Time to Scrap Our Current Definition of Privilege

It used to be that a “child of privilege” was someone born into a wealthy, established, and well-connected family. This situation was considered part of life. It seemed neither possible nor especially desirable to prevent people from having money, influential connections, and a certain degree of respect on account of their background.

One reason was that privilege had advantages for society in general that could not easily be attained otherwise. People with wealth and position who hadn’t spent their lives seeking it were thought more likely to display disinterest and breadth of vision. Social norms, family traditions, and an upper-class education usually tried to encourage the tendency. They didn’t always work, of course, but nothing does.

The expectation of noblesse oblige was more highly developed in Europe than in America, but even here political dynasties like the Adams family seemed to show that they could provide some benefits. And such families provided a model to self-made men: once the latter had risen to the top financially, their next step was often to fill out their careers and improve their social position by displaying public spirit. Andrew Carnegie provides an example.

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Another reason for acceptance of some degree of privilege was a sense that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Musicians are more likely to come from musical families. Family traits have some reality, and we tend to display as adults the outlook and habits we were surrounded by growing up. Attempts to change this seemed likely to be destructive since they would have disrupted the socializing function of the family and the expectation that parents should do their best for their children.

Such views seem borne out by experience. Indications such as popular literature suggest that the emphasis on equal opportunity hasn’t made the general level of human culture and capacity higher than in the past. The supreme peaks of achievement certainly aren’t higher or more numerous. And the number of those who have fallen by the wayside—as indicated, for example, by crime, substance abuse, chaotic human connections, and disconnection from productive work—seems only to have grown. Progress has given us comfort and physical abundance, but not better people.

Even so, extremes of privilege have always been a matter of concern, and people have responded in various ways. Churches and community organizations provided supplemental sources of socialization. Rich uncles and local notables sponsored talented students who lacked funds. Free public schools and low cost public colleges made opportunities more generally available. Civil service and college board tests promoted the principle of merit over influence and favoritism. And democratic elections meant, as the saying went, that any boy could grow up to be president.

All that was then and this is now. The idea of privilege has been radically changed and broadened, and the idea that it’s unavoidable and in some ways useful has disappeared. So broad has the term become that it now means something like “accepted as normal.” According to the new definition, you have privilege if the world is set up for people like you and you aren’t seen as an example of someone who’s different and needs to explain and prove yourself.

But that just means you’re living in a community with a functioning culture and you’re accepted and at home there. However, that situation is now considered objectionable—a sort of crime against human universality—because it means that most people in the world wouldn’t be treated equally if they found themselves in your community. They would be viewed at least to a degree as outsiders.

Once the idea of privilege in that sense gets started it expands endlessly. Inflammatory claims can be extremely effective in partisan settings, and so people make them. The insistence that we should “always believe the victim” makes them very difficult to dispute. Any discrepancy—whether real, apparent, or imaginedin the relating of an incident in a country of 330,000,000 can draw national attention if it’s an example of privilege. Even if the discrepancy seems minor or the claim dubious it doesn’t matter. Microaggressions need to be rooted out as all complaints demonstrate that someone feels excluded or disadvantaged—an intolerable situation.

There’s a social ideal behind all this: the ideal of a society in which all are equally at home. However, this ideal is an odd one because it means there can be no such thing as culture or community. If such things play a role in social life then some people will be more at home than others—Frenchmen will be more at home in France than Senegalese—and that will be privilege. So accepting current ideals means accepting the ideal of an absolutely neutral society, presumably one that is purely bureaucratic and commercial, in which no one at all is at home.

The self-interest of those who dominate bureaucratic and commercial institutions supports this ideal. It’s worth noting that privilege as now understood doesn’t have much to do with actual privilege. Thus, unemployed white male factory workers have privilege; celebrities like Jussie Smollett don’t. Affirmative action—favorable treatment for members of certain groups—isn’t privilege. And a minority group with a high average income and disproportionate representation in elite professions and institutions doesn’t have privilege either, since they’re not viewed as an entirely unremarkable aggregation of individuals.

But human affairs are complex, and people don’t always mean exactly what they seem to be saying, so we need to take the analysis a step further. When we do so we find that “privilege” is not about being accepted as unremarkable simply as such, since otherwise in America today there would be secular and progressive privilege and we never hear about it.

The reason is that it’s considered normal for Mrs. Clinton to be considered normal, so her situation isn’t privilege. What’s “privilege,” then, is being considered normal when you should be treated as abnormal—for example, when you’re a deplorable. If a non-elite white male churchgoing gun-owning Trump voter is treated as normal that’s the quintessence of privilege. So the real objection isn’t to “privilege” in the sense that some people are treated as normal and unremarkable while others are not. It’s to what those who now dominate public discussion consider the wrong standard of normality.

The conclusion is that privilege as currently conceived, like privilege as traditionally conceived, is simply inevitable. There will always be those who are treated as more normal than others, just as there will always be those who are well-placed by birth. Doing away with one sort of privilege—shooting all aristocrats and factory owners after a revolution, for example—simply means another will take its place. The real question is what systems of privilege work best for people in general.

It’s worth noting that there are dangers in denying social realities like the necessity of privilege. Determined opposition to privilege as such means there is no place for noblesse oblige. This is one reason that today the people who are privileged in a traditional sense have less of a sense that they owe anything to others. What, after all, do secular progressives owe deplorables other than suppression and contempt?

Thus, we shouldn’t aim at comprehensive equality—an impossible and destructive goal—but at a society that works as well as possible for its members. In particular, we should aim at a society in which people generally can be part of a stable and functional community in which they feel at home. This way if A is “privileged” in one setting there will generally be another in which B is privileged. Households provide an example: almost everyone has a privileged position in some household, but we’re all outsiders in the great majority of them.

Such a society is not something that can be imposed or guaranteed, but it can be worked for. And one step toward bringing it about would be getting rid of the current understanding of privilege. It’s an attack on the very possibility of community and common culture, and therefore on a world that is livable for anyone except perhaps its rulers and owners.


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