Is “privilege” like Original Sin?

May 24, 2016 • 2:15 pm

I direct your attention to a short piece on Allthink by James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian: “Privilege: The Left’s Original Sin“.  Their thesis is cute, and makes some sense: the Authoritarian Left’s notion of “privilege”, which establishes a hierarchy of victimhood, is analogous to religion’s Original Sin. You can read it in 5 minutes, but I’ll give two excerpts:

The concepts of Original Sin and privilege are identical except that they operate in different moral universes. In familiar religions, Original Sin is something you’re born with. It’s something you can’t escape. It’s something you can’t really do anything about – except be ashamed. It’s something you should confess and try to cleanse yourself of. It’s something that requires forgiveness, atonement, penitence, and work. It’s something, if you take it to heart, for which you will browbeat others.

For many contemporary left-situated activists, privilege occupies the same role in a religion of contemporary identity politics. There is no greater sin than having been born an able-bodied, straight, white male who identifies as a man but isn’t deeply sorry for this utterly unintentional state of affairs.

Everybody is a sinner; everybody is privileged; and both are the fall of Man. Both are the stain upon everyone who, by virtue of existing, falls short of moral perfection. Both are a kind of disease that threatens society. Neither can be escaped. Both must be abhorred and demand redemption from the guilty.

Lindsay and Boghossian are not saying that “privilege” is completely without merit—just that it substitutes, as do so many other notions in the Authoritarian Left, for the impetus to actually fix society:

Sin and privilege aren’t empty concepts, and they’re not exactly useless. They generate a particular kind of awareness and empathy that motivates certain kinds of behaviors seeking to avoid, minimize, and atone for them, but they’re effectively useless for solving any real problems. Wiser people focus more on the positive qualities they’d like to instill in others – temperance, self-control, generosity, fairness, even purity – rather than wallowing in the failures of miscreants and leaving it at that. Those adhering to the religion of identity politics (many of whom already reject the concept of religious sin) should learn from example and turn their attention to what matters, campaigning to create social, political, and economic systems that raise the underdog to genuine equality.

They point out one difference: that Original Sin, unlike privilege, can be expiated. And here’s another: you either have Original Sin or you don’t, but everybody except the single most disadvantaged person in society has some form of privilege. The most privileged, and thus the biggest sinners, are people like me: heatlhy white, cisgendered males.

A digression:  I was once told by a privileged cis-gendered white woman that all my academic success was due to my privilege. (She didn’t realize that hers was as well.) Well, that’s part of the story, of course, but there were a lot of factors involved beyond race and gender: a set of parents who valued learning, the fact that my Army dad was stationed near good schools, my exposure to charismatic teachers in college (I couldn’t afford to go to the school I wanted, which was Princeton), and so on. I take no real credit for my accomplishments, for I’m a determinist and didn’t make any choices. What diligence I exercised was due completely to my genes and environment.

I’m pleased that I’ve had a pretty good life, but it’s not because I made the right choices. I can’t even say I was “lucky,” for my fate was largely predetermined by my genes and environment, and determinism isn’t “luck”. But, as Lindsay and Boghossian note, the accidents of birth and environment involve a lot more things than just the color of your skin and whether you have a Y chromosome.

If you’d like, discuss the oft-repeated mantra of “privilege” below.

112 thoughts on “Is “privilege” like Original Sin?

  1. “Secular religion” is a term that needs to become a lot more widely used than it currently is, because the SJWs tick all the boxes.

  2. Is straight white male privilege something you are innately born with or something you absorb by osmosis due to having socially inherited a social system that promotes privilege?
    If the former, it is like the Western Catholic notion of original sin; if the latter, it is more like the Eastern Orthodox version of the Fall.

    What of straight white males that are at the bottom of the barrel in SWM hierarchy? (These are sometimes the most overtly racist.)

    1. Remember the Seinfeld episode when the more-famous Jerry was dating a beautiful blonde and noticed that he got better seats in restaurants and better treatment in restaurants because he was with her? He may have had privilege over black people in restaurant seating but he rose to another level when with that girlfriend.

      1. I fully recognize that as a (large) white male in the US I receive many (mostly unnoticed) benefits (e.g., I get treated with a big smile when I walk into a car dealer; I’m sure I almost always get a big benefit of doubt when pulled over for speeding, etc.)

        That is actually not a fault/problem on my part.

        The fault for me would be if I treated someone poorly for something they have no control over (let’s not get into a discussion of determinism here), e.g. their race, national heritage, disability, etc.

  3. A very timely question PCC. I have been thinking about this ever since I read this article:

    If you are white, you are a white supremacist, end of story. It does sound rather like original sin, no?

    And there is a video on Youtube in which a young person named “Milo Stewart” has stated that everyone is racist, misogynist, transphobic, homophobic etc etc. Xie has been a target of relentless mocking. Just by existing, you are a very bad person, and must atone for your sins and learn to ‘be a good ally’.

    Sadly, I don’t think that the world will necessarily be a better place without religion, because certain people will simply replace it with another form of religion. Though, I guess an argument could be made that the fundie SJW types that we see, who often grew up in Christian fundamentalist households, have simply shifted from one religion to another. So, perhaps it comes down to a certain personality type – authoritarians – who will always try to force their will upon others, and inventing a concept of ‘original sin’ is a very good way to go about it.

    1. It would be interesting to see the (former) religious breakdown of people who use the concept of privilege in the way described by Boghossian and Lindsay.

    2. I think you are on to something. Authoritarians and their desire to make people feel bad about themselves. And, I think it was Heather Hastie who pointed out that most people tend toward an authoritarian mind set.

