Saturday, February 18, 2017

Why the contemporary usage of "privilege" is analytically inadequate, morally dubious and socially harmful

In a period of increasing polarisation, where thinking differently is sadly often not merely seen as a matter of having a different perspective, but taken to being a marker of being evil/malicious/stupid/ignorant etc, where there is an apparently ever-increasing plethora of destructive ideas to push such polarisation along, one of the more invidious is the notion of privilege.

A privilege is a typically unearned and separating advantage allocated to you. It might be by laws or regulations, it might be by insulation from common risks or costs, but privilege in that sense has a clear, useful meaning. When it is said that someone has had a privileged upbringing we know what folk mean. It gains pejorative effect by the implication of being unearned and of being a separation from others.

The problematic use of privilege is to take this usage and expand it way beyond what it can bear. In particular to conflate it with the notion of advantage and apply it in a way which systematically diverts attention from the trade-offs, expectations, information costs and risks of social life.

Welcome to the world of trade-offs
Consider an example that was offered to me of a highly educated middle class single white woman inspecting various rental prospects in a tight rental market with other folk, many of whom were non-white, and the white woman being offered every property.

You have a rental property, renting of which involves various risks. A well-spoken, single woman without kids who exudes expectations of adherence to middle class norms without any issue of missed ethnic cues or expectations: of course they are an excellent rental prospect. Likely, somewhat more so than an equivalent male, for example. To talk of this being a case of "privilege" is to reduce the interaction to something morally arbitrary, even malicious, when it is a perfectly rational, and entirely understandable, playing of the odds.

Offer the same rental agents a choice between a polite, well-spoken, single South Asian woman and a poorly educated, ill-spoken white man with lots of conspicuous tats and one can be confident who will be offered the property. Any so-called white or male "privilege" would be inoperative. That, in the US, various ethnic groups have higher incomes on average than white Americans (in some cases, significantly higher) indicates how much more important the trade-offs, expectations, information costs, risks and so on of social life are compared to any notion of "privilege".

One of the better popular presentations of the notion of privilege is a May 2012 post (with two follow-ups) by SF writer John Scalzi using the analogy of gaming systems to talk in terms of relative levels of difficulty in playing the reality game. In Wen Spencer's book Eight Million Gods (published in June 2013) there is a rather nice statement of this idea by a character apprenticed to a master potter who is also a major kami:
He's playing the reality game at the easiest setting: god level. I'm playing at hard setting: five-foot tall female bisexual combat medic. Now, if he was playing hardcore, he'd be an African-American lesbian midget Marine.
Actually, in global terms, no one who is American is playing at anywhere near the hardest setting our world has to offer. Which immediately points to a problem with the concept of privilege, even when recast as social difficulty--it so completely context-laden. Being an out-and-proud Christian, for example, is an advantage in Alabama, a disadvantage in much of contemporary academe and a serious burden in most Muslim-majority countries. Any advantage to being white comes down to being member of a majority (usually an advantage anywhere) and a citizen of wealthy countries (also an advantage). It is not some inherent quality of whiteness which is the key, it is being a member of the majority group in rich countries.

But if you put it like that, there is an obvious problem--democratic principle says being the majority is good while being citizen of a wealthy country is an advantage to all citizens; black, white or brindle. Far from talking of white privilege as being a mechanism of social revelation, it is actually a mechanism for social evasion. Particularly when, for example, having a white mother apparently wipes out most of the indicators of African-American disadvantage (while not making one other than "black" or any less potentially subject to stranger-racism--and talking as if such folk have some sort of "contagious" "white privilege" just points to the evasive nature of the white privilege construction).

The point applies even more strongly to queer and straight. The overwhelming majority of people are heterosexual, of course social mores reflect that. That monotheist priests and clerics have taken advantage of how easy queer folk (growing up as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus) are to target to justify, and push, isolation and oppression of queer folk is reprehensible, but it also receding dramatically in Christian- and Jewish-heritage countries (not so much in majority-Muslim countries). Again, talking of heterosexual privilege focuses on an innate characteristic, rather than the causative (and changing) social dynamics.

A sign how much more important social dynamics are than immutable characteristics is that the ethnic groups with the highest median household incomes in the US are (in order) Indian-Americans, Taiwanese-Americans and Filipino-Americans (followed by Australian-Americans and Israeli-Americans: a feature of the US is that every ethnic group has a higher average income in the US than it does back in the old country). Whatever '"white privilege" there is, is clearly remarkably easily trumped by other factors. Not only does privilege-talk divert attention from the causative effects of underlying social dynamics, but, in doing so, it invites people to exaggerate the effect of the identified factor.

Changing gender trade-offs
As for male privilege, that is particularly problematic. Males in Western societies have shorter average life spans, are much more likely (over 10 times more likely) to be killed at work and twice as likely to die violently. Women in Western societies are not only much better off than women in non-Western societies, they are much better off than men in most non-Western countries.

As social psychologist Roy Baumeister points out, setting up arrangements for males to transfer resources to women and children has always been a fundamental requirement of human cultures. Indeed, the more males dominated the key productive assets in a society, the more that was true. The motherhood role tends to vary less among cultures than fatherhood does (pdf), suggesting that fatherhood is the more culturally plastic concept, and so the more subject to variation, depending on what patterns of trade-offs are operating in different cultures and at different times.

