The Fallacy of Privilege

If you’ve been involved in any sort of discussion centred around race, sex, gender or wider social justice issues, chances are you’ve encountered the term ‘privilege’ at some point or another. Particularly if you’re ‘fortunate’ enough to be a white man.

I’d like to address ‘privilege’ directly; specifically, whether it does or does not exist as people say it does and how aware of it we should be when discussing issues relating to diversity. A rather large subset of people have developed a bitter animosity towards the word — possibly with good reason — so perhaps it’s time we looked at the subject and how it affects reasoned discussion around this topic.

Firstly, what is privilege? Privilege is defined as ‘a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group’. Considered in the context of social politics, this means exactly what you might think — that one group holds power, or sway, over others through exclusivity. It would be silly for even the most beligerent of anti-Social Justice pundits to completely deny the existence of privilege in modern society, so let’s just say that privilege is a real thing that exists. The point of contention for most people seems to be how privilege affects discussion.

Over the last three or four years particularly, numerous times have I seen diversity issues being discussed, only for certain people to be excluded from the discussion due to their latent privilege. Upon reading that last sentence back, I can scarcely believe it is happening — we are trying to discuss inclusivity while actively excluding people, worse, based on skin colour and gender. The very two issues we’re apparently trying to resolve. Surely the irony of starting a discussion centred squarely on diversity and inclusivity with the exlusion of certain groups based on a perceived level of inherited guilt is obvious to everyone? You would hope so.

One common tactic these days appears to be to redefine words to suit an established narrative — the statements ‘women cannot be sexist’ and ‘black people cannot be racist’ get thrown about ad nauseum on social media and are based upon a hasty redefinition of these words. Sexist and racist discrimination apparently now equals ‘privilege plus power’, despite the dictionary definition of these words carrying no such inherent exclusivity. It is these redefinitions among other things that perpetuate the lazy misuse of sociopolitical privilege in discussions and debates online and the backlash that comes with this.

A lot of the misunderstandings between users on services like Twitter are multifaceted — the impact of a 140-character limit on conversation cannot be overstated — but many boil down to the misattribution of words like ‘privilege’, ‘bigot’, ‘misogynist’ or ‘racist’. Simply calling somebody privileged is a baseless and fallacious argument that instantly places a character judgement on somebody; something which many people become understandably upset about. Putting aside the potentially inflammatory nature of these descriptors, in the first place they serve no better purpose than to immediately shut down discussion based on some sort of heirarchy of oppression. The problem with any heirarchy, socially constructed or not, in a discussion on equality should be immediately apparent; it is patently unequal by definition.

I suppose this post is not only an analysis of the use of ‘privilege’ in these discussions but also of the readiness some proponents of ‘social justice’ show in labelling their detractors as racist, bigoted, homophobic, sexist — all of which these days, arguably, could be classified as ad hominem arguments. All of which are the politics of silence.