      I think this is the source of all my misery.

      1. I wonder whether people tend towards a more authoritarian mindset when life gets tougher for them: if you’re backed into a corner you lash out.

        If so, is that a kind of in-microcosm version of in the way that more unstable societies seem to turn to the simplicities and certainties of religion more readily?

        1. Hardship in various aspects is often fraught with uncertainty about the future (think about our previous discussions on site about the Marxian hypothesis for the origin of religion). Authoritarians (see Altmeyer) have trouble dealing with uncertainty. So maybe … common cause? feedback cycle?

  4. What annoys me is that they’re not even using the word “privilege” correctly. Privilege is a type of socially granted benefit (ie, My son has the privilege of staying up until 10 PM so long he gets As and cleans his room, I had the privilege of Mr Dawkins signing an autograph, etc.).

    But, not all accomplishments or even advantages are privileges. Michael Phelps’ superb swimming ability is not a “privilege” – it is a cultivated talent. Nobody gave him permission to swim as well as he does, and nobody gave him his 18 gold medals arbitrarily; he simply does swim as well as he does regardless of permission anyone gives him, and he earned those medals in a contest whose rules were fair and whose prize was equally available to all competitors.

    “slippery use of the word ‘privilege’ is part of a vogue of calling achievements privileges, a vogue which spreads far beyond educational issues and toxic confusion in many other aspects of life. A privilege exists ex-ante and is fundamentally different from an achievement, which exists ex-post.”
    –Thomas Sowell

    1. Michael Phelps has a body that’s built for swimming. Another person can work just as hard and be just as competitive and not come close.

      The repurposing of the word “privilege” is due to not having the concept explored fully in the past. In jolly old England, one was “privileged” if one’s family owned land, sent one to “public” school and then on to Cambridge or Oxford. One was “under-privileged” if one worked the fields and quit school at the onset of puberty.

      So now the people who used to be called “privileged” are called “The One Percent.”

      1. “Michael Phelps has a body that’s built for swimming. Another person can work just as hard and be just as competitive and not come close.”

        Duh, I never said otherwise. That’s why I called it a “cultivated talent”. Not everyone has the talent in the first place, and not all who do cultivate it as well. None of that changes the fact that it’s not a privilege.

        It’s not repurposing the word, it’s just misusing it. If you’re failing to distinguish between social benefits that we afford each other and intrinsically possessed advantages that get utilized regardless of others’ approval, then you’re just warping the word into something worse than useless because it confuses issues and fosters resentment of and casts suspicion on even the most honest, constructive, and well earned of achievements.

    2. They have further streteched the meaning of ‘privilege’ to claim that by being born with a certain amount of privilege that one is *automatically* guilty of oppressing those who are less privileged.

      So, for example, if you are a white male, you are actively oppressing me, a woman, by the very fact that you exist. We are both oppressing people of colour if we are white. I am oppressing gay people because I am straight etc.

      Now, the original concept of ‘check your privilege’ is actually quite sound. To echo LadyAtheist, some people, who have never experienced certain kinds of hardship, seem to think that their life experiences give them the right to decide what is best for everyone else. However, the ‘check your privilege’ meme has been abused by people who, claiming that they are the most oppressed, can therefore abuse others with impunity, since it is ‘punching up’.

      1. How widespread is the idea that it’s the person’s “fault?” I thought it was more like the tallest person in a group being the only one who could reach the top shelf, yet blissfully unaware that not everyone can reach the top shelf.

        1. That was my thought as well. From all my online reading about privilege, I didn’t get the impression that people are considered to be “guilty” of whatever privilege they have. Sure, they can be called out for it, that is, their position of (as you say) blissfully unaware privilege can be pointed out to them if their unawareness makes them blind to other people’s problems, but I don’t see why this should be a reproach.

          Also, to make people more aware of their privilege is certainly useful for improving society. How can you start acting to solve a minority’s specific problems, if you don’t even know that they exist?

    3. Technically, a privilege is a law that only affects some people, from the Latin meaning private law. It is in contrast to nations which have equality under the law. The classic example of this is ancien regime France, where one’s position was defined by the estate, order, or class one belonged to. The current use of the word privilege is just a brickbat used to imply a situation which is unfair.

      1. That etymology is helpful, DrBrydon, and I was unaware of it. But, I feel it sorta strengthens my point.
        We’re a nation that has equality under the law, but we can also can grant each other permission for things. I have private property, and I can give or withhold your permission to enter it. If I allow you to enter into my home, you could say I’m giving you the privilege of being in my home.
        Rarely do privileges make such big differences in our lives. For the most part, talent and dedication and luck are needed to achieve things, none of which are privileges.

  5. I would take the article seriously if it wasn’t written by two heatlhy, white, cisgendered males. How dare they.

  6. If a white person is born into poverty but studies hard, goes to a decent school, and speaks standard English, they can get a scholarship to a good college, perhaps go to grad school, and “pass” for Middle Class or even enter the Middle Class.

    If a black person does everything right, they will still be presumed to be poor, and will still be stopped by the cops more often than a white person. (e.g., Henry Louis Gates) Their use of standard English & intelligence will seem to be an accomplishment even if their parents were brilliant scholars who spoke standard English (check out Dave Chappelle on “Inside the Actor’s Studio”)

    There’s nothing sinful about “privilege” in my opinion. What’s sinful is when someone who never had to worry about unwelcome sexual advances, being stopped by a cop, or being judged by their last name thinks that people who do justifiably worry about these things are whiny and just need to work harder.