Given the length of human pregnancies and childhoods, and that any woman can bear and raise less children than any man can potentially father, it is hardly surprising that the motherhood role should be less culturally dependant than fatherhood. Nor that, historically, the pattern of gender differentiation in productive activities is overwhelmingly determined by whether the role is compatible with childminding. Add in the principle that it is convenient for adjacent stages in a production process to be done by the same person (so of the same gender) and almost the entire pattern of anthropologically observed patterns of gender differentiation can thereby be explained (pdf).

So, if the patterns of production change profoundly, will that affect gender roles? Obviously it will. Add in making childbirth much safer and female control of fertility (due to the Pill and abortion) and the effect will be transformative. As it has been (pdf). So transformative that, once again, talking in terms of privilege obscures rather than reveals.

Not only does the concept of privilege divert attention from actual social dynamics, it tends to have a historically frozen perspective precisely because it diverts attention away from actual social dynamics.

In particular, calling contemporary Western societies patriarchal is a whopping display of historical and anthropological ignorance. As Baumeister also points out (Chapter 5), when households were the basis of most production, then they were firms as much as families, so had the hierarchical tendency of firms. (In matricentric societies--yes, they have existed; overwhelmingly in hoe-based farming societies because such farming is compatible with childminding--with a woman as CEO, but, in ploughing and pastoralist societies, usually with males as CEOs.) Nowadays, households have minimal connection to production and so families can be, and are, much more easily egalitarian.

Yes, men (mostly) built culture
Camille Paglia (in)famously wrote:
Let us stop being small-minded about men and freely acknowledge what treasures their obsessiveness has poured into culture. ... If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts (Pp37-8).
Contemporary feminists, who are generally poor or narrowly trained scholars, insist on viewing history as a weepy scenario of male oppression and female victimization. But it is more accurate to see men, driven by sexual anxiety away from their mothers, forming group alliances by male bonding to create complex structures of society, art, science and technology (p.23).
She was quite wrong: men didn't invent culture to get away from their mothers, they invented it to get laid.

Yes, men overwhelming created culture (though women have been central in maintaining and transmitting it). Building culture is significantly about dealing with strangers--not a task to allocate to child-minders. (Which also points to why queer men have been wildly disproportionately important in building human cultures--as the group least likely to be participating in raising children but who can exchange cultural services for resources, even in childless old age.)

Men and women are equally social; women tend to be primed for being social in intimate contexts, men to be social in more public contexts and, moreover, contexts that involved negotiation with folk you were not intimately connected to (though the difference may in part be about how connections are conceived [pdf]). Which likely encouraged selection of the negotiating-with-strangers sex so as to be less emotionally expressive (because that is a negotiation advantage, particularly in dealing with strangers) but more willing to display anger (because that can also be negotiation advantage).

Across our evolutionary history, a much higher proportion of women reproduced than men (links here: it is possible that the imbalance got very high with the development of early agrarian states). So, men were selected for a higher sex drive, to be more competitive and more willing to take risks--hence building culture in order to get laid. (Or, more precisely, there was selection for genes which had those characteristics when expressed as male.) Clearly, if culture is developed in male-dominated spaces, it will tend to reflect male perspectives.

How male dominated will also depend on what trade-offs and constraints are operating. Hence, for a given level of technology, social niches tend to be less gender-differentiated in lower population density societies (because the men might be away) and more gender-differentiated in higher population density societies (because more intense competition for social niches will operate against the sex stuck with the kids). Thus, Celtic, Germanic and steppe societies had warrior women, but Roman, Greek, Indian, Chinese societies not so much. Hence also Saxon women in C8th England had wider range of social possibilities (including leading armies) than women in C18th England. If the trade-offs changes, the social patterns change, and the norms shift to keep up.

While there are some differences in the patterns of male and female abilities, they overlap more than they vary. In particular, they don't vary enough to explain very much. (And even when they do vary considerably--as with physical strength--the difference explains remarkably little [pdf] about social roles.)

Where there are much bigger differences is in interests (notably men being more interested in things versus women being more interested in people) and motivation and in variance across traits, including abilities--variance among males is much higher. Men are much more likely to be risk-takers, to be competitive and much more likely to be (obsessively) driven. Driven, competitive risk-takers are the sort of folk who end up as, for example, company CEOs. Even in our world of legal equality and equal access to education, there will be more male CEOs because women are much less likely to be appropriately driven than men (which hardly seems a fault). Even more spectacularly, men suffer about 90% of workplace deaths because they are much more likely to engage in the more dangerous occupations.

Even given that there are issues with, for example, mismatches between career optimising and marriage signalling for single women and between women getting CEO jobs and marriage expectations (pdf), we still have about as much chance as getting an even sex spread of male and female company CEOs as we have of getting an even sex spread of workplace deaths. The mad way of conceiving feminism that apparently will only be happy when women have the same level of screwed up life-work balance as many men through (selectively) setting male patterns as normative, and calling the failure to achieve that evidence of "male privilege", is just daft. As sexual neuroscientist Debra Soh puts it:
In my experience, proponents touting the “blank slate” view are willing to agree, in private conversations, that neurological sex differences do exist, but they fear that acknowledging as much publicly will justify female oppression. This is backward. As it stands, female-typical traits are seen as inferior and less worthy of respect. This is the real issue the movement fails to address: Nobody wants to be female-typical, not even women.
Nor does it seem remotely sensible to have an even spread of workplace deaths between the sexes as a social goal.

