Reckoning with Privilege

I suspect the world doesn’t need another take about social justice and privilege, so please accept my apologies in advance.

But in the wake of Otto Warmbier’s death yesterday, one week after he returned home from a 17-month imprisonment in North Korea — a year of which he spent in a coma — I can’t help but feel infuriated by the bizarre rationalizations I’ve read for the likely torture which resulted in Warmbier’s death.

From the moment the news broke about his arrest and eventual conviction for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster, Warmbier became something of a cultural Rorschach test in our already polarized debate about privilege. His background, being white and middle-class, as well as a junior at UVA, lent itself easily to the treatment his ordeal soon received from Salon, Huffington Post, and the like. The ensuing stories and jokes shared a common, underlying theme: Otto Warmbier’s imprisonment was a reckoning, not only for himself, but for the white male entitlement he represented.

In fairness, it’s unlikely any of the aformentioned outlets could have predicted Warmbier’s imprisonment would culminate in his death. But now that it has, somehow privilege is still the central lens through which some are choosing to view what happened to him. Affinity Mag, a magazine dedicated by its own account to social justice, provides the best example of what I’m talking about, shown here:


That this argument could be made and taken seriously, is a serious indictment of the hollowness of privilege calculus, particularly when applied in a global context. It suggests the catalyst for Warmbier’s arrest, imprisonment, torture, and death, was his inability to shake off his white American privilege, his arrogance, if you will. Ironically, this argument is full of the same Western-centric arrogance.

Though its advocates are loathe to admit this, social justice as an intellectual project is fundamentally Western in its approach to rights and justice. Social justice, like most ideologies arising in a Western context, presupposes each individual is imbued with dignity, and human rights. Its critiques of the West and America exist within this framework, despite arguments to the contrary. Social justice adherents’ most basic quarrel, if I understand them correctly, is with the perceived lack of extension of this inherent dignity to people of marginaized racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic groups, among others. This is not a rejection of American Western ideals, but rather an internal critique of them. And we should be clear: these very Western values are not universal. They are foreign in much of the world, especially in North Korea. This fact makes privilege—when used in this context, a very Western concept — exactly the wrong lens through which to anaylze Otto Warmbier’s death.

Sure, there are nontrivial arguments to be made about how our backgrounds affect our future job and marriage prospects, and life outcomes broadly. As such, I don’t believe reckoning with privilege in this manner is a completely fruitless endeavor. But in a global context, particularly when discussing North Korea, perhaps the greatest human rights violator on the planet, debating privilege is meaningless. It has no business in any discussion of the hell Otto Warmbier endured, and it certainly deserves no consideration as a rationalization for what was done to him. Whatever privilege he possessed in America evaporated the minute he set foot on North Korean soil. It is crass and evil to pretend stealing a poster — something we aren’t even sure actually happened the way the North Korean government claims, or at all — warrants brutal torture and death. But even if we grant that Otto was operating in the context of his white male American privilege, what of the countless North Koreans who live in daily fear of enduring what he did? What privilege are they flaunting when they’re removed from their homes, brutalized, and killed?

Otto Warmbier should have graduated this past May, but instead spent his senior year as a shell of his former self, rotting in a North Korean prison. Projecting social justice resentment about privilege onto his tragedy reveals profound ignorance about how the world works outside of America and the West broadly. Warmbier was guilty only of naivety, of thinking he would be safe in a country in which citizens are disappeared overnight for the smallest of slights, never to be seen or heard from again. Perhaps privilege and entitlement are overdo for a reckoning in this country. But perhaps social justice, or this strain of it anyway, is too.

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