The Ironies of Privilege Talk

“Having the privilege conversation is itself an expression of privilege. … It’s not just that commenting online about privilege — or any other topic — suggests leisure time. It’s also that the vocabulary of ‘privilege’ is learned at liberal-arts colleges or in highbrow publications.” — Phoebe Maltz Bovy, Checking Privilege Checking

“All societies are evil, sorrowful, inequitable; and so they will always be. So if you really want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it.” — Joseph Campbell, The Confrontation of East and West in Religion

Spotting Privilege

A couple of years ago, while studying law in western Canada, I took a political science course on environmental issues taught by a renowned professor. Having become alarmed at the lack of legal protections for the environment, I hoped to learn more about the politics behind such flagrant and pervasive oversights.

Unfortunately, the class was a bust. Instead of analyzing political thought and behaviour related to our current ecological crisis, the course taught a strange blend of self-help and pseudoscience. We “learned” that atoms have free will, that the Earth purposefullymaintains conditions conducive to life, that modern science is naïvely reductionist and therefore urgently in need of a paradigm shift, and that Francis Bacon was one of the main architects behind the modern disconnect from nature.

As I listened to students uncritically accepting these ideas, I grew increasingly concerned with the current state of the social sciences. At the same time, however, I became intrigued by the peculiar tone of the classroom discussion. Rather than simply offering comments — as was common in my law classes and, indeed, most of life — students frequently prefaced their opinions by first acknowledging their privileged status as educated westerners. While it’s laudable to recognize the role that luck plays in success and in defining worldviews, the semester-long repetition of the phrase “Speaking from a position of privilege” quickly got annoying. By the end of the first seminar, it was clear that we all recognized our privilege. By the end of the semester, I was not sure why we had to keep bringing it up.

That said, even though these declarations of privilege were unnecessary and irritating, I figured that they were the product of an unimpeachable moral intuition. After all, if more of us could recognize that our good fortune in life is largely accidental, we’d be more open to helping others and less likely to think ourselves superior. When people cannot spot their privilege, they often succumb to inflated egos and a sense of conceit, thinking that their success is due solely to their own efforts. So, although we were sitting around indulging in pseudoscience and loose talk about how to salvage the environment, at least we weren’t being smug about it. We could acknowledge that our lot in life is no testament to our rectitude, but is actually thanks to the fortunes of fate.

Lacking Appreciation

However, as time has passed and I’ve encountered acknowledgements of privilege both on and off campus, I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend. More often than not, when someone affirms their privilege or points out the privilege of others, they do so in a way that betrays an utter cluelessness about that very privilege. “Privilege talk” is regularly accompanied by hypocritical accusations, outrage over trivialities, and uncritical hatred of important modern institutions, which are attitudes that would neither exist nor be tolerated but for the privilege that we all enjoy. When someone says, “Speaking from a position of privilege”, it’s a safe bet that they’ll soon speak as though they couldn’t care less about their privilege (or even as though it’s some kind of burden), which, of course, is an attitude that only a very privileged person could hold.

Sadly, the pernicious ironies of privilege talk are generally lost on those who claim to be aware of privilege. Moral indignation has a way of obscuring sober reasoning, and those who speak of privilege are often primed (by professors, peers, and media) to actively seek out moral transgressions. As such, many backwards beliefs and harmful attitudes have found hold amongst today’s “privileged” youth, who feel their views to be morally righteous and thus not up for debate. Many of these views, were they to become widespread, would lead to the destruction of the privileges that we in the developed world are so fortunate to have. These include the right to free expression, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly, and ongoing efforts to judge people not by their phenotype but rather by their actions.

If we hope to maintain our privileges — and work towards securing them for others — we must be aware of the bad ideas that threaten them. Paying lip service to privilege is an empty gesture if we don’t first appreciate the reasons it exists. As we accrue privilege, these reasons become less obvious: few people are eternally grateful for anaesthesia, eyeglasses, vaccines, an impartial judiciary, building codes, or a strong economy, but if we were to lose any of these, they would be widely and sorely missed. By ignoring or downplaying how privilege comes to exist, we risk losing the habits, knowledge, and institutions that support our high standard of living.

