Thursday, July 21, 2016

"This is one of our great national conversations, isn’t it?"

The thing about having already written the manuscript for a book about privilege is that delightful "privilege" stories keep popping up that can't now be included. This is, I realize, for the best - there's already plenty, rest assured! But this one, from a Dear Prudence letter (yes, the one I just tweeted about), is worth a glance. It's amazing in a somewhat different way than examples I look at in the book, and so it works as a stand-alone vignette of the framework's weirdness:

First, the backstory: In a letter last week, advice columnist Prudence (now Mallory Ortberg) told off a woman who'd yelled at her 18-year-old half-sister for very classic family-drama reasons. The half-sister was the product of the father's cheating. Dad has demonstrated a certain amount of favoritism - including the big'un where family drama is concerned, financial - to the 18-year-old. Prudence correctly assessed that this was a sad situation, but that blaming the half-sister for existing wasn't the answer. The letter-writer's beef was with her unpleasant-sounding father. Indeed.

This wasn't one of the out-there, unusual-sexual-arrangements Prudence questions, so I'd forgotten about it until this week, when someone wrote in to complain:

None of [the situation] was the sister’s fault, you basically said. But I take exception to that. Why shouldn’t the younger sister be made aware of how her privilege has impacted others? That there was time, affection, and money for her in part because it was denied to the other children? This is one of our great national conversations, isn’t it? To acknowledge the impact when people in power (in this case, the father) privilege some and deny others?
It goes on:
For the sister to be so oblivious to how their father had treated his other children is, frankly, her fault. The older sister may owe an apology for the way she delivered her message, but the younger sister owes it to her siblings to recognize she gained from their poor treatment and not blithely go about mentioning it.
Prudence does a stellar job of holding her ground. What interests me here, though, is the specific way this week's letter-writer goes wrong. What this one does is apply a "privilege" approach as if it were the ultimate rule in all things. A "national conversation" evidently necessitates taking an aggressive stance wherever "privilege" is concerned. Note that here, "privilege" isn't the systematic advantage of members of one group over members of another, but favoritism within one family.

What's specifically interesting, then, is that "privilege" confuses matters, in much the same way as it does elsewhere, but it's just more obvious: Rather than locating the site of the older half-sister's (legitimate!) grievance with her father, the question becomes whether the half-sister has acknowledged the impact of her own - yup - unearned advantages. It's almost as if "privilege," in this case (and perhaps others), functions as a passive voice, focusing attention on the acted-upon, and misleadingly erasing the actors.

Placed in this interpersonal context, it all makes so much sense: It can certainly feel more important for someone oblivious to unearned advantages to acknowledge those, than for the source of the inequality to get a good talking-to. And very often, the oblivious-beneficiary party is simply more accessible than the source-of-injustice party. (See that other classic tale: the Other Woman hated, the cheating man given a pass.) But making the ideal end goal Half-Sister Acknowledges Privilege is not only unfair to the half-sister, but also a way of giving a pass to the person here who's actually at fault.

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