Saturday, October 09, 2010

What does privilege mean for a liberal?

Liberals believe that whites and men are privileged. But how exactly? The answer is important, because the liberal starting point leads to an ultimately contradictory position.

The starting point is that the good in life is autonomy. Therefore, being privileged means having more autonomy than others. But there are different ways of having more autonomy:

1) We can have more autonomy as men or as whites. Liberals claim that these are artificial categories set up in order to get an unearned privilege (more autonomy) at the expense of those designated as the "other" (non-whites, women). So whites and men are thought to be upholding a gendered or raced identity in order to keep for themselves advantages over others.

2) We can have more autonomy by escaping a gendered or raced identity in favour of a human one. Our sex and our race are unchosen, predetermined qualities. Therefore, they get in the way of being self-defined. So it is a privilege according to the liberal world view to be unsexed and deracinated. So if whites and men get to live the default "human" position, rather than a sexed or raced one, they are privileged.

3) We can have more autonomy if we do not need to be defined in terms of anyone else but ourselves, i.e. if we can ignore the influence of the "other" and have things our own way. Therefore, whites or men are privileged if they are unaffected by the views or the power of others and can choose to live on their own terms.

So these three positions flow logically from the liberal starting point. But unfortunately for liberals, the end result isn't easily made consistent. There are two major tensions in the liberal account of privilege.

First, men and whites are damned for upholding categories of race and gender, but at the same time they are damned for the privilege of transcending categories of race or gender, of existing above these. There is a contortion of the male/white psyche here. We are held to desperately uphold categories of being male or white in order to keep grasping onto advantages denied to others, but then we are criticised for the privilege of living unaware of gender or race and occupying the default "human" position instead.

Second, men and whites are thought to maintain privilege by actively "othering" those we want to dominate, but at the same time we are held to be privileged by being able to live in our own little bubble, unaware and unaffected by the lives of others, being purely self-defined. But which is it? If we are guilty of having the privilege of leaving others alone, of not needing to have relations with them, then how are we setting up relations of domination via an active process of othering?

I'll run through some examples further on. I think it's useful to look first at where this liberal account of privilege came from. I think it's likely that the culprit was Simone de Beauvoir, particularly the introduction to her book The Second Sex (1949). Consider these excerpts from the chapter in question:

there is an absolute human type, the masculine. Woman has ovaries, a uterus: these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature ...

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being.

... And she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her ... He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.

... The native travelling abroad is shocked to find himself in turn regarded as a ‘stranger’ by the natives of neighbouring countries. As a matter of fact, wars, festivals, trading, treaties, and contests among tribes, nations, and classes tend to deprive the concept Other of its absolute sense and to make manifest its relativity; willy-nilly, individuals and groups are forced to realize the reciprocity of their relations. How is it, then, that this reciprocity has not been recognised between the sexes, that one of the contrasting terms is set up as the sole essential, denying any relativity in regard to its correlative and defining the latter as pure otherness?

How does Simone de Beauvoir portray men as privileged? Clearly, she believes that men get to be more autonomous in the second sense I described above: she thinks that women are sexed, whereas men get to be human (non-sexed).

She also believes that men get to be autonomous in the third sense: men don't have to be defined in reference to women, they get to escape reciprocity by being the "sole essential".

De Beauvoir also thinks men are privileged in the first, most basic sense described above; she believes that femininity is an artificial category:

The biological and social sciences no longer admit the existence of unchangeably fixed entities that determine given characteristics, such as those ascribed to woman ... If today femininity no longer exists, then it never existed. 

Having dismissed the idea of natural distinctions between the sexes, De Beauvoir argues that these distinctions are explained by men wanting to keep women subordinate (i.e. men sought to uphold the artificial categories of gender for their own class interests):

But why should man have won from the start? It seems possible that women could have won the victory; or that the outcome of the conflict might never have been decided. How is it that this world has always belonged to the men ....?