Private intensity, public contestability
It is a recurring feminist trope that women were socially situated in relationship to some male (as wife, daughter, mother). But the other way to look at that is that these are intimate relationships grounded in an individual person, where they are valued in themselves. Public roles, by contrast, are typically impersonal, competitive, and transitory where the particular individual is eminently replaceable (to adapt a point Baumeister makes [Chapter 8]). The female placings are emotionally "privileged", the public (previously male) ones are very much not, but are publicly "privileged". Which of these can we really see as privileged if we view them from this, more complete, perspective?

When the patterns are shifting because the trade-offs are shifting, there will be resistance due to the persistence of past norms and expectations. But, once the point is largely won, differences between the sexes--including differences in social distributions--will not disappear, because (at times apparently intensely) differentiated reproductive possibilities have ensured they won't. Indeed, there is evidence (pdf) that prosperity increases rather than decreases the differences in psychological patterns between the sexes, as prosperity makes people more able to (pdf) be themselves. There is a certain deep irony in that societies where what a supporter describes as:
the left’s viewpoint of sexual-difference-as-illusion
is most entrenched are the societies where it is least true. Part of us being a cultural species is that we construct cultural stories (including about gender) on a biological platform of sex, the denial of which is another cultural story about gender, though one at war with the underlying science.

As we increasingly became a cultural species, selecting for motivation/cognitive patterns would tend to have greater reproduction pay-offs than selecting for specific physical characteristics. Looking at the archaeological, anthropological and other evidence, our hominid ancestors had already been selected for a "big brain" strategy. Our ancestors apparently adopted a pair-bonding strategy relatively early on, as the degree to which males were bigger than females has declined significantly down the hominina line (and such sexual dimorphism is strongly correlated with polygynous and other multi-mate strategies). As one study noted (pdf):
Examining sexual dimorphism in deep evolutionary time, it is notable that changes in height among Homo species are accompanied by a decrease in sexual dimorphism (Frayer & Wolpoff, 1985). Gray (2013) notes that Australopithecus afarensis (4 to 3 Mya) males are believed to be around 44% bigger than females, whereas this figure is 26% for Homo habilis (2.4 to 1.6 Mya), 13% for Homo erectus (1.7 to 0.7 Mya), and a very moderate 9% for modern humans.
Such pair bonding may have been a response to (pdf) male infanticide of the children of rival males. The effect of such pair-bonding was to permit even longer pregnancies and childhoods, allowing further development down the cultural evolution path (and, as it happened, less need for female grouping [pdf]). As cultural pay-offs increased, selection for genes that, when expressed as male, expanded culture (given that was so much about dealing with strangers) would also be increased. While farming itself was likely originally a female invention (since hoe-farming can be done while child minding and likely grew out of female-gathering rather than male-hunting), it led to more (and more deeply) status-differentiated societies, hence polygynous pair-bonding societies, hence increased selection pressure for culturally effective (in getting laid) motivation for the male expression of genes. (Including some extreme cases, such as 8% of the men in Central Eurasia being descended from Genghis Khan and Muhammad having tens of millions of living descendants.)

Given that nowadays we have these things called schools, hugely reducing in-household childminding, and that (particularly in prosperous Western societies) the risks of dealing with strangers are very low, Western societies have been shifting to much more female participation in culture-building. A trend which has increased markedly since the advent of the Pill, as women can now invest in higher education much more effectively because they can control their fertility.

The personal invading the political
A way to read the fight over PC (including trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc) is between a female-dominant perspective that people must fit in and not offend ("it is about civility") and a male-dominant perspective that we must be willing to take risks and be competitive to find the facts, to find what works ("it chills speech and distorts debate"). With the phenomena being particularly intense in universities because they have become female-dominated institutions and because the focus on ideas is intense without commensurate experience of consequences. The perspective may, indeed, have become sufficient unmoored from consequences as to be teaching students to (literally) think pathologically. (Philosopher Dan Dennett makes a nice pithy comment that confronting folk is his job as a teacher of philosophy and raises what is a central contemporary moral dilemma.)

A classic male response to women--"you are taking this too personally"--is precisely about the different demands of private and public spheres. PC personalises words, ideas and politics in ways which are very unfortunate for the functioning of public spheres. It turns what should be much more impersonal matters into the dynamics of a huge, highly personalised, "bitch fight" where the social justice "mean girls" (of both sexes) strip people of moral standing for transgressing various "in-group" markers in the highly personal way that the mean girls of the schoolyard strip fellow students of social standing.  With social media, HR departments and camus grievance mechanisms giving them institutional levers.

It would be useful if there was a little less talk of toxic masculinity and a little more talk of functional masculinity, especially for public spaces. Particularly as what is being identified as toxic is often the transfer of patterns which are functional in one sphere into another where they are highly dysfunctional. Thus we might also consider the possibility of toxic femininity--wrapping people in a cocoon of positive feelings so that any significant conflict is illegitimate, an impossible demand in any society and which, like any impossible demand, can only be enforced dysfunctionally.

