Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Scrappiness one-upmanship

I'd been meaning to post on the concept of 'your privilege is showing' - what this phrase is for, who's using it, and why. Brief, sleepy hypothesis - those using this phrase are themselves doing just fine. If they're young, they  think it's square to be rich and are rag-wearing hipsters. If they're much post-college, they're meritocrats who'd like to believe themselves to be self-made, who kinda-sorta know they're not, but who feel better about themselves if they can convince themselves that their (online, often) interlocutors were born with platinum spoons in their mouths. If I believed that the phrase was being thrown at haves by have-nots, I'd be more sympathetic. However, I suspect that 99% of the time, that's not how it's being used at all.*

I was reminded to post on this by Charles Murray's article about the "New Elites." At a certain point (Britta's second comment to the post below was the catalyst), it occurred to me that the set Murray was describing was, contrary to the impressions one might have from, say, reading the piece, identifiable. The New Elites are those against whom a 'your privilege is showing' would sting. Those who'd even be in that kind of discussion in the first place. For this set, whose actual privilege (measured by $ or marketable skills) is quite variable, the shame is so great that an entire system of disclaimers exists to preempt such accusations. If you're going to complain that Whole Foods was out of your favorite goat cheese, remember to use the phrase "First World Problems." And so on.

(This does not address the other issue with privilege-talk - the overuse of the word when what's really needed is a simpler one: luck. The difference between those of us who went through an awkward phase as teens and those who did not is one of luck, not privilege, assuming the awkwardness did not lead to serious bullying. Being pretty or amazing at math - these might be 'privilege' if the comparison is someone with severe facial deformities or someone who can't add. But in day-to-day life, there's always someone better and worse off than yourself, in every arena. The word "privilege" evokes a certain magnitude of advantage, and it's appealing to connect whatever ways you feel screwed over in life to the kind of systematic edge of, say, a rich person over a poor one, a WASP over a visible minority.)

*To give an off-line example - I have met many people who've presented themselves as having hardscrabble backgrounds, to the point where I was starting to think that being a doctor's daughter from Manhattan was basically a capital offense... only to either see their homes or find out their parents' professions and realize that, wait a moment, this person is in fact from a more privileged background than I am. People I've met from significantly less privileged ones tend not to advertise this fact in casual conversation.

The difference online is that socioeconomic privilege is seemingly easier to hide, what with pseudonyms and the unlikelihood that anyone will end up visiting anyone else's family manse in Brooklyn Heights. This is why privilege-talk online tends to manifest itself as witch-hunts - someone will mention having eaten arugula as a toddler and whoosh, they've revealed their ignorance of food deserts, their ignorance of everything outside their posh bubble, they probably don't even know that 99% of Americans haven't even heard of lettuce, they're so sheltered. And so on. The thing is, I'm not convinced privilege-talk makes the privileged any less sheltered - it just necessitates disclaimers.


Britta said...

Exactly! I have had to stop reading certain mainstream lefty blogs (especially feminist ones) because they seem packed with 20 college students shouting "privilege!!!" at anyone who disagrees with them, or who even those who have a slightly different take on the same point. I was annoyed by that enough while in college, over 5 years out I don't want to repeat the experience.
(An anecdote to illustrate your point, when I was in college, I was a member of a social justice group. One member, a gay guy from a working-class Irish Catholic Boston background, talked about how excited he was by the prospect of gay marriage in Massachusetts. The response by many in the group was to point out that marriage is a "bourgeois white picket-fence institution unavailable to a vast majority of Americans, and those who support it are trying to force a white middle class template on the downtrodden." The irony? The most vehement "your privilege is showing" claims came from the children of CEOs who had grown up in Park Ave apartments.)

I don't think that being from a wealthy background prevents you from engaging in social justice, or from critiquing others, but as you said, especially online it does become some race to the bottom gotcha, where any admission that you weren't homeless your entire life makes you a "trust-funder," yet the people doing the calling out (claiming to speak for the underprivileged) generally come from the same background as the people they are calling out. I remember some person writing once that shopping at thrift stores was the provenance of the wealthy, and then claimed they knew what it was like to be underprivileged because they received a scholarship to university. Heh.

