The positional advantage enjoyed by classes of individuals–privilege–is an important factor in operation of social systems. I worry, because particularly on the left, it is considered a very important–often the most important–factor, but I don’t know exactly what it means, or, more to the point, how it works. Reified from an explanatory concept to a concrete concept, it is often little more than a rhetorical cudgel that can have a desultory effect on civic discourse, and thus become trivialized. It should go without saying that exactly because privilege in some sense or another “operates,” its trivialization is a real problem.
Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene was a revelation to me in high school, at least to the degree I could understand it. I re-read it every few years, and so when the 30th Anniversary Edition dropped* I was particularly excited, the added sections and footnotes serving something like hidden bonus tracks. When I got to the short section where Dawkins first suggests the existence of “memes,” the cultural (or social) equivalent of genes–indivisible units of learnable cultural information, I recalled for the first time really disagreeing with it when I first read the book. It was almost viscerally unpleasant. The short excursus on memetics is dissonant from the rest of the book, which while packed with thought experiments and analogies is actually pretty stolidly scientific and meticulous.
A week or so ago a Twerkuffle** broke out between various political writers and journalists on my Twitter timeline. The details of it aren’t important; the relevant portion is that the word “privilege,” as in “racial privilege,” was used a number of times, and I had a reaction similar to that I had when first encountering “memetics”. This got me thinking about what the two concepts–“meme” and “privilege”–have in common and why they strike a resonant tone with each other in my mind.
Social scientists, and the journalists/essayists (I’m just going to call these people “writers” from now on) who synthesize social science for public debate, have always had trouble with this kind of thing. From the Enlightenment until probably around Marx’ time, political philosophers and other intellectuals had a sort of tic where they would reify concepts to explain observable behavior or historical conditions–you know the tic I’m talking about; it was usually expressed by Capitalizing the first letter to make it seem Big and Important and deserving of a Proper Noun. This is actually a kind of logical fallacy, and it makes reading a lot of the early modern philosophers so grating. I don’t believe in an Over-Soul that can actually act on the natural world. It’s like when you meet someone who says they don’t believe in a god but they do believe in an “energy” that we’re all a part of. That’s nice, but it’s also either meaningless or just employing a synonym for god.
Dawkins raises and moves on from the idea of memes in just a handful of sentences, but the “work” on them has been plentiful, and the concept has certainly entered popular consciousness. What bothers me is when they are treated as actual, concrete entities that can be studied somewhat quantitatively, but they haven’t been properly defined. Remember that in The Selfish Gene Dawkins was advocating for the “gene-centered” view of evolution by natural selection. A debate then raging (and still on-going) in evolutionary biology was at what “level” natural selection operated: are “traits” selected? Individual organisms? Groups? Entire species? Dawkins and his fellow travelers were arguing that in fact natural selection is unconcerned with anything of a “higher” level than genes–he famously said that bodies are nothing more than machines meant to ferry genes around. Evolution is the process of differential survival of competing alleles in a genome.
Memes were thus meant to be the analog of genes in the social sciences (and in evolutionary psychology). But genes are observable things. The bey2 gene on chromosome 15 in the human genome and partially controls eye color. Is the Levallois method of stone tool creation observable in the same way? It would be theoretically possible to catalog the genomes of a given population and observe them for generations and come up with an exact number to quantify the “fitness” of a given allele–but could you really do that for “I can haz cheezburger”? Because we know so much about genes, we can pinpoint with pretty good accuracy how and why they act like they do–how and why they successfully reproduce or fail to reproduce. One Galapagos island had harder seeds so the gene that shortened and hardened beaks grew in frequency. What force is “acting on” memes? Memes are an interesting thought experiment with some explanatory value, but they shouldn’t go further than that. I’m not saying in other words that memes are worthless or that to have value they must exist in some physical way, just that when you try to enlarge them from analogy or metaphor to a natural agent that drives behavior, you raise a lot of questions that need to be answered.
“Privilege” is not as clear of a case, but it raises the same sense of caution from me. In the contemporary era, sociologists and moral and political philosophers have developed the idea of “privilege” that undergirds much of the intellectual and popular understanding of society. What is privilege exactly? Does it operate in a uniform way in everyone who has it? And if not, how much explanatory power does it really have? If it is wholly subjective, what can we ever really say about it–how can we ever use it to understand and predict behaviors?
I’m not trying to be glib, because I’m fairly sure there is something privilege-y that operates in society, just like I’m sure that there’s something to the concept of memes.
Privilege then can’t just be a state of mind, an epistemological phenomenon that affects how the mind receives and processes information–a set of doxastic attitudes that are difficult, if not impossible, to communicate. It must be a quantifiable force. Otherwise, what true analytical power does it have? The analogy to memes isn’t tortured. Consider this. In Forbes Magazine, Gene Marks wrote an appalling article about what he would do if he were a “poor black kid.”