The attempt to abolish impersonality in ideas and politics in the name of personal respect has the consequences of making both culture and politics viciously personal. Both because the social ambit of such politics is utterly unlimited--it will and does invade every aspect of life, as every aspect of life can be conceived as being about "respect"--but also because if you declare yourselves to be practisers and owners of the politics of respect, then any dissent becomes politics of dis-respect, so of personalised attack. Hence the solution of trying to banish any dissent: for to abolish impersonality is to poison contestability. The "no-platforming" and similar attempts to block dissenting speech is not a perversion of a good idea, it is the natural outcome of toxic personalisation of spheres that should be impersonal in order to function. Really folk are taking, and making it, too personal.

Being reductive
Returning to the overarching issue, talking of male privilege is a ludicrously reductive and misleading way to frame what has been going on in Western societies. Trying to give privilege some analytical resilience by focusing on immutable characteristics both misses and evades the point that the significance of said characteristics is deeply socially and historically contingent--not only in themselves, but also in their interaction with other factors.

Listing ways in which social outcomes are not perfectly evenly proportioned does not, in itself, support the concept of privilege, it merely creates the pattern of facts to be analysed--which include all those countervailing patterns of social outcomes that contradict the notion of privilege, such as the income-by-ethnicity patterns and gender death patterns already mentioned, and that, for example, women are significantly advantaged in (pdf) criminal sentencing. The very same life story can be told as a story of privilege or the lack of it, depending on what one focuses on, as writer Marti Leimbach points out, using her own case.

Even the patterns within particular societies that go the "correct" way are typically nowhere near strong or consistent enough to justify being regarded as "privileging". In particular, they are unlikely to be evenly, or even universally, distributed across the category of people in question and, even if they are both (highly unlikely), a, say, 10% advantage in social arena X is not privileging in any useful sense. Add in the countervailing effects, and the actual patterns are nowhere near enough to justify notions of privilege.

Why go there?
So, why engage in such privilege-talk? Some of it is ignorance, some of which is wilful ignorance. People are either not aware, or don't want to see, social dynamics in these ways.

But a great deal is just cognitive convenience--privilege-talk tells a very convenient story, a very convenient narrative. Even better, a goodies-and-baddies, boo-and-cheer narrative; the most appealing kind.

For example, considering gender dynamics as changing trade-offs contradicts the implicit analysis that women lacked social agency until feminism came along and ripped it from men. Even if this background analysis is not stated baldly, it is remarkable how often it is ignored or downplayed that convincing men was the basis for almost all the success of the women's movement and that large numbers of men have proved willing to be convinced. The willingness to let go of remarkable amounts of "privilege" (and that, at all stages, many women opposed change) suggest that something else was going on--that privilege is either not what men were giving up or that, if they were, they weren't very attached to it.

Which is another problem with the notion of privilege; just because you see things as framed in a particular way, does not mean others do. The notion of privilege tends to license not considering that other framings may be more salient, or that trade-offs you have not considered are in operation. The concept of privilege being about what other people don't see or consider can become a license for one's own blindnesses and not-considerings.

The pattern of (1) negatively focusing on up-status occupations where men significantly outnumber women as a problem, but (2) not treating up-status occupations where women significantly outnumber men as any sort of problem, while (3) also negative focusing on down-status occupations where women significantly outnumber men as a problem, but (4) not treating down-status occupation where men significantly outnumber women as any sort of problem, also helps give the concept of privilege factually unwarranted resonance. If female advantages in social goods, and male disadvantages in social bads, are glossed over or ignored, a simplified narrative is much easier to push.

For once one starts looking at social dynamics as trade-offs, expectations, risks, things become much more complex. More complex in terms of analysis, response and, above all, moral judgement. Who knows who might turn out to have legitimate concerns or perspectives, how dispersed responsibility and agency might be. The notion of privilege does, after all, remarkably easily lend itself to discounting the agency of the "oppressed" and exaggerating the agency of the "privileged", just the thing for simplified, goodies-and-baddies, social narratives.

Furthermore, the notion of privilege undermines the notion of agency in general, but particularly for those deemed to be lacking privilege. Which is potentially unfortunate for the psychological health of those that buy into it, as the less sense of agency one has, the weaker one's locus of control, the more unfortunate the likely effect on psychological well-being. But the (selective) undermining of agency is very useful to pushing simplifying narratives.

It can, however, be highly destructive if put into social policy, as seen in the disastrous slide of the St Paul School system into increased violence and mayhem after the disproportionately high rate of suspension of black students was blamed by the (now departed) system administrator on teachers as instruments of "white privilege". In fact, as a 2014 study indicates (pdf), prior behavioural problems are much much predictive of suspension than race; problems which (in the St Paul's case) are more likely to be connected to 87% of the black kids in the school district being born out of wedlock (so likely living with single mothers with uninvolved fathers, so being more likely to have the low levels of social capital that are conducive to delinquency) than inbuilt public school teacher racial bias.

Muslim matters
The undermining of the notion of agency inherent in privilege-talk has wider consequences. It is standard among folk inclined to buy into privilege-talk to treat Muslims as moral mascots, as sacred victims, who definitely lack privilege, and so have seriously discounted agency. Which bedevils wrestling with the serious issues that Islam, being a very different civilisation, with very different presumptions and patterns, raises. To start, it leads directly to the "jihadism/Islamic State/terrorism has nothing to do with Islam" nonsense.