... the very fact that woman is the Other tends to cast suspicion upon all the justifications that men have ever been able to provide for it. These have all too evidently been dictated by men’s interest.

Legislators, priests, philosophers, writers, and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of woman is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth. The religions invented by men reflect this wish for domination ...

In proving woman’s inferiority, the anti-feminists then began to draw not only upon religion, philosophy, and theology, as before, but also upon science – biology, experimental psychology, etc. At most they were willing to grant ‘equality in difference’ to the other sex ...

So already in The Second Sex, way back in 1949, we have the three pronged liberal theory of male privilege.

De Beauvoir's theory has been taken up by modern feminists. Consider these quotes from one feminist website:

...in a patriarchy, all women belong to the sex class, and are defined in terms of men. Men, on the other hand, belong to the default human class, and get to define themselves (and everything else).

...the concept of femininity extends to the full set of unique behaviors performed by the sex class to appease its oppressor ... My position is that the construct recognized as “femininity” represents the dominant social order’s successful attempt to otherize an entire class of people for the purpose of oppressing them.

Another example of De Beauvoir's influence is the work of Peggy McIntosh on white privilege. She has drawn up a list of 50 ways in which whites are privileged over others in daily life.

The 50 items don't make much sense outside of De Beauvoir's theoretical framework. Some are based on the idea (privilege 1) that whites are "raced" for the purposes of denying opportunities to others. So Peggy McIntosh's list often sounds paranoid about how whites treat others:

37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.

41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

McIntosh is suggesting that whites in everyday life will only help each other and wouldn't help non-whites with career advice, or legal or medical services. This sounds delusional but it is what the theory predicts: that whites exist as a class of people to keep unearned privileges for themselves.

Some of McIntosh's items are based on privilege 2, the idea that whites get to live not as whites but as the non-raced human default. Here are some examples of items in which whites are privileged because, unlike non-whites, they get to be non-raced:

39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.

16. I can be pretty sure that my children's teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others' attitudes toward their race.

19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.

36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.

So whites are thought to be acutely ethnocentric in the first group of items, but then to be privileged by living outside the prism of race in the second. It doesn't fit well together. Furthermore, McIntosh then also includes privilege 3: the idea that whites get to live in their own self-defining, self-referencing bubble. So she has items like this:

8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.

The dominant group gets to be normative and therefore to live within their own race as the "sole essential". But if there is a privilege in living within your own race (to have things "testify to the existence of your race"), how can it also be a privilege to occupy the human, non-raced category?

Again, some of the items make little sense except that they fit the Beauvoirian theory that the dominant, oppressor group can self-define and ignore reciprocal relationships:

31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.

32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.

So whether we whites are defined in terms of the other, or whether we are self-defining; and whether we live as part of a racial category, or whether we live outside of race in a "human" category - we are in all these circumstances considered guilty of an unbearable privilege.

As I wrote earlier, the starting point to all this was a logical one under the terms of liberalism. If autonomy is the key good then we are privileged by having more autonomy, whether it's through a dominant racial relationship, through transcending race or through a capacity to self-define racially. But this framework, for the reasons I've outlined in this post, ends up lacking coherence.

12 comments:

  1. there is only on internally coherent meaning of the term:

    access to something that another does not have access to.

    Note, that this resembles the leftist notion of privilege. However, it lacks the universalist, absolutist connotations of that version.

    I would point out that leftism and Christianity are merely different univsalisms fighting for supremacy. If one forgoes universalism then one bypasses this entire issue. The left, feminists in particular, use the term "Male Privilege", which is really a metaphysical essence.

    The proper rejoinder is that there are "male privileges" and "female privileges" that stem from the real differences between male and female. But note that this is a relativistic, not a universalist, sort of privilege.

    The problem is with the universalism at the core of both leftism and Christianity.

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  2. After posting the last comment I decided to give an example of what I mean by differing privileges. Since I live in the US I will give examples of incommensurate "black privilege" and "white privilege".

    The average young white male has greater access to higher paying jobs and careers than the average black man. That is a "white privilege".