The reaction was rightfully one of outrage. Marks’ article was so tone deaf to the realities of life for “poor black
kids” that the internet scrambled for some explanation for just how a professional journalist could write something so stupid. A quick recap of Marks’ article:
If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city…I would use the technology available to me as a student…If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study. I’d become expert at Google Scholar. I’d visit study sites…I would also, when possible, get my books for free at Project Gutenberg…I would use homework tools like Backpack…I would use Skype to study with other students who also want to do well in my school. I would take advantage of study websites…
The responses to Marks routinely cited his white privilege, which blinded him to the realities of being poor and black, and couched his counter-factual coaching in terms that would be comforting for those operating with white privilege. This seems right to me. But this is an extreme case. It is not hard to imagine a not-dissimilar article being written by a black conservative of the Clarence Thomas school, or even Bill Cosby. If that had been the case, could privilege still have been to blame?
In fact, Michael Eric Dyson wrote a book about Dr. Cosby’s comments about poor black communities that focused on the privilege of the black middle class that made Cosby insensitive (or blind to) the mechanics of black poverty. The debate is a fascinating and multifaceted one. Many black intellectuals, for example Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report, regularly attack “black elites,” including the President, who operate within a privilege bubble.
I’m not interested here in the merits of the different sides of this debate–just pointing out that though privilege is often cited as a factor in people’s political understanding and motivation, its contours are not easy to understand. In 2008, Tim Wise wrote a popular piece explaining white privilege via analogy; at the same time Glen Ford and his allies were excoriating then-candidate Obama for “assur[ing] oppressors in America and throughout the world that he can be trusted to protect their preferential, unearned privileges,” and that “if some stray white man in a clerical collar wanders in, assaulting white sensibilities with denunciations of white skin privilege and other unwelcome language, Obama can be counted on to slap the wayward priest down, forthwith.”
Those of us who remember the immensely frustrating debate between supporters of Senators Clinton and Obama during the drawn-out 2008 primary have myriad examples of the term being deployed as an attack. Most memorably, Gloria Steinem wrote an article pointing out that black males got the vote three generations before any women did:
Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter). If the lawyer described above had been just as charismatic but named, say, Achola Obama instead of Barack Obama, her goose would have been cooked long ago. Indeed, neither she nor Hillary Clinton could have used Mr. Obama’s public style — or Bill Clinton’s either — without being considered too emotional by Washington pundits. So why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one?
Die-hard Hillary partisans will still contend that Obama benefited enormously from male privilege, which, it must thus be inferred, is “stronger” than white privilege. Is it? What social relations, or institutions, would make this so? Indeed, Tim Wise, self-same author of the “white privilege” essay cited above, angrily countered Steinem:
In fact, here’s the biggest irony of all: what Clinton’s acolytes ignore is that had her final opponent this year been a white man, she would likely have received fewer votes from white men than she has received against Obama. Meaning that, if anything, Clinton has benefited more from white racism in her quest for the nomination than she was ever harmed by male chauvinism and misogyny. Indeed, racism–the force that Steinem and other white second-wave feminists insisted would be less of a problem for Obama than “sociopathic woman-hating” would be for Clinton (to quote feminist icon Robin Morgan)–almost did make the difference in the primaries. Although that racism has been unable thus far to derail Obama’s success, it has indisputably been a more potent force in terms of dictating voting behavior among whites, than sexism has been for determining the votes of men.
Is it truly “indisputable” as Wise says?
Privilege certainly operates, but its imprecision as a term threatens its utility. We need to ask critical questions about privilege to better identify its characteristics–insofar as it operates, we need to know how. When does it manifest? Can it be overcome? Are there countervailing behaviors that mitigate its operation? Can countervailing privileges operate in the same person, or group? Is recognizing one’s privilege sufficient to ameliorate it? Is one type of privilege more prevalent than another, and if so, why? And how? Do types of privilege operate differently in different social relations? Is privilege a historical phenomenon–the cumulative result of ideas conditioning behaviors–or is it something intrinsic to human social organization?
It would be disingenuous to demand some kind of scientific quantifiablility for identity privilege, but so too would it be disingenuous to claim it has a supreme place of efficacy in our social relations and then insisting it is purely subjective. So long as that is the case, discussions and debates about it will be essentially unintelligible.
The result is what we too often see: privilege used as a cudgel in internecine debates by liberals and leftists, and cynical accusations of “playing the race/gender card” by the right. Insisting that privilege be treated seriously in our civic discourse (as opposed to in the social sciences, where it is seriously investigated but not accessible to the public) is righteous; but we have to in turn treat it seriously as an object of intellectual investigation, and be willing to be coldly critical when the debate turns itself over to competing “narratives” as opposed to factual and rational analysis.
*Dawkins’ word, not mine
**Dawkins’ word, not mine