Empathy Redux: Fuck Privilege Theory

Photo taken inside the bathroom at The Poetry Club, Glasgow

Written in response to John Scalzi’s classic ‘Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting’ essay, from 2012

Completely leaving aside its relevance and worth as an academic idea, discussions of privilege theory — especially on social media, and in the hot-take-o-sphere — seem to be all about sorting out who does or does not have the right to express their suffering, pain, anguish and frustration.

The core concept of ‘empathy’ is the opposite of that — it’s about putting yourself in others’ shoes; trying to understand others, trying to find some common ground.

The first thing privilege theory does is destroy empathy. It posits that you CANNOT understand another person, because their difference, their potentially multiple and intersecting sites of oppression, are beyond your experience, or capacity to comprehend.

This means you can be an ‘ally’ and sympathise with someone’s plight — but you can never say you understand it. That would be appropriation. Their pain can never be your pain.

But… here’s the thing about pain. We all feel it. A truly human reaction to the pain of another is to state that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” If we lived in an equal society, and had equal empathy for all our fellow humans, perhaps this is a credo we could live by.

Privilege theory would not be needed in such a society — and those who swear by it say that this is the argument for the theory. It targets where oppression, division and inequality exist, and seeks to root them out. But once exposed, it offers no solution — because privilege theory does not lend itself to collective action, but rather to extended debate, discussion; solving nothing. It is an accounting of guilt and an apportioning of blame, and offers no vision of the future.

Empathy starts from an understanding that pain, loss, grief, frustration, anger, are all universal. That our experiences of each differ less than we imagine. That we are all HUMAN and worthy of dignity, respect and compassion.

Empathy is a radical position. It takes bravery, imagination, and heart to feel empathy for someone different from you. To grind the axe of any theory, whether it has merit or not, tends to lead to the opposite — argument, dissent, disunity, and worst of all, the urge to compare and contrast experiences for their differences, rather than their similarities. Privilege theory becomes the drawing of battle lines within the allied camp.

The ‘knapsack of privilege’ is as unhelpful and impractical a concept as the false meritocracy, and just as toxic to our culture, and our sense of self. It’s not that inequality, oppression and privilege do not exist — far from it. It is simply that they cannot be eroded, overthrown or suppressed by driving divisions between people. To erase privilege, we must be united. All of us.

Facing the world that we face, constantly on the precipice of new wars, disasters and death, what do we need more — a theory that helps us draw lines between people, or a new appreciation of human nature’s most precious commodity?

Marxists would have you understand this in the terms of class struggle — while that argument is compelling, and while I may agree that capitalism’s ruthless predations are at the heart of many of our problems, I do not believe it is work, or class, that unites us.

It is the capacity for empathy. We just need to find a little more of it.