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.