, the 2010 Guelph Region YMCA-YWCA Peace Medal, and the 2010 Guelph Mercury Top 40 Under 40 Award. Nishin recently interned with the Director for the Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases at the World Health Organization in Geneva, working on the post-2015 health development agenda.

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On Privilege: a Leftist Critique of the Left