What is Privilege? – The Right Engle


Over the past couple years; the concept of privilege has grown to be a ubiquitous part of the public discourse. It’s moved from a topic confined in large part to the ivory towers of academia, to one that is a commonplace aspect of mainstream political and social commentary. Its propagation can be seen in the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, perhaps the most visible (or at least most militant) force for racial identity politics.

Libertarians and Privilege

Before the last presidential election, I wrote that Gary Johnson’s approach to Black Lives Matter, and the issues BLM raises, was the correct one; because, whenever individuals are being targeted simply because they are members of a certain group (be it racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, or otherwise), then it becomes a fight that those who love liberty should support.

Racial discrimination is real, and it should be combated. How we choose to combat it, whether through state action or fostering better social understanding amongst our fellow citizens, is another matter. But we should not have a “knee-jerk” reaction to the notion per se.

Libertarians’ frequent tendency to belittle the notion of privilege has had the unfortunate consequence of rendering their views tangential to the debate. This has resulted in negative consequences, as in the absence of rigorous interrogation the idea of privilege has come to mean something far broader than the mistreatment of certain historically underserved ethnic groups. It permeates all manner of discourse. Not only is there white privilege now, but also male privilege, straight privilege, “cis” privilege, thin privilege, and wealth privilege.

Privilege is a slippery concept, because it usually connotes not just an unearned status, but an undeserved one. We would say that status, especially status created by socio-economic means, cannot be called underserved per se.

“Mansplaining” with Socrates

To borrow a concept from Socrates (if you will permit me to use the philosophy of an old white man to “mansplain” for a moment) it seems that all the different kinds of privilege pose a “ti esti” question.

A “ti esti” or “what is it” question is a cornerstone of the Socratic method of philosophical inquiry. It essentially posits that one can only really understand a thing, and make judgments about it, when one understands what that thing actually is. Admittedly, Socrates, at least as he is portrayed by Plato in his dialogues, can be awfully pedantic to the point of obtuseness. Yet, the idea that one ought to know what a thing is before making statements about it is a sound one.

After all, how can anyone “check their privilege” when they do not understand what privilege actually is, let alone what constitutes “their privilege” in particular?

When people are told to “check their privilege,” or are instructed in what makes them privileged, there is never a rigorous explanation of what the locus of privilege actually is. It is a question to which the answer is usually assumed, and that is not a good thing. Without recognizing that a whole range of things has now been grouped under a single unhelpful descriptor, the notion of privilege has instead served to position public discourse. Rather than enhancing understanding of how certain groups are treated in a society, the concept of privilege has created a fracturing into tribes.

The Currency of Oppression

In reality, the notion of privilege has come to be a weapon used by political activists, principally of the left, to sow divides between segments of society and to create a hierarchy of oppression within a movement.

Oppression (which might be seen as the opposite side of privilege on a notional “axis of entitlement”) has become a kind of currency within certain groups. This has been thanks to groups like Occupy Wall Street, and its intellectual successors, who fostered the notion of the “progressive stack”, in which people would be heard on the basis of their level of lack of privilege.

The problem with this sort of thinking is two-fold.

First, it assumes that one can actually define all the kinds of privilege and how they impact individuals. I already explained how that was impossible to do and that no one has ever really tried to do it.

Second, the progressive stack assumes that all the kinds of oppression, once defined, can be added together into a coherent formula. This too is simply leftist black magic, since it is patently obvious no such calculation is possible.

The result is a number of competing formulae, often competing within the minds of individuals. So whether someone who is black, or an immigrant, or trans-gender, or “gender queer” is more oppressed than another is entirely in the eye of the beholder. That alone should be proof that the concept of privilege, as it is understood, is deeply flawed.
Worse still, it is now clear that some activists have started claiming kinds of oppression in order to appear more worthy of a platform. This should be no surprise; given the perverse incentives the progressive stack and the philosophy behind it create.

Moving Beyond Privilege

The problem with discussing privilege as a monolith is that it obscures real social issues from those that are fabricated to win attention. As people who support individual liberty, we should be excited to see people finding new ways of expressing their identities. The truest flowering of freedom is the ability to be one’s self without any external authority telling one otherwise.

Yet, we must also stand against the notion that being different automatically means one is oppressed by the “white mono-culture,” or whatever you want to call it.

We are all different, and society benefits when we embrace those differences.

Trying to turn those differences into weapons to segment the worthy and unworthy is wholly wrong. It is every bit as moronic as the old tools of division like racism and sexism, which the left claims to be fighting against.

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John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.