This article is the first in a three-part series that will discuss issues of privilege, society, and public policy. Please check back in next week with TCC for part two!
If you are white; if you are male; if you are a Christian; if you have a college degree (or merely a high school degree where I currently live); if you were born in, were educated on, or currently live on the west coast or the northeast; if you come from a middle-class or upper-class family; if you have two parents; or if your first language is English; then there is a safe bet you have been asked to “check your privilege” at some point.
What does that even mean? Really, check my “privilege”?
Dictionary Definition of Privilege
Privilege, according to good old Webster, means:
a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others.
Honestly, this doesn’t really help. Our laws are fairly clear: You cannot give someone a right or a benefit because of their race, their sex, their religion, their educational background, their state of origin, or any other qualifier unless the state meets several burdens that are extremely difficult to meet.
But maybe activists are talking about a group privilege. The idea of an Illuminati-eque group of old, white, guys should be coming to mind. Nevertheless, this image of a secret group thought isn’t really the idea behind privilege. Group privilege attaches itself to groups (Tautology!), and our friends at MSNBC have made it clear that this isn’t an issue of group versus group. In fact, simply looking at privilege as a group by group issue is an “absolutely ridiculous premise and an absolutely terrible way to talk about millions of people that share nothing—nothing—except their general, broad [group identifier].”
So, what is this really about?
Privilege: Marxism and Critical Sociology
Privilege is all about implied economic power. The characteristic implication you is the characteristic you are being asked to check. The word “imply” is key—you do not actually have to express the power in order to possess privilege.
As most things revered by the modern left, it is easy to begin with Karl Marx. Marx wanted to address liberal arguments for equal rights. Marx was concerned about equal rights, specifically the right to contract, because he wanted to transform the morality of the civilization. The morality he desired was one where the value of individuals is determined solely by their humanity. Equal rights, according to Marx, do not achieve this:
But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor.
Equal rights create classes and thus serve the interests of the economic elite. Equal rights emphasize the power the elite have, and thus do not serve the interest of his moral system. Equal rights are contrary to an ethics that services humanity as a whole. As Marx further states:
It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right.
Here in truth lies the intellectual foundation of privilege in social science. Privilege is about the economic power created by “unequal individual endowment.”
Expanding the Reach of Privilege
Marx only believed that class was crucial for this analysis. While physical abilities play a huge role, Marx hoped that technology would eliminate that distinction. Others, however, expanded Marx’s analysis to include their own groups of choice.
Several modern fields of study within academia are the product of the expansion of Marx’s idea. Critical race theory expanded Marxist analysis to include race, adding the unequal individual endowment caused by skin pigmentation. Women’s Studies, another critical theory, expanded Marxist analysis to include gender. It added the unequal individual endowment caused by your sexual organs. Queer studies, another critical theory, expanded Marxist analysis to include gender identity and sexuality. It added the unequal individual endowment caused by who you are attracted to sexually and what sex you identify as.
Together, these critical theories developed the modern left’s viewpoint on race, gender, sexuality, and sexual identity.
Continue on to part two of this series: “When Should I Ever ‘Check My Privilege’?”