Privilege- What it is & What it is Not

March 19, 2023

The Left’s assault on language and logical concepts continues. This popular meme on social media displays an especially clever bit of sophistry.

Popular meme on “privileges” making the rounds in Leftist circles on social media

The meme may mislead the audience to think of their position in life as “privileged,” impose a certain amount of guilt for having that privilege, and therefore promote becoming more sympathetic to the general Leftist solutions to “social justice” issues that have already universally deemed the “privileged” as a source of our problems. But the “absence of obstacles and barriers” does not necessarily imply privilege, and thinking it does may lead to poor policy decision-making that is in itself wrong and can cause more harm than it was intended to remedy.

There is a deficiency with the structure of the meme’s “argument.” It inserts the opposite of what is essentially the definition for “disadvantage” into the definition of “privilege.” But what it is missing is the true baseline upon which both concepts depend for their definition – a mix of the notion of equality, fairness, and justice.

Both terms are inherently relative. Relative to what? They should be relative to an equal and fair norm or default given the situation. The default ought to be determined logically by studying the nature of whatever concept/practice is at issue. The meme essentially cuts this out and defines “privilege” to mean the absence of disadvantage. But this cannot be true in the real world. There will always be some people with advantages over others in certain aspects and endeavors while the same people may have disadvantages in other aspects and endeavors (and vice versa). This is not always an injustice or logical defect. Often it is an inevitable consequence of free will among unique individuals with varying talents and goals, which is a good thing.

We often think of both privilege and disadvantage in a negative sense. If there is a logical baseline to determine just and fair rules, both can be negative if the specific privileges or disadvantages are contrary to the rules or the nature of the concept at hand. But we cannot forget the baseline when attempting to remedy such situations. For example, in a foot race with five participants, a logical and fair baseline might be a straight course, on the same terrain, towards a marked finish line, under the same rules and conditions. This is because if we consider the intent of the race it is to determine the runner with the fastest foot speed relative to the other racers. If one participant was allowed to use special gripping running shoes and given a headstart, that participant would have a privileged position relative to the baseline. If another participant were made to run barefoot and had to jump over hurdles on his way to the finish line, he would have a disadvantaged position relative to the baseline. The three other participants might object to this situation on both accounts (lamenting the advantage of the privileged runner and the disadvantage of the barefoot runner). But the cases are different; the three runners would not call themselves privileged relative to the disadvantaged runner, they would seek to bring the disadvantaged runner into their logically-derived position: the baseline. Likewise, the three runners could not seek to gain the same “privilege” as the runner with the headstart and special shoes, for if they did they would simply shift and reestablish the baseline. What they would do is insist the runner with the special shoes and head start be made to wear shoes within an established set of rules and start at the same position as the other runners.

Determining the logical, fair baseline in all matters of controversy is important. If we ignore this task, we will get lost in the myriad of natural and situational differences between individuals and start a blame game that will never end. Not all of these differences are injustices with which we must concern ourselves from a fairness point of view. If we do we will insist on all sorts of non-solutions that do not create a more just situation for all; rather they may simply cause a race to the bottom, or upset the natural balance of things that occurs when free individuals are allowed to act according to their will and talents. We can and should help the truly disadvantaged as a matter of duty, but it cannot come at the expense of the integrity of the baseline as defined above, or the rights of others.

The meme is correct insofar as stating you must “fuel your empathy and action” by thinking of the relation between your position and the position of the disadvantaged. Without that objectively-defined baseline, however, you may end up with something more akin to pity than true empathy. True empathy requires a consideration of the situation, feeling, and plight of others not merely from a “walk in their shoes” perspective, but also from an objective moral perspective. In what way, if at all, are their actions unvirtuous or lacking? In what way, if at all, is there an outside injustice being perpetuated against the individual? How can you help without acting contrary to the moral law and without sacrificing the logical baseline (assuming it has been properly established)? If it has not been properly established, what must we do to bring it about and help the disadvantaged live up to it and reach their potential? None of this requires the adoption of the definition suggested in the meme that demands a direct comparison of persons in a zero-sum sort of way (if you have privilege, it causes disadvantage for others). Many people acting in accord with moral principle (a virtuous baseline) does not prohibit or hinder the disadvantaged in itself.

Seeking to bring more people into a logically-derived moral realm is a duty. Seeking to shift or disrupt that realm to illogically cover more people without justification, or seeking to improperly exclude people from that realm based on improper definitions is disingenuous and counterproductive. Reject these ideologically-driven manipulations.

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