From a recent conversation about what it would be like for a Straight White Male to move to a place where he didn’t have any privilege:
if you live somewhere your SWM privilege doesn’t exist you would be less likely to be promoted over a woman or minority as compared to IRL. … As an actor, you’d be less likely to receive the higher paying roles if they were equally open to women and minorities. If you’re a writer writing in SF, you’d have a lesser chance of being published if men and women were equally represented. What this means in terms of real life is that there’d be a greater chance you would lose out on the opportunities you enjoy now as a result of privilege. That is power and that is a meaningful difference.
And what jumped out at me was just how much the conversation about “privilege” frames the issues of equality as a zero-sum-game. In this frame, for women to gain any victory in gender equality, all men have to lose some power. To gain any victory in racial equality, all whites have to lose power. To gain any victory in GLBT equality, all straights have to lose power.
These were comments in a recent discussion about privilege, but they propagate a framing that goes all the way back to Peggy McIntosh’s original paper about privilege, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. McIntosh frames all advances in equality as if it were an equation of power, of Newtonian mechanics. For every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction.
McIntosh starts out portraying women’s studies as asking men to give up some of their power so women can have it instead:
we in Women’s Studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power
She talks about men’s advantages as coming directly from women’s disadantages:
advantages, which men gain from women’s disadvantages
I think there are many, many issues of discrimination where equality can be gained without anyone having to lose something. A simple, present day example is gay marriage. For gays to gain the power of gay marriage, straight people do not have to lose any power whatsoever. For blacks to gain a victory in the area of ending racial profiling by cops, white people have nothing to lose. An example of the contrary disproves the framing.
Therefore, equality is NOT a zero-sum-game.
But McIntosh introduces the idea of “privilege” and frames the entire conversation in terms of a zero-sum-game. And that framing is brought to every conversation about privilege even now.
So why frame equality in terms of a zero-sum-game? What advantage is there to invoke this framing if the framing is inaccurate? What’s the payoff? Well, “guilt” might be one payoff. I gain nothing from a racist cop pulling over a black driver, so most people will not associate me with being culpable for that racism. But if I get $100 every time a racist cop pulls over a black man? Suddenly, I have motive.
In a criminal trial, the prosecution must show the accused had means, motive, and opportunity before guilt can be determined. In cases of systemic discrimination, the means and opportunity are easy. Someone else does the discrimination and I do nothing. But motive? To enact gay marriage across the country would force me to sacrifice nothing. There is no payoff for me to oppose gay marriage. I get nothing out of gays being denied the right to marry. Therefore, I have no motive to deny gays the right to marry.
But if the problem is reframed from an issue of “discrimination” to an issue of “privilege”, if the issue is reframed such that there is always something the majority has to sacrifice in order for the minority to gain equality, then that automatically assumes a payoff for discrimination, it automatically creates motive, it automatically creates an air of guilt.
Even if I don’t actively discriminate against people, if I get some kind of payoff from other people committing discrimination, then I have motive, and my inaction to oppose the discrimination that benefits me become the means and method.
When I started to see how much the “privilege” conversation wants to misrepresent equality and reframe all issues of discrimination into the idea of a zero-sum-game, at first, I couldn’t understand why. Why would anyone so horrendously misrepresent reality? Why would anyone say equality is a zero-sum-game when there are many examples of large scale equality that could be achieved with no one sacrificing anything? If gay marriage could be achieved with no sacrifice from straight people, why would people misrepresent that into a zero-sum-game? Why would people take something that would cost nothing and present it as if it requires sacrifice?
And the answer seems obvious once you look at it: framing equality as a zero-sum-game renders inaction into guilt.
If a white person gains something from a racist cop pulling over a black driver (say a hundred dollar bill), then if that white person does nothing to stop racial profiling by police, his inaction renders him guilty of complicity. He is allowing racial profiling because he is getting a payoff. Never mind that the payoff doesn’t exist as anything but smoke and mirrors.
If I were suffering from some form of discrimination, and I saw a swath of the population indifferent to my problem, I might attempt to reframe their inaction into proof of their complicity of my disadvantage. If they do nothing, they become part of the problem, they become active participants in the discrimination. At which point, the only way they can demonstrate their innocence is by actively opposing the discrimination and doing whatever possible to appear to surrender any benefit they might have gotten from my disadvantage.
By framing equality as a zero-sum-game, anyone in the majority group automatically has motive for discrimination to continue, and if they do nothing, they can be portrayed as encouraging the discrimination for the personal benefit it generates for them. And therefore the only way they can attempt to avoid appearance of guilt is to vigorously and actively oppose the discrimination.
By reframing the issue of discrimination into something it is not, by reframing it into a zero-sum-game, every person in the majority group is forced to either actively oppose the discrimination or do nothing and be guilty of allowing the discrimination to continue because it gives them some personal benefit.
The payoff of reframing discrimination as a zero sum game is it drafts the inactive members of the majority to oppose the discrimination.
This would seem a noble cause, and one could attempt to argue that the ends justify the means, that equality justifies reframing the issue into something it isn’t.
Except that the reframing has a major negative side effect: it reframes all progress in equality to be operating in scarcity, it requires that all advances in equality require sacrifices, it polarizes a group because of an untruth, and it creates an antagonistic relationship between the minority group and all members of the majority group.