Carte Blanche – A Rant

by Ian Jade

I have started to get sick and tired of privilege.

Not the experience of it, naturally, because as many of you have inferred, I am indeed privileged as fuck.

I like not having to struggle against most kinds of prejudice every day, and I like the things about me that make that possible – as a male, white, hetero, cis, able, relatively financially secure, educated person I pretty much come at the top of the tree locally, as far as privilege is concerned. That’s not to say that for me life’s a walk in the park, but there are parks available for walking in, should I wish. I know, OK? I know that makes me exceedingly fortunate, and I also know that many people – most people – do not fit into one or more of those categories, and so come up against a society that is largely biased against them, one way or another. Or several. I understand that this is a real thing, and a real problem, and does affect people. Let’s just get that clear.

One of the most damaging things about privilege is that privileged people so often fail to notice how lucky they are; that they live in a world the less privileged cannot know and vice versa – what is considered normal by them is unimagined luxury to someone with a less privileged life; to have bias and prejudice vanish so thoroughly they’re not merely no longer daily problems, but are no longer real. The entire concept of prejudice becomes meaningless, if you live with the right kind of privilege: and if you’re privileged with regard to socially-biased systems where’s the incentive to change them? Everything’s working just fine, isn’t it?

But recently I have seen examples of (usually) feminists who throw the term around at the first sign of debate, using it to silence critics and to give them carte blanche to engage in precisely the type of behaviour they publicly object to in others. Throw that word around and suddenly anything is fair game – anyone who disagrees is branded an enemy, a privileged bigot.

So, I thought I’d dig around and see if I could clear up a few of the knee-jerk responses that I’ve had come my way.

First – Just because someone happens to exhibit signs of privilege does NOT mean they are oppressing you, actively or passively. They may or may not have personally benefited from that privilege; you can’t tell. They may or may not be working to change those systems; again, you can’t tell. So kindly keep assumptions like that for when you know the individual better. And not everything that looks like privilege actually is. Not all effects have the same cause.

Secondly – Stop with the stereotypes. Seriously. It pisses you off, surely, when people say “women do this” or “black people do that”, “gay guys are always so…” so can you cut out the privilege-bashing? Please? All white people are not the same. All hetero people are not the same. All men are not the same. No, not even if they share privilege. Why do you think any such statement is useful to anyone? If you’re using a “type” to stand for a particular set of behaviours, why not just say them? Because I guarantee you won’t make any friends among those people you unintentionally accuse of whatever -ism you’re targeting. You might even lose a few.

Thirdly – Privilege is contextual. Yep, it may come as a shock to all you absolutists, but since privilege is an interaction between a person’s self and the social environment, it depends entirely on that environment. Entirely. No skin colour, no gender, no sexuality is inherently more privileged than another; not until you place that person into a social context. (Which, when you think about it, is kind of awesome, and what the whole thing’s about…) Making assumptions about how a person’s perceived privilege might have affected their behaviour ignores their actual life experience. You don’t know them, so don’t assume and don’t generalize. All X people are not the same.

Fourthly – (and this is related) Privilege is not simply additive, but multiplex. Intersectional, if you will. Yes, if a person is truly privileged in a certain area then they may have the kind of narrow insensitivity you are concerned about in that field alone, but – I’ll repeat –  making assumptions about how a person’s perceived privilege might have affected their behaviour ignores any unseen examples of under-privileged aspects of their life. To say that a white man will always inherently be used to respect and deference, say, might not be accurate if he had experienced persecution due his sexuality, for example. [EDIT – I really want to stress that even those things that don’t normally get counted as privilege can have an undermining effect here.]

Fifthly – there is a worrying tendency when discussing privilege to cling onto “victim” status, seemingly so as not to lose the ability to attack others on grounds of the privilege you claim still not to possess. . . . which makes my brain hurt, but I have seen incredible contortions of logic designed specifically to de-value any progress made towards equality. This even extends to inventing examples of “oppression” that nobody else can see, just to prove how oppressed you are and how insensitive is the society you inhabit. Such victimhood is sickening to see, and leaves the observer with the impression that not only will nothing they do ever be enough to satisfy you, but that there is no point even trying to give you what you ask for but appear not to want.

Lastly, and most relevantly, comes education. Do you believe that by campaigning and writing, blogging, engaging with all kinds of people, you can make them more aware of their own privilege, and its effects, and ultimately less likely to take advantage of it at the expense of others?

It’s a serious question, so please think carefully – Can you educate privileged people or not?

I would imagine most of you hope and believe the answer to be yes. So, when you point out a person’s privilege, and go on to assume certain behaviours or attitudes on their part, you are also assuming they are both ignorant and uneducated with regard to their privilege. That is your assumption. Remember that they will never be able to change their experiential privilege (their formative experiences), and it is immensely difficult to change one’s circumstantial privilege (how their identity interacts with their current social environment) – those things are as fixed as skin colour or sexuality – so the only possibility left for them is education and awareness. Deny them that, and you are condemning them to a stereotype of privilege as surely as people condemn “niggers”, “fags”, “trannies”, and “bitches”, with no hope of redemption.

So, have I got this wrong? I’m sure I’ll get told, loudly, but so far the arguments against this problem have degenerated into hypocrisy, double standards and “justified” revenge for oppressive history; and I don’t think any of those is actually a good enough reason to perpetuate this kind of hatred here and now. To recap, I believe that –

  • Privilege is real
  • Privilege is individual
  • Privilege is dependent on current social context
  • Privilege is dependent on past experience
  • Privilege is multiplex, and varies in how it is expressed
  • Privilege is able to be acquired through changing social context
  • Privilege is able to be lost through changing social context
  • Privilege can be overcome

So there’s no excuse for using it as a weapon of silence or dismissal. It’s a point of education, a possible blind spot in someone’s world view, but not the bomb you can use to nuke any discussions not going your way.