Privilege Discourse Has Noble Intentions but Perhaps It's Time to Consider Its Unintended Impacts
Privilege Discourse Has Noble Intentions but Perhaps It's Time to Consider Its Unintended Impacts
By Tim Hjersted /

Privilege discourse has noble intentions but it seems that it is used far too often in practice to guilt and shame others for things they don't have control over. If education and empathy (and not shame) is the goal, it might be better to scrap the whole privilege framework and focus on how disadvantaged people have difficulties (which creates empathy) rather than framing it in terms of all the benefits of being ‘privileged’. IE: Look how easy it is for you and how hard it is for them. (Also notice how privilege discourse reinforces heavy us vs them thinking which cuts us all into labeled pieces which are then pitted against one another based on said privilege-oppression index)

The whole framework leads to guilt and defensiveness despite all the millions of comments clarifying that that's not the intention. That is the impact, no matter how many times it's clarified. There is a reason that keeps coming up and people keep responding that way, especially the people outside our social justice bubble who need to hear the message most. And I'm pretty sure I've heard somewhere around these circles that impact matters more than intention.

We can promote empathy without the privilege framework. I share the same goals as those who use the privilege framework to achieve those goals. My observation over the years has been that privilege framework hinders our efforts more than helps it. I say this after many years of attempting to use the framework myself.

Another one of the unintended side-effects of privilege discourse is that it has created a strange cultural privilege-oppression economy, where having more privilege is bad (you have so much privilege!) and being oppressed is better (solidarity with the oppressed!). This creates what has been called 'Oppression Olympics' where everyone is checking their privileges but also checking as many oppressions as they can so that they can still feel a sense of belonging and not be pushed out of a group because of that line that divides the privileged and the oppressed.

Humans ultimately have a very strong desire to belong and to feel included, and it becomes pretty clear in social justice circles that social status where privilege discourse is present has inverted the pyramid (rather than abolished it). The oppressed are on top and the privileged go at the bottom and there is a very clear attempt to make sure everyone is categorized and all the divisions are consciously spelled out and discussed.

Another unintended consequence of privilege culture is the stifling effect it has had on discourse and freedom of expression. Hannah Wilder explains it well in her article titled “The Unicorn Ally”:

“So, here are the contradictions as I see them. As an ally, my job is to not impose my own beliefs of what’s ‘right’, but instead amplify the voices of the oppressed people that I’m trying to be an ally for. Except that I shouldn’t bug them about educating me, because that’s not what they’re there for. And it’s my duty to talk about the issue of oppression in question, because it’s the job of all of us, rather than the oppressed people, to fix it. Except that when I talk, I shouldn’t be using my privilege to drown out the voices of the oppressed people. Also, I should get everything right, 100% of the time. Including the terminology that the oppressed people in question themselves disagree on. This is what I consider The Unicorn Ally phenomenon.

The effect of these demands, for me at least, is to make me less likely to say, well, much of anything, except a) to correct other people who are clearly even more wrong than me, or b) on issues where I have direct experience of oppression. The latter relies on a process I think of as Oppression Top Trumps. Oppression activists do tend to genuinely stick to the principle of paying the most attention to the people with the most experience within a particular axis of oppression, and I think this totally makes sense and I think is really awesome. It should be women talking about women’s lib, etc. rather than other people putting words into their mouths. So, to avoid getting my head bitten off, the first process I engage in, in order to speak, is justifying how issue x is one that’s personally affecting me – winning Oppression Top Trumps – which then lets me pick the words I use without anyone telling me they’re the wrong ones. In fact, having won Oppression Top Trumps on issue x, I then gain the right to correct other people’s words on an ad hoc basis. I do not, in general, write about issues that I can’t win Oppression Top Trumps about, because even if I care about them and I’ve researched them lots, etc. etc, I will by somebody’s definition probably get them wrong. In fact, the only reason I can possibly get anything right, is by being oppressed enough that my ideas are not open to questioning.”

Again, the original goal is noble and worthwhile: to elevate traditionally marginalized voices and put them on a level playing field - and to give people with direct experience of oppression an equal (or greater) voice in the discussion about how to solve those issues. But one of the unintended impacts of privilege culture has been a rather profound silencing of perspectives from people who might care enough to want to say something, but remain silent for fear of getting their head bitten off by a call-out culture that has rather notoriously gotten a reputation for being over-zealous to destroy anyone for even the slightest infraction or opinion that strays from the SJW consensus.

The SJW consensus is a strange thing in itself, principally because it denies and excludes the existence of dissenting opinions (from both privileged and oppressed identities), while the folks that disagree with the consensus obviously opt-out of engaging with those circles and focus their activism beyond the SJ-privilege camp bubble. Those who have declared what the consensus is have simply stated that is what it is (and many more simply repeat it and accept it because they want to be good allies).

There are hundreds of articles on the internet explaining what these rules are (the SJW consensus on best practices and tactics). That the privilege framework is universally good and is the primary educational method for achieving social justice is one of those (false) consensus points. And I believe the fear of being attacked and pushed out of the group has created a blind spot for the movement, because too few people are willing to critique the prevailing wisdom. If we look, we can find quite a healthy discussion from a diverse array of identities on the internet that are debating the merits of privilege as good praxis, but unfortunately these discussions are not finding their way onto the most popular social justice websites.

This leads to another one of the unintended impacts of privilege discourse, which has been the devaluing of perspectives from identities that have been marked as having greater privilege. Rather dangerously, the merits of an argument are being elevated or dismissed based on the identity of the author. Poor whites in Appalachia, for instance, while having white privilege, suffer from economic oppression via an unjust capitalist system, yet it does not follow that their economic oppression means their support for Donald Trump makes Trump worthy of support, were that to be the case. Women are oppressed by our patriarchical culture, yet the fact that some women support Hillary Clinton does not validate Clinton as a step forward for intersectional feminism.

These examples highlight one of the primary traps of identity politics. Identity has become a stand-in to affirm or deny the merits of any argument. Men cannot critique Hillary without charges of “You’re a man, of course you’d say that,” which then necessitates the rather demeaning and anti-feminist need to trot out a bunch of quotes from women who are saying the same thing to prove that criticism of Hillary from the left is legitimate and not sexist.

The same problem exists across any privilege-oppression divide. For anyone with a privileged identity to say anything that disagrees with the current consensus within social justice circles, one needs to cite several examples of oppressed people who share similar perspectives. Perhaps this is useful education and important for those who aren’t aware of the dissenting and diverse opinions within communities facing various axis of oppression. Maybe there is no way around it, because nobody wants to share an opinion that is held exclusively by the privileged, and who shares that perspective because of that privilege.

Hopefully it’s clear in the above that there are needs that the privilege framework is attempting to address. But maybe those needs can be met with a different framework - one that does not unintentionally create so many unhealthy dynamics. I’ve listed a few above, but there are way too many to list in a single article. Beyond my experience of trying to use privilege theory to advance educational goals (and witnessing the failures of that approach), the rest of my understanding of the pros and cons of privilege theory has come from reading a lot about it. If you’re interested in going on that journey, you can check out a pretty diverse index of articles on the subject here:

You can check out my extended reflections on privilege theory here.

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Privilege Discourse Has Noble Intentions but Perhaps It's Time to Consider Its Unintended Impacts