I feel bad about the post I wrote earlier today, in that I might have been unduly harsh, though I’m still thinking that everything I said was right. It got me to thinking about a favorite word bandied about, by myself as much as by anyone else, on the anti-oppression blogosphere, which is “privilege”. It’s a useful concept, simple really. Privilege is something you have that other people don’t. Inequality is all about privileges, who has them and who doesn’t.
But my discomfort comes from the fact that there’s a lot of different privileges, and they differ from each other in important ways, and that gets lost when we use the same word to describe them all. I thought about it really hard and decided there’s three categories of privilege that I perceive:
1) Advantages that one person has over another that they don’t deserve and will lose in a just society.
2) Basic human rights that everyone deserves, but only some people have, making those both a right and a privilege.
3) Advantages that can’t be distributed fairly in a practical sense, and can’t be taken from the person who holds them without violating human rights.
Category 1 are privileges like being able to talk out of turn and get respected, being able to do less housework because you’re a man, being treated as if you’re smarter than you are because you’re white. There’s a lot of talk about the blindness of privilege on the blogs—i.e., not being able to see how bad people not you have it because you don’t have to—and lots of theorizing about how blindness is privilege, etc. I’m not getting into that, but one thing that’s certain is that blindness to your own privilege is absolutely a category 1 privilege. Category 2 privileges are human rights, and if you can name a human right, someone somewhere out there is being deprived, making all human rights a form of privilege. However, they differ substantially from category 1 in that getting rid of “privilege” means not shutting it down, but extending it to everyone. This group encompasses everything from having 3 squares a day to being able to walk down the streets without harassment.
Category 3 is something that falls outside of what most, though not all, liberals are interested in. But I had to include it because just as surely as unearned privileges and privileges that are rights that everyone deserves are these. To be fair, it’s a hazy category. I think most reasonable people can agree that intelligence, good looks, and hand-eye coordination fit into this category—inborn traits that vary from person to person. Irrefutably privileges, but trying to take them away in the name of equality would make the human race poorer and violate the holders’ human rights. Some amount of wealth differences fit in this category, and defining when inequalities of wealth slip from being, “I own a Ferrari and you own a Volkswagon” level privileges that aren’t worth getting too ruffled about, and when they’re crossing into “I have 3 mansions and you sleep on the street”, i.e. category 2, is going to be an ongoing political battle. But, as I said earlier, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good starting point.
Right wingers tend to want to fold #1 and #2 into #3, which is obviously offensive and will be left at that. Most of the time, I think liberals do tend to have an instinctual grasp on what goes into each box, but on occasion, I see confusion. Which is inevitable, because we use the same word to describe what are fundamentally different concepts. PortlyDyke made this categorizing mistake. I don’t think she begrudges anyone their house, but she failed to distinguish strongly enough between the loss of a privilege that is a basic human right (decent housing, a job) and privileges that are, depending on the circumstances, category 1s or 3s.
It’s critical to distinguish between categories 1 and 2, because unless people feel entitled to the full menu of human rights, they won’t fight for themselves. From that perspective, I don’t think it’s entirely useful to call people lucky because they have jobs that could go under the waves every day. We got the 40 hour work week because the labor movement demanded it as a right, and we got desegregation because the civil rights movement demanded it as a right, and we got reproductive rights because feminists demanded them as rights. Because they felt entitled. And now those things are, for the people that got them, privileges because someone somewhere doesn’t have them. But doesn’t change the fact that they are rights and the people who demanded them were entitled. We all are.