    The average young black man's access to sex is far less dependent on his ability to earn money than is that of the average white man's. That is "black privilege".

    Only a sliver of people, even those highly educated, are actually aware of the autonomy theory core of liberalism. Because of this, arguing relativistically absolutely eviscerates absolutist claims of privileges.

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  3. The dubiousness of most of these so-called white privileges can seen in the way that white society treats those who identify as white nationalists.

    White nationalists argue that whites should explicitly favour one another in social relations, yet in mainstream white society white nationalists are ostracised and face significant social disadvantages.

    The only white nationalists who have significant social success are a few WN talking heads like Jared Taylor, and someone with his qualities (high intelligence, confidence, upper middle class background etc) would likely make a highly successful mainstream elite anyway.

    If whites do favour each other then it can only be at the unconscious level, and people can't be blamed for behaviour which they aren't consciously aware of.

    Also note how the author has a binary attitude to racial privilege which doesn't mention that white people may have different views of different races in different circumstances.

    For example, some Whites may generalise that Maoris tend to be late for meetings but don't apply this generalisation to Indians or East Asians. Similarly Whites may also make negative generalisations about their own race relative to others - for example assuming that East Asians study harder or that Indians have more interesting cuisine.

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  4. White heterosexual men are "privileged," yet at the same time they're the ones responsible for keeping society going (indeed, they are the ones who built Western civilization, and therefore modern civilization). All these limp-wristed, latte-sipping liberals and feminists could be purged from existence tomorrow, and nobody would even notice since they don't do anything except complain.

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  5. "The average young black man's access to sex is far less dependent on his ability to earn money than is that of the average white man's. That is "black privilege"."

    That's the best you could come up with?

    HELLO, affirmative action....

    Does anyone here honestly think that when whites become a minority in 50 years or so that people of other races will extend ANYTHING to whites, let alone race-based hiring quotas?

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Forget it.

    The truth is that whites are the only group of people who suffer any sort of consequences whatsoever when engaging in racist activities. When the New Black Panther Party said they wanted to "kill cracka babies", what happened? Nothing. There was some quibbling back and forth but no riots, no lynchings, NOTHING.

    Now imagine a white guy advocating killing "nigger" babies. Imagine the OUTRAGE. If you are old enough to remember what happened with Rodney King,OJ Simpson,et al, I'm sure you are picturing whole cities burning to the ground right now, because that would be what would actually ensue. And WHITES are racist? Rubbish.

    You know what happens to whites who talk about getting other whites together to do ANYTHING? They get laughed at. Blacks get armed thug militias.

    "The dubiousness of most of these so-called white privileges can seen in the way that white society treats those who identify as white nationalists.

    White nationalists argue that whites should explicitly favour one another in social relations, yet in mainstream white society white nationalists are ostracised and face significant social disadvantages."

    BINGO.

    Where's the evidence for this "white male privilege"? Oh yeah, the handful of people with most of the money are white males.

    Big deal. I'm sure a couple of them are closet transvestites too, I guess transvestites have all the power.

    I'm white as a bedsheet and I've been poor all my life, nobody's ever given me a damn thing because I'm a white man. I took my girlfriend with me to apply for jobs once, she'd never worked a day in her life, you know what happened? They hired HER, and she quit a week later.

    I was the broke one, and they hired HER to meet the "minority" quota.They gave her a job that I would have busted my ass in for YEARS, and had to hire someone else because she takes the fact that she will get another job FOR GRANTED.

    White male privilege is RUBBISH.

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  6. We have here a bit of a contradiction between left theory, which sees things in terms of class and power relations, with whites as a dominate power class, and liberal theory which sees individual autonomy as on of the highest goods, and therefore makes class arguments more attenuated.