    1. I think everything you said is correct.

      My wife fits the description of upwardly mobile (up from nothing — and I mean nothing). But beyond that, she doesn’t even have to “pass”. There’s nothing to indicate she isn’t exactly what she is: Successful, middle-class, professional.

    2. I agree with you, ladyatheist. This comparison of privilege to the religious concept of Original Sin is only valid in the most obnoxious of occasions, which seems to be the times when atheists and feminists collide on some matters. You take the most offensive atheists and the most offensive feminists and put them together and you’d think they have absolutely nothing in common and somehow they represent us all. Privilege awareness to me is just another bias check. Try to be aware of it, but know that you’ll never catch them all and that sometimes there is nothing you can do about it. I like to be aware of the idiot things my brain does.

      1. “You take the most offensive atheists and the most offensive feminists and put them together and you’d think they have absolutely nothing in common and somehow they represent us all.”

        Putting the most offensive atheists and feminists in the same room to collide seems like one answer to solving the population explosion! I’m sure there must be other pairings that can be enclosed together to cause a population-diminishing explosion.

        1. Sure. Sunnis and Shias, Muslims and Jews, Muslims and Kurds, Muslims and apostates, Muslims and homosexuals, Muslims and western clad women….any of those pairings within an enclosure would likely result in population diminishment, I’m fairly certain.

    3. It’s true that neo-cons tell “un”privileged people to stop whining and work harder. But this overlooks the desire of “oppressed” and “unprivileged” minorities to dictate the rules and protocols governing the academic world by imposing THEIR views of what should be read or not read, how faculty should be trained like Pavlov’s dog to be more “sensitive”, etc.and not least demanding segregated facilities for meetings and work (if not dormitories). One wonders why the would risk being made “uncomfortable” and having trigger warnings and forced to read
      books by white authors (like Ovid, for starters). This is reverse privilege for the less privileged at the expense of everyone else not to mention the university. Somehow this doesn’t quite fit in with the notion of
      diversity, when you want to censor free inquiry and free association. If you are a
      racial or ethnic minority, face it: no one
      is required to like you or associate with you. But they are required to treat you civilly….and YOU are required to reciprocate and respect THEIR right to an education.

    4. I don’t think it’s true that a black man who does everything right will still be presumed to be poor.

      A black man in a business suit or other good-looking clothes is not presumed to be poor, lazy, unproductive, unintelligent, or potentially criminal, while white people with trashy clothes or tattoos, etc are. I’d agree that the bar is higher for blacks to avoid such assumptions, but there’s no hard separation keeping whites above blacks in the poverty estimation. And the higher bar is probably justified to a large extent by the reality of widespread black poverty in this country. If wealthy blacks were the norm and poor blacks were the exception, people wouldn’t assume blacks were poor.

      1. I personally know a successful and well-dressed black criminal defense lawyer who was sitting at the counsel table waiting for his client when the judge asked “Mr. [Defendant’s name], is your lawyer on his way?”

  7. I agree that I am very privileged. I was born healthy and whole, in the US, in the second half of the 20th century, to loving parents of middle class means.

    Enough said!

    People like me are among the most privileged large group of people to ever walk the earth.

    What crisps my biscuit is when “people of color” state that it is impossible (metaphysically impossible) that they could be racist towards me (white USian person).

    They can (and have!) walk around the school where my wife teaches shouting for the entire building to hear, “I hate all white people!”

    But that’s “not racist”, no way!

    1. It depends on the definition of racism. If the definition is a power differential, then they are usually correct. If the definition is mere prejudice then anyone can be racist.

      1. Redefining racism to be dependent on a power differential is a fairly recent phenomena. It’s also a definition far outside of the common usage of the term. If you redefine the meaning of words I don’t think you should be surprised if an audience outside of your little circle doesn’t accept your understanding of the term.

        It also misunderstands the nature of power. If someone is shouting racial slurs at you, it hardly matters what their societal power is. They have the immediate power of intimidation and threat.

        1. Again, semantics. We have no word for “Supressive Power” vs. “Insult-power.” If we were German we’d have cleared that up. But when you use English you have to add meanings to old words.

          A “racist policy” keeps black people “in their place.” A racial slur can do that too, but it’s just an insult. If you call a black millionaire the n-word the worst you can do is hurt their feelings. They still have their money.

          How about Unterdrückendemensch for a powerful racist and Fickenruck for someone who hurls insults?

          1. I like Fickenruck as the definition for someone who hurls insults. Our next president could very well be that gifted, privileged Fickenruck.

      2. So, if I have a better job and more money that a particular black person, then I’m racist towards them? Or they have to have more money (or whatever) than me for them to be racist towards me?

        In what way is that even a usable definition of the word?

        That seems to drain any realistic meaning from the term.

        The important meaning is: Racial prejudice.

        1. I think in this context it’s not personal but societal. Racism is a system that suppresses black achievement. Individuals are not necessarily contributing to it. During the 19th Century lots of white people participated in the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist cause, but society was racist.

      3. It’s dishonest to define racism as “power differential”; it’s an attempt to slide something you disapprove of into another category that has a much higher level of disapproval in society.

        Power differential should not be allowed to mooch off of racism, but instead must make its own way in the world, living or dying on its own merits.

      4. Yes, it depends on whether you use the actual definition of racism, or the convenient one that exculpates certain forms of behaviour that would easily be labeled as “racism” otherwise.

        I actually disagree with the thesis of this article, because I think “privilege” is a somewhat real concept in society (unlike “Original Sin”), even if I think the using the term “privilege” for it was just about the dumbest, most counterproductive decision ever. (Wanna make an enemy for your cause? Go lecture some lower class white guy about his “privilege”)

        That said, I absolutely think plenty of leftists view privilege exactly the way Boghossian & Lindsay describe it. Go read the minutes of a NUS meeting some time, and you will see it at work.

