I first learned about privilege from my parents when I was young. It was a positive word, used to describe those who had more than we did. A privilege was something that one could earn through hard work and determination. I had to earn the privilege to drive and to buy my own car by working. I gained the privilege to have more freedom by getting good grades and not getting into trouble. I won the privilege to set the thermometer by holding a job and affording my own place. In short, a privilege was a goal, something to strive for, and which could be enjoyed once attained.
I didn’t hear much about privilege again up until a year ago, when by chance I ran across a discussion in which someone used the word “privilege” with a negative connotation. I was intrigued. At first I was extremely confused about why privilege was so negative: I would hear people say things like “male privilege” or “white privilege,” but they would never explain what it meant. So I continued to dig, continuing to research privilege before Wesleyan and during my first month here.
It wasn’t until I got to Wesleyan when two sentences in the Disorientation booklet finally allowed me to connect the dots. It reads, “By acknowledging privilege, you are recognizing that you benefit from the oppression of others. While many may say that they welcome greater rights and privileges for oppressed people, few agree to lessening their own privileges.” I finally understood what the current concept of privilege really was. And then I understood why it is flawed.
In short, the concept of privilege is the moral center of the social justice movement, an orb around which all the topics of the movement revolve. The movements that I see on campus and on the Internet are deeply rooted in this concept: Group A has privilege, Group B is oppressed by this privilege, so we, the social justice advocates, stand up for Group B. It is a formula that is critical to social movements.
There is, however, a significant problem with the formula. When an idea or a movement has negativity at its core, problems are almost certain to surface. My personal research into the social justice movement has led me to identify two central problems.
The first issue is that privilege creates a guilt trip. By declaring a group privileged, and attaching a negative connotation to that word, the social justice movement directs a wave of guilt at “privileged” groups. This may seem like a good thing, but it has ugly repercussions. Individuals, understandably, do not like to feel guilty, so they search for ways to alleviate that guilt. Because the social justice movement assigns guilt to things that the individual can’t change, like skin color or their gender identity, they are forced to find different ways to alleviate that guilt. This is what I like to think of as the oppression trading card game: People search desperately for groups that they can identify with that are oppressed to compensate for their skin color or gender identity. They try to offset their privilege points gained by their skin color by claiming oppression points for belonging to a different group. For example, I’m a white male, but I’m also a veteran, so my veteran status works to offset my male whiteness. If that left a bad taste in your mouth to read—it certainly left a bad one in mine to type—then you understand the issue.
This guilt trip problem is magnified by what is aptly dubbed by various feminist groups as the Oppression Olympics: two different groups compete to see who is more oppressed, in order to seem more victimized, which legitimizes their claims over another groups’ assertions. The Olympics are playing out across several demographics in the form of fracturing. Have you ever wondered why there are so many groups representing so many similar issues online, in the media, and even on campuses? That is the result of the Oppression Olympics. Instead of a unified front fighting for change for all the underprivileged, many small groups all compete with each other for the microphone.
The second large issue with the current concept of privilege is that it creates hostility against the privileged. As the Disorientation booklet states, “[F]ew agree to lessening their own privileges.” The natural impulse for the recipients of the message that the privileged will not relinquish their benefits, then, is to lessen others’ privilege for them. This is problematic on two fronts, and it is why progress is so slow for the social justice movement.
The first problem is that lessening someone’s privilege is taking away something that they might have legitimately earned. This in turn creates large swaths of people who are resentful and hostile toward social justice. Even worse, many of those people are in positions of power and can make decisions that act against forward progress. The second problem with taking privilege away from other groups is that it creates radicals within the social justice movements. Although a large percentage of social justice advocates are not extremists, unfortunately these extremists are the loudest. They are quickly becoming the face of the movement and undermine its credibility. I’m sad to say that Wesleyan has its fair share of these extremists.
Is there a solution to the privilege problem? Of course there is. Instead of using guilt trips and trying to tear down those with privilege, turn privilege back into a positive thing that anyone can earn. Support each other’s achievements while preserving good relations with those outside of the movement. Making privilege positive and accessible to everyone will end the petty bickering between factions of the movement, and encourage cooperation from inside and outside of the movement.
There has, for example, recently been a strong push to make video games more appealing to women by combatting the inherent misogyny of the gaming industry. The current tact right now is to pressure gaming companies into changing their games through the use of hostile pressure, which has caused a lot of ugliness between male and female gamers. The spokesperson for this movement, Anita Sarkeesian, is a very controversial figure who uses questionable tactics to get her views out to the public. She is undeniably undermining feminist efforts in the gaming community. Instead of making gamers feel bad for the games they play, how about encouraging more women to play games? Support them so women have a stronger presence in the gaming community, and increase the value of the female gaming market. This will incentivize companies to produce games that will appeal to this market, essentially using capitalism to work in a positive way. It will skip a lot of the ugliness and end the hostility between male and female gamers while allowing the social justice movement to achieve lasting change.
As a final piece of advice, if you know of radicals among your social movement ranks, talk to them. Tell them that they are hurting the movement, that their extremism is giving your group a bad name and undermining your goals. Don’t be afraid of them. Show them that their actions and viewpoints are not supported. Make sure your group’s message is overwhelmingly a positive one, so lasting change may happen.
Stascavage is a member of the class of 2018.