Privilege, Power, And Paralysis


Differing ideologies often use differing vocabularies, reflecting differing concerns.  One such difference is reflected by and in the use of the word “privilege”.  At least in my experience, one seldom hears the word used among people subscribing to a conservative ideology, politically or economically or theologically.  I would suggest that this absence of the word among conservatives is a consequence of conservatives’ tendency to simply assume privilege for themselves – not necessarily arrogantly, but more or less as a matter of course and unconsciously.  On the other hand, if my experience is typical, one often encounters the word “privilege” among progressives and left-of-center folks, because, as a general rule, one of the hallmarks of a progressive ideology (of any type) is a concern with class stratification, and the various perks and … well … privileges … that pertain to each class.  In other words, progressives tend to view as artifacts of socio-economics that which conservatives usually simply assume as a matter of course.  Both views – progressive and conservatives – lead to certain blind spots about privilege of which the respective proponents are often, even usually, blissfully unaware.


Take conservatives’ tendency to assume as a matter of course certain privileges that are, in fact, highly artificial.  Perhaps the most salient examples pertain to religion and to race.  While acknowledging, in a kind of oh-by-the-way spirit, that – yes, to be sure – the “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses of the First Amendment guarantee the equality of all religions and religious groups before the secular law and the freedom of all religious sects to practice their faith, conservatives – in my experience, far more than progressives – nevertheless insist that “America is a Christian nation”.  (Seriously now, stop and think:  how often have you heard that quoted statement, or some cognate thereof, uttered?) There is a sense, of course, in which that statement is true.  But it is just true enough to be dangerous. In a strictly cultural sense, the United States is indeed a Christian nation.  That is true even today when religious pluralism is becoming the rule rather than the exception, and when “Nones” comprise something like middle-teens percent of the population. Even today, somewhere upwards of 70 percent of Americans identify with one variety or another of Christianity – almost three times the same percentage of all the non-Christian groups combined, even including the “Unaffiliated” category. Granted, that percentage is declining, as the same Pew Survey table shows. But the decline seems dramatic only in contrast to historic norms:  for most of its history, the United States has been far more “Christian,” at least in terms of personal self-description, than today. (Actually, in colonial times and during the era of the early Republic, Americans were far less “churched” than they are now, but most of that lack of identification was because the US was still mostly a trackless wilderness, where churches were separated from the community by dozens of miles.) Therein lies the problem of privilege, at least for conservatives.


Not only with regard to religion, but with regard to a whole spectrum of other defining factors, cultural privileges that have been in place for several generations begin to seem like – and to be treated as -- legal privileges. (Hence the persistent assumption, on the part of many religious conservatives and evangelical Christians, that Christianity is a privileged religion as a matter of civil law.)  De facto privileges associated with one’s native language, income, body type, speaking accent, etc., come to seem like de jure privileges associated with those same parameters.  The distinction gets lost in a welter of historical circumstance.  Moreover, in some cases, privileges that were once de jure lose their rationale, even as a matter of civil law. (African-Americans were once de jure ineligible for jury service, voting – even for citizenship itself – until the law changed, and the culture finally caught up with it.) Sometimes privileges change when we, as a society, manage to work out a more comprehensive account of the implications of our own constitutional values and principles. We recently realized that – as a matter of civil law – there is no justification for prohibiting same-sex couples from participating in the civil contract called “marriage”, a principle latent in the “due process” clauses of the 5th and 14th Amendments, and in the “equal protection” clause of the latter. (Marriage as a religious institution is still protected by the “free exercise” clause of the First.) To its eternal credit, our own Constitution was ‘way ahead of us. One’s language, one’s income, one’s body type, one’s speaking accent, etc., etc.  – these never were matters of legal privilege, except for certain specific instances like literacy tests for voting, poll taxes, 18th-century property qualifications for voting and for the holding of office, and the like, all of which have are long since discredited and in many cases declared unconstitutional.  They survive only as atavistic instances of purely cultural bias. Even the most conservative conservatives now recognize these as practices best referred to in the past tense.

But progressives have their own blind spots with regard to privilege.  Rather than talk about this in the abstract, I will describe a game I participated in with my fellow students in various classes at the School of Theology and Ministry (STM) at Seattle University. We called the game “The Privilege Walk”. Students would line up with their backs against one wall of the classroom. Then the teacher / facilitator would read various defining parameters of privilege from a list on a sheet of paper. If a particular trait applied to you, you would step forward.  That one trait was a defining mark of privilege. For example, when the word “Male” was called out, I would take one step forward. Ditto “Native English speaker”. Ditto “Household income over $50,000 a year”.  Ditto “White skin”. By the time the last trait had been read, the students would typically be arranged in a kind of irregular “sawtooth” pattern, some ahead, others behind.  The people farthest ahead would – by the definition latent in the parameter list – be the most privileged. I always appreciated “The Privilege Walk,” because it was very effective as a consciousness-raising tool:  privileges are usually unconscious and invisible to their possessors.  To people with white skin, it seems natural that they should be privileged. To affluent people, it seems natural that they should be affluent. To native English speakers, it seems natural that they should be privileged.


But what “The Privilege Walk” left unexamined and outside-scope was what is arguably the ultimate privilege:  the privilege of defining privilege. What parameters are legitimate for defining privilege? Call this a “meta-privilege”, or perhaps the “meta-privilege”.  Now, I would certainly not disagree with any of the traits on the list in “The Privilege Walk”. (The list is certainly incomplete. There was no trait for “No male pattern baldness”. No trait for “At least average athletic ability”.  No trait for “Passionate interest in competitive sports”. Etc., etc. Those would have left me closer to the starting wall than anyone else.) Rather, my point is that – with any list of parameters that define privilege – the list had to be compiled by someone, and participants have to at least acquiesce to that list as to its validity, if not its completeness.  The point is not that I disagree with any of the elements on the list, or that any such list of defining parameters can ever even purport to be, much less actually be, complete and exhaustive. Rather, it is a question of power:  the compilation and use of any definition of privilege is “always already” an assertion of power, i.e., the power of defining "privilege".  Whenever anyone tells you that you are privileged (over some individual or some group) by virtue of trait X, that assertion is “always already” an attempt to assert power over you.  Nor is this observation necessarily intended to imply that the person making the assertion is wrong.  Only that they are not of necessity always right.  No more than any other statement are privilege-assertions self-validating. Like any other statements – religious, political, economic, scientific, etc. – privilege-possession assertions need to be subject to detailed examination and critique.

Why is this important?  It is important because allegations of the possession of privilege, like all assertions of power, can have – not necessarily do have, but can have – the effect of “de-fanging” cultural and moral discourse.  One can always argue, e.g., that I have no standing to critique the treatment of women in Muslim countries, because, by virtue of my being a citizen of a secular, non-Muslim country, I approach the situation of women in Muslim countries from a standpoint of privilege that induces a certain anti-Muslim bias into my thinking. (This argument was recently used in the real world to discredit Ayaan Hirsi Ali and prevent her speaking at a university convocation.) Ditto other “rights-centric” issues in other contexts from the standpoint of privilege issues. Such reasoning is ultimately nihilistic:  in one way or another, from some standpoint or another, everyone is privileged in some way, and so – if we follow the above reasoning – ineligible to render moral judgment about virtually anything, except perhaps genocide (which, however, at least arguably presupposes certain culture-centric value judgments about the value of human life in relation to political and military power).

Beyond rational bounds, privilege can paralyze.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:

Sign-carrying protester ... Alex Klavens ... CC BY 3.0
All other images public domain

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