        1. I think they admit to privilege by backing into it: “The privileged don’t hinder themselves; they hinder you.”

          Which is as backwards an acceptance as accepting “love the sinner but hate the sin” but not “love the privileged but hate the privilege”.

          If the groups could reach each other, and often individuals do, the idea that privilege is a birth mark would go away.

          A better term for “privilege” would have been “resource differentials”. Last I heard, women owns 5 % of the world’s capital, and likely less of its other resources…

          1. I think resource differential is the largest part of it – but I also agree that there’s something to the statistics that point out even affluent, well-resourced people of colour are more likely to be treated with suspicion (in various ways), than a white person.

      5. I have always thought that the definition of racism was the belief that all the members of a group of people identified by some ostensible biological difference (typically skin color, but not exclusively so) was objectively and innately inferior. I don’t think prejudice is the same as racism. I can be prejudiced against people from Wisconsin without being racist.

    2. I recently had to attend a “race and equity” retreat for work; I was surprised at the level of animosity of the POC towards whites. It far exceeded, I think, what most whites feel towards POC. Their hostility is legitimized by the curriculum taught in Culture Studies in many universities. In trying to trace the intellectual roots of this belief system, I uncovered something called “Critical Race Theory”:

      1. My wife had to go through this as well (and I mean “go through” in the worst possible way).

        The entire session was a woman “of color” berating the attendees about how they are racist scum. (These are professionals.) The only acceptable reaction was to expiate shamefully on how racist you are, in public.

        I don’t give a damn what you skin color is, what your heritage is, what you name is, or what your religion is (as long as you don’t try to push it on me). I (am lucky to) work with people of every race, nationality, religion, background. I love ’em all.

        What I care about is behavior. Behave well, we’ll get along great! I’ve worked with and reported to women, men, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians (of many national heritages) my entire professional career. No problem.

        1. Sounds like a similar program. But I learned that to “not see color” is a microaggression, because it denies the role that race has played in the identity of the POC.

          1. How ironic that the very thing that is the source of such enormous anguish becomes the precious tool that can’t be forsaken or ignored.

            I agree with jblilie. We must learn to focus on what is truly important, the individual. Respect should be the default position toward all until and unless such time that an individual proves he no longer deserves it. But this has to be the intrinsic behavior and attitude of all people everywhere and we are such a long, long way from that. I feel we’re headed in the right direction, though, slowly and inexorably, made possible by instant communication and connection, but the majority of humans to act as adults in all affairs remains a distant goal that will require many more achievable, shorter term goals and milestones to be reached first. The question then becomes, can humanity achieve this ideal before destroying the environment needed to sustain us?

      2. I had the misfortune to be the supervisor for someone who had been an adjunct teaching this stuff in an historically black university. She definitely pre-judged me, and I don’t know if I ever really got through to her. I certainly didn’t do anything (I think) to validate her ideas. She lived in a bubble so I just took her animosity the same way I’d take the animosity of a home-schooled apostolic pentecostal.

      3. In all online discussions I have had, the least pleasant have been those with non-white American opponents. It seems to me that some of them are so used to submissive whites that see every disagreement expressed by a white person as outrageous. So they resort to insults, tell me to shut up or tell the blog host to ban me. For comparison, Mideast Muslims have been much more tolerant to me and my unflattering opinion about their “prophet”.

  8. What we need is a new Savior to cleanse us of our original privilege(s). I wonder what the corresponding Fall is, slavery?

    Who would be a good candidate and what would his/her/?’s sacrifice be?

  9. Unfortunately, concepts like “privilege” have been co-opted by assholes who relish the ability to denigrate an entire group of people and feel sanctimonious about it.

  10. Privilege is like the flip side of racism. A black woman can say that I have no idea what it is like to be her. That might be true. But why is it true that no part of my life cannot be understand by others, including a black woman? They can understand me, but not the other way around?

    I guarantee that if one wants to listen to what it means to be me, they can understand. I have endured pain (athletic) that most people can never endure, but I can easily share my experiences through explanations.

    This is an epistemological issue. People claiming to know when they may not know and worse claiming that others cannot know when something can be knowable.

    1. I think a black person could say they have no idea what it’s like to be white. But… in places that are severely segregated, they know what it’s like to not worry about hostility when they’re home. A white person going to a black neighborhood doesn’t face the same issues as the reverse.

      1. “A white person going to a black neighborhood doesn’t face the same issues as the reverse.”

        Seriously? In an urban setting a white person straying into a predominantly black neighbourhood stands a much greater chance of being the victim of violent crime than the reverse. There are sink estates in London that a white person would be unwise to wander around in, but I doubt whether a black person strolling through a Dorset village would come to any harm.

        1. Not true. I have worked in black neighborhoods and I have lived in neighborhoods that were at most 30% white. Nobody ever gave me any crap. I have been a crime victim four times and only once was the perp black.

          We white people warn each other about these places but we’re no more likely to be victimized than a black person. FYI, black people warn each other about white neighborhoods.

            1. Since the plural of “anecdote” is “date,” I’ll just chime in and say my experience mirrors lady atheist’s. Dave doesn’t mention any actual experience, so I guess that doesn’t count as an anecdote.

      2. A black person could say that. But if anyone wanted to know what it was like to live my ostensibly privileged life I guarantee that person could, in principle, know everything about me. I am fully inclusive. My life is open to all who wish to know the immensely boring details, starting with the NSA. 😎

    2. “They can understand me, but not the other way around?”