Many of the ideas that accompany privilege talk, if implemented, would wreak havoc on human wellbeing. If people truly acknowledged their privilege, they would show a greater concern for the forces behind it, which permit them to lead long, healthy, educated, leisure-filled lives, all the while incessantly complaining about the unadulterated evils of modern civilization.[1]

Therefore, when people claim to be “checking their privilege”, I propose that they put in a more genuine effort to really do so. To honestly acknowledge privilege requires balanced critical thought, the ability to self-reflect, and a willingness to converse with those who disagree. Without these traits, we’d have no privilege whatsoever and might as well give up on the entire human experiment.

With that in mind, let’s consider some views espoused by those who self-identify as privileged, to see how they belie the pretence that their proponents understand the nature of privilege.

A Thorough Privilege Check

Words as Violence

Many of today’s privileged youth equate words with violence, claiming that verbal assaults are akin to physical abuse. According to this view, violence may be inflicted upon a person merely by criticizing or offending them.

Anyone who believes that harsh words are violence, despite never having experienced actual fist-in-their-face, gun-at-their-back, war-in-their-streets physical violence, may need to check their privilege.

Where words offer direct calls to violence, it’s true that the distinction between words and violence is hazy. But in all other instances it’s irresponsible to pretend that words are on par with violence. Words, when used competently, are the tools that allow us to avoid violence. Although words can cause hurt feelings and stress responses, their negative effects generally pale in comparison to the harms wrought by physical violence.[2] Further, if we tear down the distinction between words and violence, then why not use violence — rather than words — to solve our problems?


Many privileged youth view modern science as a power structure that arbitrarily promotes the views and practices of today’s dominant culture. In essence, they think of science as a narrative produced by a cabal of western elites that, though influential, is no more reliable than folk wisdom, but reinforces a white patriarchal monopoly on our view of truth.

Anyone who has never had to undergo surgery without anaesthesia, has safely flown across the world to escape the cold of their local winter, and carries the luxuries of telecommunications in their pocket, but somehow believes that the scientific method is a vile tool used by conspiratorial white men to keep minorities in bondage while cleaving us from nature, should check their privilege.

There are better and worse ways of tracking truth. The worse ways are the most intuitive, so come naturally to every culture that has ever existed (including our own). Humans are naturally disposed to describe nature by appeals to anthropomorphism and teleology, despite the fact that the natural world is neither human-like nor purpose-driven. Fortunately, we’ve uncovered methods that allow people of any skin colour, culture, or identity to discover more accurate ways of thinking about reality. These methods (and their ensuing knowledge) are known as science. Science is one of the few social endeavours that produce identical results regardless of the identity of the people involved. In this way, it approximates the egalitarian ideals (justifiably) cherished by those on the political left.

Even if white men happen to have greater access to science than others, this is no reason to criticize science — rather, it’s reason to promote science more broadly so that people of all identities can take part in our best efforts to describe reality.

Capitalism & Freedom

Many privileged youth see capitalism as an evil economic regime and think of freedom only as a term of propaganda hurled about by neoconservatives. To them, capitalism is the bogeyman hiding behind all of our societal ills, and freedom is an ideal used purely to justify domestic and worldwide abuse.

If someone lives in a country graced by low levels of poverty, host to legitimate democratic elections, and with a press that publicizes the plights of the public, yet they wish to abolish markets and live in something more akin to a communist state, they should check their privilege.

It’s become clichéd to say that North America needs to replace the free market with a socialist model in the vein of the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland). Somehow, this meme has spread despite the fact that these countries have actually embraced free market capitalism. Much of their economic and political success flows from their commitment to private property and free markets.[3] The strong social safety net and renowned public services of the Nordic countries exist withinthe capitalist paradigm.

By craving some sort of post-capitalist utopia, we are wasting effort on a chimera. A viable alternative to capitalism may some day emerge, but until then we would do best to emulate societal models that have proven themselves. In our case, we should focus not on eliminating capitalism but on improving it, through wiser modes of regulation, taxation, and allocation of tax revenue.

Believe the Victim

Many of today’s privileged youth believe that when grievances are filed against white men by members of historically oppressed groups, we should unconditionally believe the alleged victims. This attitude is most visible in the furor that surrounds sexual assault trials, where some commentators suggest that unequivocal belief in victims’ claims should trump due process.