    For a women to say that she is treated as an "other" and defined against men arguably reduces her as both a class, she has less power then men, and as an individual, she finds herself restricted from making self defining decisions. However, when we talk about privilege aren't we really talking about class privilege? As in the left definition would trump the liberal one. Privilege means for most people largely what Asher has defined, ie better resources and more power, better schools etc. According to that whites are privileged because they as an entirety are wealthier, which gives them greater opportunities and they are "culturally richer" allowing them to dominant in leading sectors of society. As Anonymous points out affirmative action is entirely based on that understanding.

    The point is I think that liberals when they talk about privilege are primarily using it in the leftist sense and referring to class, rather than individual autonomy/power.

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  7. "The point is I think that liberals when they talk about privilege are primarily using it in the leftist sense and referring to class, rather than individual autonomy/power."

    Jesse, I think you make a key point there. Modern liberals don't actually seem to be that bothered about individual inequality, only inequality between groups or classes. Overall economic inequality has actually increased since the late 60s when social progressives seized control.

    What's happened is that all the smart ambitious elements of each officially recognised group have risen up the ladder, so that we now have a feminist elite, minority elites, a gay elite, etc.

    The white male elite is still probably at the top of the pile but the top 10-15 percent or so of the all the 'marginalised' groups are doing very well.

    In other words, we have a form of representative egalitarianism, which is an extension of our representative democracy. However, for those who are not part of an official elite group there is no real egalitarianism other than an increasingly complex welfare system which takes care of extreme poverty but tends to leave people trapped on it.

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  8. Mike, I understand that in NZ there are parliamentary seats set aside for Maoris? So these seats and other elite jobs would be set aside for the elite within the group and corruptly controlled, all in the name of a broader class equality with whites. Roughly speaking we would say that there is less inequality over the last century, however, there is far more concern with inequality and heightened agitation at any white elite, or broadly white, advantages, as being a manifestation of inequality. In such a sense there is "privilege" inflation. Anything that makes one slightly better, for instance being the historically dominate group within a country, (you wouldn't think that would be such a big deal as the West largely lived in monocultures), is seen as an unacceptable advantage.

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  9. "The point is I think that liberals when they talk about privilege are primarily using it in the leftist sense and referring to class, rather than individual autonomy/power."

    This points up the related idea that interpersonal relations are subjective and involve preference and discretion, buttressing abstract arguments for autonomy. Social bonds at this more intimate level are essential regardless of the political philosophy of particular members; moving out to larger and larger groupings generally dilutes the relations and concrete interests of these same individuals. These broader categories are the haunt of progressive liberals and leftists-- it is where they dictate the outcome of equality of result for all, and where personal autonomy hits rough waters. Division at the class or group level is anathema to them (but it simultaneously provides the soil without which they cannot grow), whereas traditionalists recognize natural hierarchies and allegiances.

    The fact that we can "all get along" on an autonomous basis, as individuals in a multicultural community or society, does not directly translate to a corresponding natural harmony at higher levels of organization and this drives liberals around the bend.

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  10. "there is an absolute human type, the masculine. Woman has ovaries, a uterus: these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature ..."

    I wonder if Beauvoir was jumping to or jumping from the position expressed here(though that depends on whether she looks at men the same way she tried to look at women):

    http://books.google.co.in/books?id=iTOzhZ5MElYC&pg=PA81&lpg=PA81&dq=man+is+only+intermittently+sexual&source=bl&ots=VtGmjsxO44&sig=d23_5Gua6Fq11e7wTqCM8MaxeiM&hl=en&ei=RdWtTJCBC4iecOCRsIIO&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBQQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=man%20is%20only%20intermittently%20sexual&f=false

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  11. Great post, Mr. Richardson.

    "But [the theory of white privilege], for the reasons I've outlined in this post, ends up lacking coherence."

    Right, and that's because it started with a lie: Autonomy is not the ultimate good; it's one of many.

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  12. Asher wrote,

    "Since I live in the US I will give examples of incommensurate "black privilege" and "white privilege".

    Right. But for both blacks and whites, "privilege" still, always, universally, and forever without end, means access to something that another does not have access to.

    You, sir, are a universalist. Welcome to the club.

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