      If you attempt to identify with them in any way, then you are committing a microaggression. An example of that was in the training materials we received.

  11. Bingo. I’ve been so humbly arguing for years that the privilege narrative is a dead end. Even if I fully accept it, it sheds no light on causes or solutions. The original sin analogy is a pretty good fit. It just circles right back around to the mission of “educating” everyone about privilege. As with evangelism, there seems to be no “level 2” in that gospel. It’s close companion is the popular argument from “lived experience,” which entitles people to claim special revelation on the global distribution of social ills, their root causes, and the best solutions.

    1. It’s always good to understand another person’s point of view better, and knowing our own bias helps with that so it’s not a total waste.

      1. The story of privilege says precious little about points of view or biases. It’s a superficial hammer, and once invoked in a thread, it ensures nobody shares their point of view, because there’s an endless supply of chatters who think nobody else understands this basic concept, so we get “educated” about it over and over again. I have nothing against “points of view” but sometimes it would be nice to talk objectively about bigger things than our personal selves.

  12. The tactic of shaming seems to be the primary tool of those who rail against the various forms of “privilege.” They apparently think that the privileged will acknowledge the attacks by the unprivileged and say, “yes, just by the virtue of how I was born, I am pure evil, I recognize that, and will accede to everything you demand.” The real world doesn’t work like that. The cause of true social justice is achieved by making allies with privileged groups in pursuit of a worthy goal. For example, such was the case with the abolition of slavery in the United States.

    I will be so bold as to predict that in ten years most of those college students, so upset by things, will be leading very conventional lives. By then, they will have realized the foolishness of the counterproductive tactics. The “system” has an uncanny ability to co-opt dissenters. Most radicals of the 1960s succumbed to this.

    Nathan Heller in the New Yorker has written an extended piece in which he describes his conversations with various “firebrands” at Oberlin. The people he talked to seem like characters in a satire. Unfortunately, they are all too real. They are exemplars of identity politics to the extreme.

    1. Ironically identity politics minimizes individuality, which if you’re not prejudiced you would respect.

      There are 7 billion of us and we’re all different. That’s really hard to grasp.

      1. Ironically identity politics minimizes individuality, which if you’re not prejudiced you would respect.

        Yeah? Like when a bunch of SJWs got on PCC’s case for his article about the cultural appropriation of food. See, PCC’s opinions were dismissed because he is a white cishet male. Not having the ‘lived experience’ of a person of colour, his opinion was dismissed, because logic and facts don’t matter – the race/sex/creed of the messenger does, however.

        So in fact, I would argue that identity politics is what divides people, instead of bringing them together.

    2. If you allow at least some credence to the notions in Albion’s Seed, then the USA includes a bunch of people who can trace their ancestry back to the Puritans.

      The Puritans were great ‘shamers’. Perhaps modern people have picked up on this tactic – I guess they really want ‘privileged people’ to walk around with a big ‘P’on their back.

      While (hopefully) aware of others’ feelings and situations I refuse to identify myself with their labels.

  13. By coincidence, there was a BBC radio programme about original sin yesterday (podcast available here ).

    I found it hilarious but I’m not sure that was the intention. The best thing was the repetitive statements that such and such a doctrine was no longer doctrine and the panel don’t bat an eyelid. Spoiler alert: If you listen to it, please don’t think that the man who sounds like he might be opposed to the religious nonsense actually is. He is just as religious as the others.

  14. Hooray! I have made this exact point several times on this very blog. The left’s “original sin” style misanthropy. It started in the animal conservation and environmental movement (both great causes) but they devolved into the overall concept that “humans suck” until a bunch of years later they discovered that really it’s just white humans that suck.

    Bravo for this article!

  15. I was born and raised Uganda and moved to the US recently. I struggle to relate to issues raised by POC here, not because I think them trivial or unfounded, but because up until 6 months ago I have belonged to the majority race. While here I’v e experienced some racism, both subliminal and overt, but somehow it does not seem to affect me as much as it “should”

    1. This is common among many acquaintances I have from other countries who come to America. A feeling of being ‘congealed’ as Sidney Poitier would say, makes a big difference how one perceives what other mean by racism.

  16. The concept of privilege relates to being a member of a favored group when that favoritism includes characteristics unsupported by the data.

    This society privileges whites over blacks, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Look at the history of racial segregation in Chicago, for example, and the enthusiastic participation of the University of Chicago in that segregation. While no one at UC would uphold that system today, Chicago’s housing is still largely segregated to the disadvantage of blacks, so whites are privileged in this regard, 50+ years later.

    If one recognizes privilege as a historical, group, characteristic and believes its persistence to be an injustice, then one has the obligation to work to overcome it. Or at least stop complaining when others do so.

  17. I’ve long had a problem with the idea of ‘privilege’ as it is often used. Not being treated like crap because of the color of my skin is a RIGHT, not a privilege.

    Rights need to be shared with everybody, unfair privileges you are born into need to be taken away.

    I have no problem if people want to call me privilege because of the family I was born into. But my straightness or whiteness doesn’t confer privilege, it just doesn’t give me a disadvantage.

    This is word nitpicking, I know, but having seen the behavior of some people, I’m starting to think that it betrays how they think about this. They don’t want whites to have special privilege when race is brought up. But they aren’t opposed to the idea of bringing up race when discussion individuals in the first place.

    1. I agree. I once incurred a great deal of wrath for suggesting the same thing on Pharyngula.
      What the left calls privileges are really rights. Actual privileges are above and beyond what everyone should expect. For example, a cop on his day off getting pulled over for speeding and not getting a ticket because he flashes his badge is a privilege. But not getting pulled over because of the color of your skin ( or the quality of the car you’re driving) is a right, not a privilege.

