What does it mean to be privileged? This question has dominated American politics. Democrats call for higher taxes on the basis that the rich should pay their fair share — a measure they hope will even out the gap between the “haves and the have-nots”. And for young liberals particularly, rallying against privilege in all its forms has become a mark of distinction and something of a right of passage.
But many Americans are critical of this emphasis on privilege, denouncing it as a cheap and delusional tool for political mobilization. Central to this renunciation is the fact that so-called ‘privilege theory’ has its roots in the French postmodern tradition, which is perceived as deliberately obscure and politically dangerous.
But the concept of privilege is more complicated than either its supporters or its detractors believe. Understanding it will require us to go through concepts of power, truth, and discourse, and consider how these factors are influencing our current political landscape.
Check your privilege!
Now that the left has shifted towards identity politics, we mostly hear about privilege involving group identities: ‘white privilege’, ‘male privilege’, and even ‘able-bodied privilege’, etc. In this popular conception of privilege theory, a person possess privilege on account of their identity. Certain identity groups are perceived to have more opportunities than others, and the degree to which someone has privilege is related to the amount of social and institutional advantages they enjoy.
Accordingly, checking one’s privilege is a way to remind them that they possess these innate advantage. It is a gesture made, typically to a person of non-minority status, in order to remind them that their lives are fundamentally different than a minority American’s, who does not possess the privilege of living as the member of a certain majority group.
But this doesn’t quite encapsulate what ‘checking your privilege’ really is. Here, we have to understand that the notion of the ‘privileged’ relies implicitly on the notion of the ‘oppressed’. The oppressed are the opposite of the privileged: they are the ones whose experiences have been more difficult, who have faced obstacles rather than shortcuts, and who come away from life with a unique experience because of it.
Here, we can clearly see the influence of Marxist thought on privilege theory — it is a type of conflict theory, which reduces the dynamics of society into an eternal struggle between two truths.
But if leftist politics cites a struggle today, it is a struggle over the notion of truth. Checking your privilege is really a statement about the oppressed’s accessibility to truth. In leftist ideology, the unique experience of oppressed groups gives them a kind of ‘special access’ to some truths, in such a way that their opinions on certain political topics are considered infallible. In other words, the ‘privilege’ that is being checked is not strictly the material advantages enjoyed by the member of a minority — it is a certain epistemic insufficiency, an inability to understand ‘the whole picture’, which can only be remedied by the subjective experience of the minority person, who can be relied on to ‘fill in the blanks’.
This is why so many white Republicans feel — rather paradoxically — that they are actually the disenfranchised ones, that they are the latest objects of political oppression, that the tides of power have swung against them, and so on. The leftist concept of privilege establishes a domain of truth that is strictly inaccessible to their opponents: a mythical monolith of the ‘minorities’ story’ founded on the pillars of subjective truth. And the white person is at a disadvantage insofar as, with regards to this story, his opinion does not weigh a thing: he can always be told to ‘check it away’ on account of his privilege.
Truth, power, and discourse
What this examination of privilege reveals is that power can be understood in a discursive context, not just an institutional one. This is known in sociology as the distinction between hard power and soft power. As opposed to methods of hard power like war and violence, soft power involves coercion and persuasion, factors which compel someone rather than obligate them.
The relationship between power and discourse is a popular theme in postmodern thought. We’re all familiar with the masterful speaker who can manipulate a situation through speech. Jacques Derrida believed that power differentials are implicit in the very construction of language: binaries like men/women, light/dark, and culture/nature tend to privilege one element over the other.
To understand how discourse structures truth, we must understand that for the postmodernist, the truth is not a fixed category. It is not a static thing, ‘out there’ for us to uncover, but is rather constructed through the relationships among people. This is the idea behind the theory of ‘social constructionism’, which puts a huge emphasis on the role of the symbolic order in creating our lived realities.
Because of this, the social relations imposed by discourse influence what people will come to understand as the truth. This relations regulate what can be said, what cannot be said, and differential circumstances underlying the position of each agent in the participation.
Crowder and discursive privilege
Steven Crowder is a conservative Youtube personality whose channel has become immensely popular. Particularly entertaining are his ‘Change My Mind’ segments, in which Crowder posts up with a (typically provocative) sign and invites the people around him to engage in a dialogue to change his mind.
These segments are a perfect opportunity to understand how power influences discourse, and how a particular understanding of ‘the truth’ can be structured by the ‘more powerful agent’. Watch this clip of Crowder confronting a young girl who decided to protest his event, and chastising her for refusing to engage with him:
Here, Crowder is guilty of a clear contradiction. As a conservative commentator, he is quick to emphasize how difficult our ‘outrage culture’ has made it for someone to speak their mind: we are always at the mercy of the mob mentality, which is all too quick to condemn us for seemingly innocuous statements or sentiments.
But at the same time, here he is, showcasing an (unwilling) participant in front of literally millions of fans, and questioning why they should become uncomfortable. He does not perceive that such a public platform is itself a menacing presence, and that not everyone is as equipped as he is to face that presence.
Moreover, Crowder cannot be unaware of the fact that he is sitting across from people who are not as adept as speaking, and who have (presumably) not done as much research as him. But Crowder is not swayed by these differentials in power — and worse, he does not acknowledge that they factor implicitly in his conception of truth.
Crowder conducts the conversation and pivots around the objective truth while simultaneously disregarded the personal — and often times anecdotal — conditions that underly a person’s position. We are not unfeeling robots whose world-views are informed by a strictly empirical foundation. He cannot expect that the average college student will be capable of providing impersonal, objective facts for all of their positions on such controversial topics as he brings up.
Crowder’s motto is ‘rationalize your position’. But again, the human being is not a strictly rational animal. Who is to say that our positions are capable of being fully rationalized? Here we should remember the words of David Hume, who encouraged us to ‘subjugate reason to passion’. We are not agents of pure cognition: our truths are personal truths, and although policy decisions should indeed be based on objective data and facts, the realities of our lives have to do with deeply subjective truths.
If Crowder really wanted to showcase ‘the truth’ in these discussions, he would allow people to elaborate on their stories, rather than their knowledge of empirical facts about a given topic. Here, we’ll remember an ill-fated discussion that he conducted with a girl at the TCU campus over the concept of a ‘rape culture’.
This conversation broke down because Crowder was putting forth the idea that, despite the girl’s personal experience with sexual misconduct, statistics do not support the existence of a ‘rape culture’. But who is to say that, when we discuss something like rape culture in the first place, we are arguing for a strictly objective category? Who is to say that the truth about phenomenon such as rape culture doesn’t lie precisely in the anecdotal cases, and in the overall sentiment which these cases inspire—aspects that aren’t perceptible to a strictly-empirical study?
In essence, Crowder trades a cheap, so-called ‘objective’ notion of the truth for an authentic truth that is guided by people’s experience. By so doing he gives up the capability of engaging with people in a genuine way, preferring to showcase them as irrational or unscientific. If Crowder’s goal is to create good conversations, then he should strive to understand how the power differentials implicit in his segment influence the notion of ‘truth’ and leave more room for the subjective experience of his guests.