Which is nonsense at so many levels. The Ottoman Empire spent 230 years (1299-1529) advancing from central Anatolia to Central Europe, precisely because it turned jihad into a system:
(1) ghazi, holy warriors, aka akinji, raided the infidel borderlands, killing, enslaving, driving away and economically degrading;
(2) at an opportune moment, the main Ottoman army (whose rulers explicitly claimed title and standing as ghazi) moves in and conquers the borderlands, which are re-settled;
(3) ghazi move to new border; rinse and repeat.
A process only brought to a halt by the creation of what became the grenzer militia system and the Military Frontier.

Islam is built to be imperial. Its marriage and membership rules--believers cannot leave Islam (historically often incurring the normal penalty for treason against God), Muslim women must marry Muslim men, the children of a Muslim father are Muslim--if followed, ensure that, given comparable rates of fertility, any rate of interfaith marriage will eventually lead to a majority Muslim country (unless other migrants continue to raise the total population faster than overall the Muslim population increases).

Sharia is an imperial legal system, not only in:
(1) claiming to be rules issuing from the Sovereign of the universe deemed to be binding on everyone; but
(2) being set up to justify, extol and promote Muslim supremacy; and
(3) being created to serve an imperial order.
Furthermore, being a polygynous system, Islam had the normal consequences of elite polygyny--creating a pool of low status men with no marriage prospects. Islam has the extra twist of Sharia explicitly sanctifying and encouraging taking infidel women as a response.

Sharia sets up tax, status and opportunity advantages for believers, which a Muslim male could offer to a infidel woman (and their putative children) who already lived under Muslim rule, raising the rate of interfaith marriage. Sharia sanctifies the abduction, enslaving and sexual use of infidel women ("those who one's right hand possesses" in the language of the Quran) who have not submitted to Muslim rule, with any previous marriage to a non-Muslim man being overridden (a sanctification which is alive and well in the Islamic state and the Sudanese regime).

Hence the endless ability of historical Islam to generate ghazi as a way for low-status Muslim men to get laid. With the added bonus of dying while fighting to extend Muslim rule is the only guaranteed path to Paradise, so they can get eternally laid. (A shortcut to Paradise which is also alive and well; hence it is often not rule-observing pious Muslims who are so much an issue, but "bad" Muslims seeking said shortcut to Paradise: and if you have wondered about the 72 virgins, remember it's a polygynous system.)

The cultural shifts in Western and other modernising soceties towards far more female contribution to building culture apply much less within Islam, due to the deep historical legacy, and entrenched cultural consequences, from Sharia effectively denying women legal protection against rape. The lack of legal protection was profound--even under ordinary Sharia rules, if it was "he said, she said", he won; but rape specifically required male witness evidence, while a failed accusation was a confession of fornication outside marriage, which was subject to punishment, as various Western women have found when they have attempted to bring rape charges in countries where Sharia is still law of the land.

The consequences was that, under Sharia rule, predatory males did not have to worry about legal protections for women, they had to worry about her male relatives (while elite polygyny increased the number of men for whom predatory behaviour was more likely). Hence Islam generating strong chaperone cultures, though they still left a woman separated from her kin at risk: Islam was a giant "stranger danger" culture for women, both for Muslim women and even more for non-Muslim ones; a pattern that has far from completely disappeared, as US TV journalist Lara Logan infamously experienced, along with some recent unpleasantnesses in Cologne and other German cities and the various "sex gang" cases of which the most notorious was centred in Rotherham in the UK.

That Muslim women were safer, the more thickly they were embedded in kin networks might be a factor helping to account for the very high prevalence of consanguineous marriages in countries under Sharia rule for long periods of time. And it is cousin marriage, rather than Islam specifically, which is antipathetic to democratic rule.

As modern employment and education leads Muslim women to be away from the local neighbourhoods and kin-protections, veiling has been a response to signal adherence to (pdf) religious norms (i.e. that one is a "good girl"), hence the revival of veiling since the 1970s, led by educated, middle class women, and its spread to places that did not previously use it. Given that the headscarf proclaims acceptance of traditional monotheist religious norms, indeed the specific rejection of contemporary Western mores, they have not been a good basis for women to make anywhere near as much headway in Muslim countries and communities as have Western women.

Thus, the sea of headscarves (and veils) on Muslim women proclaim the (reviving) strength of monotheist conceptions of sexual and gender correctness within contemporary Islam (pdf); the monotheist conceptions of sexual and gender correctness that Western progressivists demand Western Christians shed themselves of any public manifestation of. A case of privilege-talk creating a clear moral caste system between the religion of alleged privilege and a religion of the under-privileged.

Evidence suggests that it is the development of effective secular authorities in high trust societies which has had most to do with declining religious belief. (Though, in the West, the effect of the Pill on massively reducing the utility of sexual norm signalling through church attendance shouldn't be underestimated--an effect that, as mentioned, has gone the other way in Islam, with a massive increase in religious signalling via headscarves and veiling.)