  18. Funny, when I first encountered the left going on about privilege, it reminded me of the way religious nutjobs go on about sin. All the time spent demanding acknowledgement of sin rather than any solution to it.

    The issue I take with the concept is by all accounts it’s a statistical inference, yet the proponents try to reason back to causal stories, and that gets back to the same ad hoc problem that psychologising motivations have. Yet the self-righteousness of those who speak of privilege (much like the self-righteousness of believers who claim we are all sinners) pervades the conversation. Privilege, as far as the usage of the word I’ve seen, is a pejorative directed at those who don’t accept a narrow left view of morality (and even those that do when they disagree on the smallest detail).

  19. One thing I loathe about the way the word applies, is that it concatenates absolutely everything desirable from the point of view of the person holding it, and then tries to cast all this stuff as undesirable.

    The latter part of this enterprise is absurd, but the former part is profoundly unilluminating. Attributes that have nothing to do with one another and to which we should take very different attitudes, are all lumped together under the meaningless umbrella of “privilege”. Being able to vote or speak freely or walk the streets unmolested, we are told, are forms of “privilege” – although these things are better conceived of as rights, things everyone should have, and which if not everyone has it’s still desirable if some people have. Being a film star or CEO of a company is also “privilege”; in this case it’s something which not everyone can have, it’s a good thing for some people to have. And claiming entitlements nobody should have, like the ability to make the lives of minorities miserable – this, too, is “privilege”.

    Nothing is gained by blending all these attributes into a thick, homogenous soup.

  20. It’s hard to keep up with Social Justice.

    For the longest time it seems the goal was for all of us to finally become “color blind” – to see people just as people, not based on their skin color or race.

    But now it seems we are being admonished – by continually having to check our privilege against those who don’t have it – to keep the differences between all of us vividly in mind all the time. DON’T be blind to how we are different – if you do so you won’t be able to check your privilege and acknowledge everyone’s different needs. Make SURE you notice the difference between your skin and another skin, between your station in life and another person’s, between your gender and all the variations of gender….

    1. But now it seems we are being admonished – by continually having to check our privilege against those who don’t have it – to keep the differences between all of us vividly in mind all the time.

      I had a chat with a bunch of SJW feminists regarding gender. Men as a gender keep women down, cisgender people oppress transgendered etc etc…so I suggested that we should work towards abolishing the concept of gender all together. We can make it so that no one cares if they see a man in a dress or a woman who looks and acts like a man. No more forcing people to conform to gender stereotypes – surely this will make the world a better place, agreed?

      NO. Absolutely NOT. We must keep the concept of gender differences alive in order to uplift those who are the most oppressed – ie, anyone who does not identify as a white male. The same arguments have been made about race – it is now racist to suggest that you don’t care about the colour of a person’s skin. Now we must notice gender and skin differences in order to uplift those who are oppressed and punch up at those who are oppressors!

      1. Gender and skin colour differences be damned. It’s those tall people who are privileged.

        And so it goes.

  21. Interesting discussion.

    I find it difficult to correlate “original sin” with “privilege”. In the first place, I don’t believe in original sin, so have nothing with which to compare it. Secondly, I think that all of us are privileged in one or more ways.

    Should I feel guilty for having white skin? I was so white in a grade school with many Hispanic children that my teachers thought I was ill. They could see my blue veins through my transparent skin. Now, I’ve lived long enough in sunny environments that I have a nicely mottled, freckled complexion: neither white or brown: a mixture of both (no skin cancer, I hope!)

    Many of us were not born of wealthy, highly educated parents nor grew up in the best neighborhoods. My grandparents had less than 3rd grade educations. My parents had less than 8th grade educations. As a result,
    they all emphasized the value of education.
    They also valued reading and my Mom took us to the library every two weeks for all my childhood years. I have a Masters that I worked hard to obtain and that wasn’t paid for by loans or handouts. My parents, my brother and I lived in shacks with outhouses for a time. Eventually, my parents literally built their own three bedroom house.

    My husband and I have always hated inequitable treatment of people for any reason, but particularly for skin color. Unfortunately, I will not live long enough to see humanity truly interacting as the one family they are.

  22. It’s something you can’t escape. It’s something you can’t really do anything about – except be ashamed.

    Oh poppycock. The current ‘bathroom wars’ provide an excellent counter-example: transgender genetic males ‘escape’ their privilege. And look what it gets them – the hate of half the population and an orders of magnitude increase in the chance of being raped or otherwise sexually assaulted.

    Moreover, helping others less privileged than you is (IMO) ‘doing something about it.’ No, it doesn’t right all wrongs with a snap of the fingers, but let’s not make good the enemy of perfect here. Doing what you can to help others is infinitely better than moping around in a philosophical paralysis brought on by the thought that you might – despite your effort and good intentions – still have it better than those you’re trying to help.

  23. Like many ideological principles of the SJW authoritarian left, this one is schizophrenic.

    They’re constantly going on and on about how this and that is a cultural construction. Usually when describing something that needs to go away, because dismissing it as a cultural construction means it should be easy to eradicate. They have no room for any writing on the blank slate – all beliefs and attitudes are cultural constructions, and all corrections to them must be cultural change.

    Yet when it comes to this mysterious substance called “privilege” (normal people talk of one or more privileges that a person might have), they’re hardcore biological determinists. White? Straight? Male? You have maximum privilege! And there’s nothing you can do about it! Don’t try to trick us by suffering auditory hallucinations, sleeping in the open on the street, and eating out of garbage cans. You’re oppressing that rich black woman, and you know it!

