Hi. Welcome to the site. Please check out the About Us, and if you have a question about crime and/or punishment, perhaps look at some previous questions along those lines first.
Welcome to Anarchy101 Q&A, where you can ask questions and receive answers about anarchism, from anarchists.

Is "privilege" relevant to anarchists?

+4 votes
While the referent seems relevant to me, the term itself seems like a guilt-truncheon used against hetero, cis-gender, white, able-bodied males from the overdeveloped nations by liberals and politicians whose identity-signifiers are different than the above. Surely there is some way to acknowledge the present and historical oppression of such peoples without making the less oppressed feel like assholes (unless, of course, they deserve it).
asked Jan 28, 2011 by enkidu (6,110 points)
edited Jan 28, 2011 by enkidu

1 Answer

+4 votes
I'd have to add that one to my list of objectionable terms to be stricken from anarchist discourse. Like "accountability," "privilege" expresses a hierarchical relationship (privilege comes from the Latin for "private law"), which we are supposed to want to abolish. When anarchists (and other more normal people) act like assholes, it may be due to some relative social privilege to which they've become accustomed (as male, as being perceived as white, as able-bodied...) and those of us who notice them behaving like assholes should definitely call them on it. But who the hell knows WHY someone's acting like an asshole? Can anyone come up with some objective measurement for the reason someone's behaving poorly? Is it because s/he's accustomed to being perceived as white? Or that he's used to being a dude acting like a dude in a context where dudes get to throw their weight around?

I know I'm not expressing this very well, mostly due to my frustration at the (ab)use of terminology by Leftist politicians and behavior police who are really good at making people feel inadequate and personally responsible and guilty for historic cultural problems.

"Privilege" is a relationship. Hierarchical to be sure, but that doesn't mean that it's immutable or invulnerable. Leftists are really good at setting themselves up as Privilege Monitors, those who have the requisite expertise and authority to decide who's privileged and who isn't. This removes agency from just about everyone: from the "privileged" to alter their own relationship to privilege -- unless it's to become uncritical "white (or whatever) allies," and also from the unprivileged to fight against all the institutions of privilege -- without the invaluable assistance of the Leftist. The only people who get any agency is -- surprise surprise! -- the Privilege Monitors, who decide who's bad, who's blameless, and what to do about it. In other words, in typical Leftist fashion, they get to replicate hierarchies, but with themselves in charge.

We all bring the nasty baggage of authoritarian conditioning with us wherever we go, and that certainly includes the benefits of belonging to historical oppressors as well as the disadvantages of belonging to the oppressed. I guess what I'm getting at is that folks deserve the benefit of the proverbial doubt before we start condemning them as "[fill in your favorite oppressor blank]" as if that label, with its institutional history, were enough to explain everything.

Challenges welcome...
answered Jan 28, 2011 by lawrence (560 points)
Without the word "privilege", what word do you use to explain something like the following to a middle-class white individual: http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/images/wealth/Figure_3.gif ? "White" families have 16 time the median household net worth of blacks and Latinos in the US, and this has to do with their typical class roles (Who frequently works for salaries and owns space most of their life? Who frequently works for low wages and rents space most of their life? Who decided that?)...privilege to me doesn't imply guilt so much as context.
P.S. I of course value voluntary participation and self-determined meaningfulness over reducing everything to a measure of finances, but at the same time I understand that in the US, money means power.
I do not think you understood my answer. I was not talking about how to explain class society to an American middle-class white person. I was speaking about how Leftists use jargon to bludgeon activists and radicals.

More to your point, I would use terms like "hierarchy" "domination" "class" "institutions" and "rewards" to explain context and history. "Privilege" is more useful as a term to describe what the ruling class reserves for itself, offering the crumbs of certain benefits to those who most resemble them in behavior. I would also prefer to put the discussion into an international context, where non-white people make up a majority of the world's ruling elites; otherwise you're only talking about the Anglophone world -- and even then mostly about the US. That's kind of colonialist... Talk about "privilege"!
In my town Latinos comprise ~40% of the population, and whites ~55%; most of the Latinos work in fields and rent apartments, most of the white folk live middle class lives and work towards ownership, commuting to the bay or to neighboring towns. I brought up the article because it reflects my lived experience. Of course, if we look at things globally then yes, the picture differs. However, alongside all of the words that you listed I have found a lot of utility in the word privilege when applied to specific situations and histories because it has helped me argue to local racists that the median wealth differs by a factor of 16 due to class oppression and deliberate policies by force and historical relationships of hierarchical power, rather than racial stereotypes. I understood your answer, and you said that anarchists should drop the term "privilege", justifying that through the foolishness of Leftism, but I responded that just because the Left uses the word as a bludgeon does not mean that all anarchists should strike it from their terminology (assuming we actually fucking explain words, unlike a lot of academic types *cough* "post-"anarchists *cough*).
the Leftists who populate the activist scene where I live only use "privilege" to confer collective and historical guilt on anyone who fits their perceived demographic of domination/oppression. (They use "accountability" the same way, to mean blame rather than responsibility.) I'm glad that you are able to use it in a different way.

Some words are worth fighting for. For me, privilege is not one of them. It has been irredeemably abused by the oppression police to become yet another curse word that has lost all context and meaning.
upvoting both lawrence's answer and his comments!
...