Islam gives great normative resonance to membership of the umma, the community of believers, but little or none to citizenship (as law was religious, not political) while notions of Muslim supremacy and Sharia as an expression of God's sovereignty undermine social bargaining politics (one can hardly bargain over the laws of God). So Islam provides a range of impediments to secular trust-and-bargaining alternatives to religious belief. An effect which is much stronger if there are also high rates of consanguineous marriage, which in itself undermines commitment to broader institutions. It is not surprising, therefore, that the most problematic Muslim migrants tend to be from high cousin marriage societies.

There is a huge amount of, to be polite, problematic historical and doctrinal baggage within Islam. Add in that mainstream Sunni Islam holds that revelation is the only grounding for morality and that the universe has no inherent structure outside the will of God (so there is no inherent causality, there is only, the habits of God in His--at every moment--constant recreating of the universe; habits which He can change at any time, an outlook not helpful to science within Islam, part of a set of problems [pdf] regarding Science within Islam) and there are a host of non-trivial issues about promoting significant Muslim migration to any country. But the privilege-framing, the moral mascotsacred victim status of Muslims, and consequent discounting of Muslim agency, essentially rules all of this outside the realm of morally acceptable discussion.

And if discussion of some issue is not morally acceptable to a sufficiently large and well-placed group, then one has effectively closed down debate, no matter how much noise there may be in the wider community. Indeed, penalties will and are attempted to be inflicted on those who engage in what are deemed to be morally illegitimate discussion of problematic issues within Muslim communities.

Being of Muslim heritage oneself is no protection: as Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud found when he attempted to draw attention to problems regarding status-of-women and gender relations in the Arab world, and that that may raise issues within Western societies receiving significant flows of migrants from the Middle East, only to get publicly denounced for daring to suggest any such thing. Ex-Muslim Sarah Haider talks of the ad hominem pressure from (white) progressivists against criticising any aspects of Islam, or problems within Muslim communities or even writings of Muslim intellectuals.

Of all the migrant groups to Western societies, it is only among Muslims that there is significant push back against the structures and achievements which make Western societies attractive to migrants in the first place. The pushback is most broadly-based within Muslim communities against the shifts in gender and sexual mores in Western societies but is at its most violent in a rejection that extends from cultural issues to democracy itself:
Here, for example, is what Ali Benhadj, one of the leaders of the Islamic Salvation FrontFront Islamique du Salut, or FIS—the party created in Algeria by the Islamists in the aftermath of the 1988 social riots in the capital—had to say in an interview that nicely captures the kind of teachings that were making their way to France: “Democracy is a Greek word imported from the world of infidels that hides corrupted beliefs and licentious practices. There is no democracy because the sole source of power is Allah, through the Koran, not the people. When the people vote against God’s law, it is nothing but a blasphemy and, in such a case, you must kill them all.” (Links added.) 
Not a particularly surprising statement to anyone familiar with jihadi literature.

Meanwhile, folk who have not embraced the metaphysical principle of discounted Muslim agency and barred critique because, sacred victims, are likely to find these issues not only worthy of discussion, but requiring discussion. Yet the very notion of sacred victim has to be, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out, protected by motivated ignorance. Thus does the gulf of mutual incomprehension between the more ardent adherents of privilege-talk and the wider citizen community intensify.

Hence polls find that 49% of Australians (where public opinion is very pro-immigration [pdf]) want to block further Muslim migration and 55% of citizens in 10 EU countries (where public opinion is rather less favourable to immigration) want to do so. It is also worth noting that having 2% of your population Muslim in countries with varied migrant communities (where the key thing is to fit in), as in the Anglo-Settler societies, is a very different social dynamic than having 5%, 10%, 15% of your population being Muslim where they are a major, or even dominant, migrant group, so that Islam forms a salient counter-identity, with communities large enough to shield activist political-Islam networks, as in various European countries.

A noxious framing
For the real noxiousness of the privilege concept is not, however, from its simplifying and flattening effect on social analysis and moral judgement. Where it becomes truly poisonous is in the moral caste system it sets up and the vicious-in-effect discounting of fellow citizens it naturally engenders.

While it is all very well to piously say the concept of privilege is not about blame (particularly not blaming people on the basis of immutable characteristics), the reality is that the term privilege is pejorative, and the "more" of it you are deemed to "have" the more of a pejorative burden one is loaded with. When a candidate for DNC Chair can say, in an open forum, that her job would be to tell white people to know their place, even shut up, we can see the noxious pejorative effect of privilege is well in operation.

The recurrent sneering at Dead White Males is clearly privilege-pejorative in operation--and, btw, a mark of the discounting of reason, as the value of an argument or analysis is only graded on the basis of the characteristics of the utterer if "authenticity", "experience" and emotion are taken to trump logic and evidence (that is, trump the use of reason). It is also a wildly anti-historical perspective to try and put some pejorative spin on the fact that, prior to the dramatic changes in patterns of production, and thus social possibilities, set off by the Great Enrichment (beginning with the industrial revolution), cultures of "white" folk had men as their pre-dominant culture-builders, as was true in all human cultures.

If the rhetorical impact of the pejorative inherent in the term privilege was not the point, the term advantage would have been used instead. While the Dead White Men rhetoric indicates how much stripping away of any notion of historical achievement is involved--which is particularly alienating for those who sense of social placement involves identifying with a specific cultural history, and the achievements thereof. Those achievements which are, of course, precisely why so many folk want to move to Western countries.