    It’s often nearly impossible to believe that there are people who take this seriously.

    1. I have been blissfully unaware that this is a major thing. Is it?

      Outside of academia it’s just a way to remind people that there are indeed biological determinants in our society that have given some people an edge. The Kennedy sister with schizophrenia lived out her life in a special “home,” not on Skid Row.

  24. I reject any political rubric which seeks to define a prioi a group as being bad or inferior. We have seen too often where this leads, from the aristos of the French Revolution to the kulaks of the Russian. Like the concept of “privilege” used by the SJW, these categories are applied to individuals regardless of their own actions or particular circumstances, and often merely because of their parentage. A baby might be economically advantaged, but it is guilty because of that? No. A would-be Robespierre or Lenin might argue, though, that it bears the seed of its guilt, and would doubtless blossom into an Enemy of the People were it not strangled in its crib. There can be no justice in the face of such assertions.

    1. The whole point of privilege is that it’s invisible and helps the person despite any of their actions.

      Privilege does put someone in a position of relatively more power by definition, and power corrupts.

      But there’s also the old concept of “noblesse oblige” which seems to have died with RFK. I wouldn’t call Bill Gates “noble” because he didn’t inherit his wealth, but he comes closest.

      1. I view this whole concept as completely political and subjective. As for the concept of “noblesse oblige,” in an American context it is nothing but conceit. I much prefer the Golden Rule.

  25. I’ve certainly seen this analogy in action before, yes. I’m game to discuss, and work to end, “privilege” understood as advantages conferred arbitrarily by society, but it’s much more difficult to take people seriously when they treat privilege as an innate quality tied to individuals’ existence – and, worse, apply blame to those individuals for it.

    In other words, “It doesn’t really matter that you (the individual) have never mistreated anyone or that you fight for equality in real time; the fact you are male (or white, or straight, etc.) makes you the bad guy.” In that sense, it’s definitely parallel to the concept of original sin.

  26. The thing that chaps my hide is “Race is a Social Construct.”

    Biologically, no no no no. If I die in the woods and my bones are found in 50 years, my race, gender and age would be easily determined. If they could extract DNA from my tooth or somewhere, they could also tell which part of Europe my ancestors came from, my hair & eye color, and whether I had any genetic disease.

    It’s not like we’re calling each other a different species when we say “race.”

    1. Ah! But there’s SJW ‘Race’ (is a Social Construct and may therefore be safely discounted) and there’s Biological ‘Race’ ( based on genetic demes which may have real effects and may not be written off).

      So yes, I agree. Socially constructed race is a social construct, but to ignore all other meanings of ‘race’ is either ignorant or disingenious.

  27. Here’s my take: Yes, being white/straight/cis-gendered/male/healthy/etc. obviously ARE advantages in our society. But advantages are not the same thing as guarantees. Being white/straight/yadda yadda does not guarantee that you will not be poor, end up in prison, be sexually harassed or assaulted and so on. The woman who said that “all” of Jerry’s success in his career was due to privilege is confusing advantage with guarantees. It is the same as racists who assume that any Black person who is successful got there purely by affirmative action.

  28. Agreed [likely predetermined since we are both named Doug :-)] The standard definition of privilege is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” Thus I usually try to think about ‘white privilege’ in terms of what advantages that I have had that others have not had. Although I am white, I can name a fair amount of disadvantages that I lived through during my younger days. Although I find the discussion here to be both informative and insightful, I must confess that as an old, rich, cishet, white dude, I don’t much give a shit about what people say about this topic or most any other. My take is that you don’t have to tell me what you believe; I can see what you believe by observing how you live and how you treat others.

  29. At times I get the impression that some of the Authoritarian Left groups who constantly whine about privilege while spouting identity politics nonsense and claiming perpetual victimhood don’t actually even believe in true social equality.

    They want revenge.

    They want retribution against their “oppressors”. Some BLM activists seem to actually want white people to experience slavery and segregation. Some third wave radical feminists seem to want cis-gender men to be subjugated. They don’t want real equality, they want control. ALL of the control.

    They don’t appear to realize that they’re navigating into troubling waters by silencing all debate and no-platforming differing opinions. We’re heading toward a world with moats and barbed wire around the “safe spaces”.

    1. “They want revenge.”
      This is an interesting line of thought. One thing that’s vexed me growing up as a lefty is what the aim of the political action is. It seemed to me that it was to propagate individual liberty and to reject any sort of authority as dictating how we ought to live. I realise now that was a naive and untenable interpretation, consequently I’ve found myself drifting away from the political left.

      I’m not sure it’s revenge so much as it’s a powerplay – it’s using morality as a leveler, and why I think the analogy with original sin is helpful for understanding what the language intends to do. It’s about disarming advantage, and that only serves a purpose in trying to impose a new authority. The legitimate cases where bringing up privilege seem quite limited in comparison to its general use. But if we imagine that its use is about giving oneself moral authority, then at least its use makes sense descriptively.

      1. I think you have penetrated the recent bait-and-switch of the Left.

        There are, I’d guess, many people who wish to follow ‘Classic Liberalism’ (see Wikipedia) and the Left *seemed* to be the closest match in modern politics… but the authoritarian nature of the Left is a big discrepancy.

      2. “propagate individual liberty and to reject any sort of authority as dictating how we ought to live”

        Nope, that’s libertarianism.

        1. There’s a particular strain of liberalism that exemplified that – the 60s counter-culture and its offspring. They would deliberately challenge the status quo, be subversive and offensive, and argue that people had the right to choose the way they wish to live. They’d stand up for free speech against conservatives who wished to ban certain materials, and engage in “alternate” lifestyle practices.