If a person is lucky enough to live in a state where citizens possess the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty by a fair trial, yet they’d rather use tribal markers such as skin colour, class, or sex to determine the guilt of an accused, then they should check their privilege.

No sane person can deny that in some instances proving guilt is hard. In cases involving sexual assault, where we’re dealing with private acts, the burden of guilt is especially difficult to satisfy. However, if we let identity or gut reaction determine a person’s guilt, thereby abandoning due process, we sacrifice an important bulwark against tyranny. Wherever identity — rather than the facts of the case — determines guilt or innocence, we lose the collective security of a legal system rooted in reality. By removing the obligation to scrutinize the facts of a case, we allow ourselves to operate on pre-existing prejudices, reducing our courts of law to mere kangaroo courts. A world without due process would contain far more injustice than we face today.

Although some victims fight uphill evidential battles, we cannot make a better world by ditching due process. Rather, we must find ways of accounting for the difficult burdens of proof faced by some people, while also preserving the legitimacy of the law. This approach may be less gratifying than simply Tweeting #believethevictim, but it aims to preserve civil liberties that we all — regardless of identity — can cherish.

Oppression in Western Civilization

Many of today’s privileged youth view white people and the structures of western society as irredeemably evil. To them, western democratic nations are bastions of racist and sexist oppression operating under the guise of “progress”. To question the attitudes and practices of other cultures is seen as racist, but to condemn western society is viewed as a moral obligation.

If someone (rightfully) deplores racism and sexism, yet views white males as intrinsically wicked and sees the western pursuit of knowledge, progress, and morality as a grievous blight upon history, then I don’t know what else can be said.

Maybe our education system has let them down, neglecting to teach them about the horrors of history and depravities of human nature faced by most people who have ever lived. Maybe the atrocities carried out by previous generations have clouded their mind with guilt, and all western institutions now seem hopelessly tainted by association. Or maybe they’re simply the victim of a runaway negativity bias that’s been amplified by media and a likeminded peer group. Whatever the reason, people who hate our own society would do well to step back and reconsider.

Although western society could be doing many things better, we can appreciate that we’re already doing many things right; compared to the Middle Ages, the Islamic world, or even our own culture fifty years ago, we are a veritable oasis of equality and potential wellbeing.[4] If we cannot recognize our strengths, we cannot build and draw upon them to succeed. By focusing only on our weaknesses we brew self-hatred that serves no purpose, because to correct any weakness requires the deployment of pre-existing strengths. Therefore, a balanced and productive worldview must account for the bad and the good in one’s own culture.

Progress & Privilege

Privilege brings many of the risks that come with being spoiled. Spoiled children often think themselves superior to others while failing to appreciate the full extent of their spoils. If we are not mindful, our privilege can turn us into spoiled children who care nothing for our own advantages and opportunities, yet always crave more. Unfortunately, such a mindset seems to be infecting many of today’s youth.

As progress comes to pass, it’s easy to take it for granted and get greedy for further progress. This is part of the human condition, but it’s important that we keep it in check. Many people who claim to deplore established “western progress” obsess over their own versions of progress. But when we succumb to a greed for progress that’s divorced from the restraints of reality, we often overreach and cause great harm. One need not look far to find numerous instances of underinformed yet overeager attempts to bring about utopias which led to heinous chapters in history.

When we truly appreciate our privilege, we understand that it contains the seeds of the progress we seek. If we cannot acknowledge that we’ve already made great strides towards high ideals like universal human rights, the elimination of poverty, and democratic equality, then we’re apt to become unduly nihilistic towards western civilization. To appreciate progress does not mean that we must think ourselves perfect, refrain from self-criticism, or settle for the status quo. It simply means that we appreciate just how far we talking, tribal apes have come.

[1]This is not to say that people’s lives in the developed world are, on average, good. We can do better than we’re doing now, but to progress we must tread carefully. We would do well to keep in mind that we are simply domesticated apes doing our best to be civilized.

[2]And since how we think about things influences how we feel about them, the belief that words are violence is likely to produce greater hurt feelings and stress responses, thus hindering words’ ability to defuse tense situations.

[3]Really, I’m not making this up. If you don’t believe it, I invite you to Google it.

[4]I say “potential” because I believe that our current obsession with social media and technological distraction is causing us much needless suffering.

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