With the privilege framing, one ends up creating a moral caste system, with the more privilege-pejoratives one "bears", the higher the moral discount, and the more oppression-virtue markers one has, the higher the moral boost. Provided, of course, one expresses the correct perspectives, as the moral rankings sit there, able to be pulled out as convenient (obviously against those with "privilege", but also against those "without" it who fail to toe the line).

A US graduate student struggling with not using terms such as privilege and lived experience that blames and excludes notes the problem with:
a conversation being had among an elite intelligentsia diverting time and resources to righteously silencing one another.
And so:
we might want to pause and consider whether our language serves a purpose beyond a self-interested performance.
She wants to retain the notion of privilege but, in effect, strip it of its pejorative, moral-caste-system effect: but the pejorative, moral-caste-system effect is precisely what gives it such power and utility.

A Princeton student has rather nicely captured the divisive assault on notions of common humanity involved. Having had a minister at an induction-to-Princeton ceremony get people to stand up in various demographics groups to "identify their community" (of course religion-substitute save-the-world politics develops its own rituals), the student experiencing this notes that:
In compressing us into isolated communities based on our race, religion or gender, the minister belittled every other piece of our identities. He faced a crowd of singular young adults and essentially told them that their heritage outweighed their humanity. The message was clear: know your kind and stick to it. Don’t risk offending people from other backgrounds by trying to understand their worldviews.
The moral nonsense that, of course, African-Americans and Hispanics "should" vote tribally, but if white people do, it's evil and noxious flows directly from the moral mountains of "privilege" built upon molehills of evidence (and selective molehills at that). The celebration of "good" identities as basis for action, and attacks on "bad" identities as a basis for action, is an attack on a notion of a common humanity, or common citizenship, moralised in a way which is positively Orwellian.

The reductio of this is when working class men--as inherently morally burdened straight white males--end up being implicitly or explicitly lectured on their "privilege" by highly educated middle class (or higher) women with far more social advantages than any working class man is ever likely to experience. (An updated version of Victorian or Gilded Age ladies preening about their moral and cultural superiority over working class oafs.) Meanwhile, working class women are blamed for showing solidarity with their families and communities, not (as required) their gender (so voting on the basis of white "privilege" not gender "oppression"), a striking example of privilege being about which aspects are focused on and when.

And when folk arc up about being treated with arrogant condescension which sneers at, and discounts, any inconvenient concerns or experiences they may have, their concerns get dismissed as those "losing" privilege and so experiencing "equality as oppression"--that's why they are angry; it's all about the loss of "privilege" (privilege which is, nevertheless, still their moral burden even as they are losing it). And we know that folk notice the arrogant condescension, as many observers, including Thomas Frank, tell us so:
What did crop up persistently when I talked to this group was a disgust with the perceived moral haughtiness of liberals. More than one member of the club referred to himself as one of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”, for example. There was resentment of “Ivy League graduates” who felt entitled to “micromanage the rest of the country”. The man who told me that – a fellow wearing a US Army Retired cap – also told me that “if you want to be an obnoxious slob, you have a right to be one”.
This right-to-obnoxiousness raises a fascinating point: these men saw liberals as loudmouthed Pharisees, intolerant moralists who demanded that the rest of the nation snap into line – an exact reverse of the John Ashcroft stereotype liberals used to hold of conservatives.
Given that, in the US, votes for women is almost a century old, protection of legal rights for black folk a half-century old, explicit assistance for black folk via affirmation action is also a half-century old, those straight white males have taken a remarkably long time to get angry over the loss of "privilege", over the burden of equality; especially as many of them voted twice for a black President. (Somehow, between 2012 and 2016, it all just hit them.)

Vicious winners needing endless moral strife
In reality, if one takes a step back (and perhaps a deep breath), what is remarkable is how well most people have coped with stunning amounts of cultural change in a remarkably short period of time. But these are included in the various inconvenient facts one is not supposed to pay much (or sometimes any) attention to. As privilege-talk rests on a (albeit somewhat subtle) aversion to (inconvenient) facts, it is hardly surprising that privilege-talk buttresses a politics of hostility to raising inconvenient facts, or that it is so very much about the politics of (convenient) narrative.

The salient problem is not ordinary folk, nor the conservative Christians who have lost every major cultural battle for decades; the salient problem is progressivists being such vicious winners. Vicious winners who are contemptuous of giving people time to adjust--yes, we will drive you out of business, get you sacked, if you don't keep up (and if we can do it to a CEO in a business they helped found, we can do it to anyone); yes we will engage in ritual public humiliations. Vicious winners too often determined to double-down so that no part of people's lives--not their job, use of language, clothing, games, entertainment, or whatever is chosen to be picked on next, will not be under public assault. With the open intolerance of dissent on campuses--notionally the homes of intellectual freedom and debate--easily looking like an ambit claim to drive dissent out of all public spaces. Or not only an ambit claim, given some of the shenanigans on social media and within the SF community.

Meanwhile, much of this social and cultural aggression relies on using a notion of privilege as a key justification; something which the concept is not remotely sufficiently well factually-grounded to do.