          Things like fighting against censorship, for the rights of homosexuals, adopting spiritual practices of other cultures, etc. All these and more sit comfortably within liberalism and only really make sense with the notion of liberty of the individual.

          From wikipedia:
          “Liberalism is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality. Whereas classical liberalism emphasizes the role of liberty, social liberalism stresses the importance of equality. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally they support ideas and programs such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, democratic societies, secular governments, and international cooperation.” [my emphasis]

  30. Privilege (noun)

    A term used by some middle-class leftists to go on about male privilege, white privilege, straight privilege, cis privilege etc, in order to draw attention away from their own class privilege.

  31. “White Privilege” goes back to Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” {1} and is one key aspect of the framework called “Critical Race Theory” which is what we come to know as the belief system of the common Social Justice Atheist (and now American Humanists), recent disciple Aron Ra

    Like most of postmodernism, it’s on one hand trivially true and on the other outright nonsense. The trivially true part is easy: racism exists and people not suffering from it have an advantage.

    But then the meaning varies from undeserved andvantage to enjoying basic rights, which is already an important distinction. Everyone should have certain rights, but undeserved advantages sound as something unfair and that has to be removed.

    Astonishingly, this lack of nuance seems to bother none of the people who typically advertise this concept and who manage to switch from one meaning to the next as needed (e.g. Richard Carrier, “enjoying an unfair excess of preferences and privileges”). Here are a few examples taken from McIntosh’s influential piece.

    1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

    Tell that historical ghettoed Jews and the black communities in Compton. Were they privileged? And what about the western countries where people of colour are a tiny minority, such as in Germany (~1%). Most western countries are mostly white because that’s how the people in that area looked like. It’s also a dubious demand to change this because mixing up skin colours is apparently a desired outcome for reasons unexplained.

    3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

    Only is this a matter of money or class, not of skin colour. One of the reasons I despise this whole corner, because it managed to completely ruin the Left’s ability to tackle matters of class, poverty, distribution of wealth etc. This is not even an argument of relative privation (one being more important than the other), but the Race and Gender War has practically killed all momentum of the 99% problem.

    How about that one…

    12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.

    Almost as bad as inappropriate coffee invites. Even at the time of her writing (1988) the music business had plenty of people of colour, though I concede not when you are into Black Metal. Social Justice shall install a quota and tell the scandinavians to cease producing such music, until people of other skin colours have caught up to say, 30%.

    23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

    Being able to criticize the government is a right, not a privilege and otherwise I am not sure what “cultural outsider” means. Like many other points on the list, it would be the part of trivially true concern that racism exists (claiming otherwise, that it was not a known and true concern is also a strategy that gets used often by the same corner of people, who conflate this with resistance to their Utter Nonsense as presented with this concept).

    It seems the idea was to invert racism and look at the other side of those who don’t have to put up with it. Even this is badly done, since nothing of interest is generated by the rhetorical flourish, as one could write most, if not all items, in their opposite (“17. (inverted) I cannot talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color”). But putting the absense of racism as a “privilege” is one of the most harebrained things I’ve ever seen. We hope to get rid of racism, not of these “privileges”.

    What’s more, poor people in the rural areas also have to deal with conceptually similar disadvantages, same as those who live in countries with few people of colour. The deeper issue is poverty.

    McIntosh, 1988, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

  32. 3 “Blessed are the poor in entitlement,
    for theirs is the kingdom of safe spaces.
    4 Blessed are those who trigger,
    for they will be comforted.
    5 Blessed are the weak minded,
    for they will inherit the earth.
    6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for right-thinking, for they will be filled self-righteousness.
    7 Blessed are the no-platformers,
    for they will given platforms.
    8 Blessed are the pure in ideology,
    for they will see flaws in all others.
    9 Blessed are the protesters,
    for they will be punching up.
    10 Blessed are those who are persecuted with microagressions, for theirs is the kingdom of bubble wrap and kitten pictures.”

  33. It is in my view important to realize that some of us “have it easy” in some respects due to accidents of birth, etc. However, the *current* “privilege” narrative goes wrong in (a) assuming that the categories they identify are the *only* ones that matter in this respect and (b) that any particular *viewpoint or attitude is due to them*.

    (a): For example, I am a heterosexual cis-male from a middle class family. I have nevertheless experienced anti-English-language bias (I grew up in Montreal) sometimes. So, what category?

    (b): This even infects all fields: witness the extreme (now largely moribund, thankfully) end of academic “feminist philosophy of science”. Science itself was held to be sexist because supposed founders of science were.

  34. I’m trying to remember the name of a science fiction story from years ago (I think it might have been by Heinlein) about a society where all people were reduced, by any means, to an “average” state: if you had excellent vision, they gave you foggy glasses; if you were strong, they weighted you down; if you had a good intellect, you were fitted with headphones that blasted noise to break your concentration, etc. Nowadays, this would include estrogen shots for those considered “too masculine”, and testosterone for those “too-feminine” women.

    1. Harrison Bergeron” is a satirical and dystopian science-fiction short story written by Kurt Vonnegut and first published in October 1961. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the story was republished in the author’s Welcome to the Monkey House collection in 1968.

      The story was written as a satire to offer a critique on people’s claims that we should all be equal.[1] It has been embraced by those critical of egalitarianism as an allegory of caution against socially enforced equality, more specifically the dangers of enforcing equality by virtue of leveling.[2]

  35. I have to admit, whenever I stumble upon CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” and see him casually talking to a group men while he eats exotic foods and the women who made the foods stay hidden away, I think “Yeah, that’s male privilege.”

    Could a woman star in that show?

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