So, first, I feel the need to try and categorize what this post is about, and thereby attempt to explain what it is not about.
Persuasive -> To induce someone to undertake a course of action or embrace a point of view by means of argument, reasoning, or entreaty
(in)effectiveness -> able to produce the desired effect (or not)
privilege -> A term used in discussions of inequality to point to people who are NOT in the minority group.
guiltbattery -> trying to persuade people to do something you want by making them feel gulity.
That’s the first cut of what I’m talking about.
The second cut would be to say that I understand the intentions and connotations of the term “privilege” as it relates to discrimination. If Alice has $5 and Bob has $105, we could describe that situation one of several ways. We could say Alice is at a $100 disadvantage to Bob. Or we could say that Bob has a $100 advantage over Alice. In discussions of discrimination, historically, the focus of the language has been on the disadvantages of the minority group. The American Civil War was couched in language of fighting slavery, rather than focusing on how whites had various advantages over blacks.
More recently, discusstions of discrimination have introduced the term “privilege” to take the differences between two groups (white and black, for example) and shift the focus to the advantaged group. For example, studies repeatedly show that American police commit racial profiling, stopping people of color far out of proportion to whites. We could say that people of color are at a disadvantage of racial profiling. Or we could say that whites enjoy the advantage of not having to worry about being pulled over by the cops simply because of their skin color.
All of this language is meant to point to the DIFFERENCE between the way two groups are treated. And I think the goal for most people talking about this is to remove that difference so that the two groups are treated EQUALLY.
I think one of the goals of using the term “privilege” is to get white people to see things from a minority’s point of view. A white person isn’t going to experience racial profiling. So a white person might say something ignorant like “I haven’t experienced racial profiling, so you’ll have to prove to me it exists”. And then one response to that ignorance has been to tell the white person the reason they haven’t experienced it is because they are white, that they have an advantage over blacks that means they don’t have to worry about being racially profiled, etc.
The goal of “privilege” seems to focus on fighting ignorance. Many people live life as “out of sight, out of mind”, and privilege is a way of trying to get someone’s attention on a problem that they will never directly experience. White people have never suffered racial profiling in America. So, white people might not think its a problem needing fixing. So, often times, the first step is getting white people to realize that there is a problem that minorites have been dealing with all their lives.
The problem I keep seeing though is two-fold. First, people using the term “privilege” seem to be steadfast in their refusal to acknowlege the negative connotation packed into the term. The etymology of “privilege” is from Latin prvilgium, a law affecting one person (prvus, single, alone, lg-, law).
If Alice has $5 and Bob has $105, there is a $100 DIFFERENCE between the two. We could say that Alice is at a $100 disadvantage under Bob. Or we could say Bob has a $100 advantage over Alice. But the end goal of the conversation around discrimination is to achieve equality. Or at least that’s why I’m in it. And when we discuss the end result of equality, if Bob has $105 because of privilege, then that means when everyone has equality, that Bob will end up with something like $90.
The etymology of privilege is about laws that put individuals above the rest of the people. That those people are at an advantage above the “equality” waterline. And that if you remove that “privilege”, then the people who had privilege will metaphorically sink to stand equally alongside the rest of the population.
People using the term “privilege” will often swear up and down that this is not their intention and that this is not the meaning of the word as THEY use it. But a word doesn’t mean only what the speaker wants it to mean. A word means what its entire history brings along with it. And privilege is in part about laws the lift one group above the rest.
The problem is that if you were to achieve equality with regards to something like racial profiling, then the way white people in America don’t have to worry about being stopped by the police because of their skin color? That would be how everyone would live. It wouldn’t mean that white people would have to start worrying a little bit about being racially profiled. It would mean that whites wouldn’t change, and people of color could stop worrying about it.
Using the water metaphor, if Alice is up to her neck in water, and Bob is nice and dry in a boat, the issue is a question of whether the end result is that Alice gets to be nice and dry in her own boat, or whether Bob has to get out of his boat and everyone has to float with life preservers on.
