why “privilege” is sometimes a stupid term

You hear people throwing this about a fair amount (ok I don’t, because I don’t stick around it), but it has completely stopped making sense to me.

“Check your privilege”. “Be aware of your privilege”. “You’re in a privileged position” etc. In other words the person in question should feel guilty for being what they are, in the situation they are in, and presumably walk around hobbled by some kind of moral restriction. You can put high sounding justifications on it, but the emotional content is pretty unmistakable.

It’s not generally used to the faces of the super rich or materially powerful, because they really are privileged, and you won’t get anywhere near them. It’s generally used for people who will sit there and listen. Another face of our old side show, “personal politics”.

The first reason this makes no sense to me is that if they haven’t personally done anything wrong themselves, then they have nothing to feel bad about. If they have done something “wrong”, then address the perceived wrong, not what they are.

Secondly, if their “privilege” is actually a quite normal state (eg freedom to marry, or to not have their gender identity attacked, or being able to keep their kids), don’t call it a privilege. If they are consciously supporting the denial of equality for other people, that is not a privilege, that is an aggression. But if they simply, unconsciously, enjoy a normality which everyone should do, don’t go calling them privileged. It psychologically suggests that they shouldn’t have what you want too (given that they are not themselves denying it to other people).

If we treat people as blocks, and collective groupings and things, when we are actually talking to an individual, then we engage in a net loss of manifested intelligence and moral coherence.

And when people realize that they have been hoodwinked into feeling guilty about doing nothing wrong, they will ignore you, and quite rightly too.

And if people think all this “privilege checking” by proxy is a way of bringing about change in the world, well maybe they should check what it is they think the world is made up of. Groups to be manipulated into the result you want, or individuals with hearts and minds?

Don’t check your privilege. Check if it is a person that you are seeing in front of you.

Then people can talk. Because why would anyone speak to someone, if they didn’t even want to have a conversation?

collage made from Public Domain images via Wikimedia Commons. Theatre mask depicted on fresco from Pompeii. Picture from Angry Bird Land Särkänniemi. Photo of WG Harding.

collage made from Public Domain images via Wikimedia Commons. Theatre mask depicted on fresco from Pompeii. Picture from Angry Bird Land Särkänniemi. Photo of WG Harding.

15th September 2014: illustration colour and saturation reworked.

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