The other thing is, like the Cultural Revolution China, to engage in the game, you have to lay out your class credentials. Points aren't based on logic, or facts or statistics, they're just "personal experience," which is either valid or invalid based on the suspiciousness of your class background or the point you are making. It seems like if you are not that poor, but eat ramen every night because you don't want to go to the grocery store, your personal experience is more real and authentic than those of, say, poor people who do eat vegetables. Not that personal experience isn't ever important, but one person's experience =/=an adequate understanding of nationwide or worldwide phenomena.

(Ok, after this I promise to give up ranting about internet that needlessly irritates me.)

mumsyjr said...

This post has just convinced me to RSS this blog. I am so glad I am not the only one tired of that word and it's over-use and misuse. "Privilege" seems to be to the lefties what "socialist" is to the righties...total buzz.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


ana australiana said...

Hello! It is, yes, very annoying to have folks "call privilege" as a way of shutting down conversation or avoiding any scrutiny of their own investments. I wouldn't want to do away with the reflection, self-awareness and sense of social justice that can also be part of calling awareness to privilege, though (I feel the same way about "first world problems" - sure it can be a way of wearily ironising a condition you have no intention of trying to change, but it may also be a fleeting acknowledgement of what needs changing and the power we have to do so?).

My investment in the idea of privilege and in calling attention to it comes from reading theorists like Gayatri Spivak and bell hooks, Peggy McIntosh's invisible knapsack, etc. I don't think they ever intended their work to be used for scrappiness one-upmanship and wouldn't want it to be reduced to a tool for such things.

In the absence of sending people away with a reading list ;-) - maybe we should ask folks who use "calling privilege" as a mode of policing or one-upmanship, etc, to explain what they mean?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Unfortunately I don't think a reading list is the answer. The privileged folks calling other privileged people privileged on the Internet by all accounts went to college and read, if not exactly the works you mention, others along those lines, and were also exposed to discussions of privilege outside the classroom. Having a finely-tuned sense of what privilege means - how race, class, etc. impact the ways in which life is, systematically, easier for some than others - doesn't seem to prevent the phenomenon of privileged people trying to portray themselves as at least not as privileged as that guy over there. On the one hand, we're talking about people who have been well-educated in what privilege is all about. On the other, these are people who've fully bought into the idea that privilege is life's great truth, its great unfairness, and who want to prove themselves in a meritocratic society. Those who think all the privilege-talk is nonsense (the sort of people who complain about 'reverse racism', how hard life is for straight white men, etc.) aren't going to care if their own 'privilege is showing.'

Before the rambling gets off-track... I guess I don't think 'your privilege is showing' - or 'first world problems' - contributes to any social-justice cause. It merely provides a language for the privileged to mutually acknowledge their privilege, in the case of FWP, or to show off in a meritocracy, as in YPIS.

Finally, the problem with the YPIS accusation is that it's so frequently thrown around by among perfect strangers, who assume on the basis of one category that someone is privileged in all of them, even sometimes who assume Internet pseudonyms have certain race or class backgrounds. On the one hand, people want to put their best faces forward online. On the other, the truly upsetting stuff in people's lives doesn't usually become so public, "oversharers" aside.

ana australiana said...

I'm inclined to think, then, that the people you describe are abusing the concept of privilege and its potential to imagine and enact social justice. I don't think we can do away with the term and its awareness entirely, otherwise the thinkers I mentioned have done nothing but give a language to the privileged to smear each other - which seems a rather sad legacy!

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Oh, my point wasn't that we should scrap the term "privilege" - it's certainly a useful concept - but that we should scrap accusations of "your privilege is showing" amongst the privileged, in blog threads, etc. Or, in other words, that the word should be used more carefully. What I was getting at in the comment above is that, unfortunately, it's often the same people who have finely-tuned academic understandings of systematic unfairness, aka privilege and lack thereof, who are hurling around YPIS accusations.

ana australiana said...

Yes, I see. Well, they've been well-trained, I suppose. But they're clearly using their training for the wrong purposes!

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...