If Alice has $5 and Bob has $105, would the goal be that Alice and Bob both have $105? Or is the goal that Alice and Bob both have $90, because Bob really was enjoying a $15 advantage above and beyond what was “equal for all”?
Put simply, where is the “waterline” of equality?
My experience has been that it is impossible to ask this question to anyone who is using the term “privilege”.
Is the waterline of equality that everyone worry a little bit about systemic racial profiling by the police?
God, I hope not.
But if “privilege” has in its etymology laws designed to put individuals above the rest, then that’s exactly what privilege means.
Just because you say that’s not how you’re using the word doesn’t mean that the etymological baggage packed into the word suddenly goes away.
If one class has privilege over everyone else, then the waterline of equality is below that class.
If Alice has $5 and Bob has $105 because Bob has privilege, then the waterline of equality is somewhere less than $105.
And I don’t subscribe to that notion of equality. I’m more of a “rising tide lifts all boats” kind of person. I don’t think that equality is a zero sum game. I think that it is possible to bring everyone up to $105, to bring everyone up so that they’re nice and dry in their own boat.
Some time ago, I was having a discussing with someone who kept using the term “privilege” in what I perceived to be a negative way. I told him that I got the impression that he was using privilege to make people feel guilty. More specifically, I said he was using privilege as a “guiltbat”, hitting people over their heads with it. He replied that sometimes people need to feel guilty.
Why would Bob need to feel guilty for having $105 unless the waterline of equality is below $105?
From what I could surmise from this person’s guiltbattery was that he wanted to spur people in the privileged class to action to help support the cause of equality.
He wanted to persuade people to get off their asses and do something about discrimination in the world.
OK. I’m cool with that goal.
The problem I was having was that I questioned the effectiveness of privilege guiltbattery as a tool of persuasion. And I especially had an issue with privilege guiltbattery if it camed packed with the assumption that Bob needed to give up some money for there to be equality. That Bob needed to worry about systemic racial profiling by the police.
I don’t think that’s really what racial equality with regards to systemic police behaviour should have as a goal.
Some people using “privilege” are using it in a way that implies Bob can keep his $105 and they just want to bring Alice up to $105. But even if the speaker is using it that way, the listener may hear it in terms of the words full etymology and history. Charlie talks about “privilege” without guiltbattery, but Bob might hear Charlie’s words and take them to mean his $105 is above and beyond what equality would support.
Privilege connotes that the person with privilege is above the waterline of equality.
It may be that the speaker is trying to use it with the denotation of pointing out the difference, but the listener doesn’t have to hear it that way, because that’s not the only meaning of privilege.
And this problem gets exacerbated because there really are some individuals out there who want to use “privilege” as a guiltbat.
Which means that if your goal for discussing the differences between two classes of people by using the term “privilege” is to achieve equality by persuading the un-discriminated-against-class of people to fight for equality, then I question the effectiveness of that technique of persuasion.
The guy who told me that sometimes people need to feel guilty, he didn’t persuade me to help his cause.
It seems that the problem of the terminology of “privilege” is that, at least thus far, it has been used to describe the difference between two classes without talking about the final goal. So, the final goal is then left to the different speakers. And some speakers may approach it with a “rising tide lifts all boats” approach, but some people are approaching it with a “you need to feel guilty about your status” approach.
If Alice has $5 and Bob has $105, there is a $100 difference between the two. We could say that Alice is at a $100 disadvantage under Bob. We could say Bob has a $100 advantage over Alice. But none of those statements actually say what the speaker’s vision of equality looks like. And while some may view equality as everyone having $105 or more, others may be viewing Bob as needing to be taken down a notch.
Talking about “privilege” with regards to discrimination without talking about where the waterline of equality is means that each speaker and each listener may have different ideas about where the other person envisions the waterline to be at. And while it is possible to use “privilege” to denote nothing more than “difference”, it is also possible to hear the term “privilege” and interpret it to mean that those at an advantage will have to come down a notch for real equality to be achieved.
Talking about privilege without awareness of where the waterline of equality is proposed by the language is foolish.