A pattern of liberalising (so, at least notionally, progressivist) success in the culture wars gives no respite because so much of contemporary progressivism is about feeling moral superior, which requires generating endless targets to pick on; so ever-higher decibels of moral shrieking over ever-smaller matters. While to treat those who disagree as well-intentioned defeats the status-game point. Until, of course, folk subject to this unending moral crusade of unlimited intrusion start deciding they are really, really over it and push back across a now pathologically polarised social landscape where it is increasingly difficult to escape from politics.

The "they are angry over equality" is a nonsense analysis, offered with no evidence (indeed, against the evidence). But it is how the noxious notion of privilege so easily lends itself to discounting other people's framings based on a notion that any so-designated disagreement from the ostentatiously morally entitled (because they are fighting "privilege") is inherently illegitimate; a meta-framing which, not coincidentally, encourages smug feelings of moral and intellectual superiority among those pushing them. They are morally justified, so morally entitled, social justice "mean grrls".

Hence the smug style is alive and well. To the extent that people engaged in wrongtalk and wronghumour about the Islamic State killing homosexuals can be front page news but someone being convicted in a local court for actually killing gay folk for Islamic reasons is not print worthy news.

As the aforementioned Princeton student notes, it is a matter conforming to the approved moral perspective. And a deadening conformity is the result:
And so the administration chose to celebrate our cultural diversity as a student body, at the cost of our individual diversity as students.
Like many other schools, Princeton has become disturbingly homogeneous because of this phenomenon. Not only that, but the pressure to respect other groups on and off campus is pushing my generation into left-wing uniformity. We are encouraged to mind our own business by mimicking politically correct values without ever thinking them through on our own. No one questioned the students and faculty members who disrespectfully walked out of Charles Murray’s lecture hall after he was invited to speak on campus this winter.
My teachers and classmates openly referred to Trump’s voters as uneducated bigots throughout the election season, while taking any criticism of Clinton as an attack against women. Anyone who dares to voice a religious opinion is regarded as unintelligent. The fear of being called racist draws our attention to a black woman’s skin instead of her character, and the fear of being called homophobic emphasizes a gay man’s sexuality over his personality. We have been trained to tiptoe around each other and distribute trigger warnings with generosity.
It is part of a wider (and destructive) pattern where ostentatious moral commitment is used as a cognitive club to discount and devalue alternative framings and inconvenient experiences by attacking the moral standing of people holding or having such. Which has almost infinite capacity to irritate and enrage people: in the case of Pepin County in Wisconsin, the influx of such folk apparently shifted a county that had voted against Reagan twice, and for Obama twice, into voting The Donald a landslide county victory.

It is, as economist Steve Randy Waldman puts it, even at its most tentative, at the very least a political problem:
The question of who are the authoritarians, who are the bullies, is actively contested in American politics, and not just by Rush-Limbaugh-types shouting “Feminazi!” When Trump supporters complain about “political correctness”, they are claiming that contemporary liberal norms have rendered it socially costly for them to speak freely and candidly even when they mean no harm. They may be wrong to complain. Perhaps stigmatizing all but the most careful forms of expression around matters of race and sexuality and gender is in fact the best way to prevent severe harms to vulnerable people, and is a development that should be celebrated. Regardless, many Americans, whether they are right or wrong and even if they are mostly white, perceive a cost in personal freedom to these norms. They have not been convinced that those costs are just or necessary, especially in light of their own increasing vulnerability and grievance. Whether or not their discontent is legitimate, whether or not they are right to assert an ethical problem, their perception constitutes a political problem.
It is striking that it is precisely those who are most willing to pontificate about privilege who tend to be most into privileging--privileging some perspectives over others, some framings over others, some experience and groups over others. The entire "check your privilege" nonsense is all about morally privileging, hence the one-upping games to see who has the least privilege, so the most moral standing. The pattern of poor reporting about sexual assault on campus, including some dramatic cases of false accusation, comes directly from progressivist privileging of some voices over others which, as Jonathan Haidt points out, leads to, on campuses where it becomes entrenched, a systematic attack on free enquiry (inculcated particularly by grievance study departments--women's studies, queer studies, black studies, etc--combined with grievance punishment structures).

Those wrapped up in such moral privileging then project their own privileging onto society at large. Not least by "privileging" some social patterns over others to give the concept of privilege a degree of plausibility that is not factually warranted. 
The notion of privilege may be one that applies to categories of people, but it is instantiated in persons, so becomes a personal characteristic that authorises and emboldens the personalising of the public.

In personalising the political, one politicises the personal; both expanding the ambit, and raising the stakes, of politics. In having the emotional depth of the private sphere enter the public sphere, the public sphere is rendered both more dysfunctional and more vicious. There is no relief from the politics of protecting personalised "oppressed" identities; no acceptable ground for, nor protection of, cognitive difference that is in tension with its demands in any realm where people interact.

The smothering of dispute and conflict in the name of respect thereby smothers, or attempts to smother, intellectual enquiry, free speech, religious freedom and political choice and does so in a way that strips standing from those who disagree, creating a contemptuous, condescending and pervasive intrusion that both offends and enrages. The politics of resentment need not be the politics of illegitimate or ungrounded resentment: assuming that there is nothing to legitimately resent is another manifestation of moralising politics creating an overweening sense of moral entitlement.

The use of privilege as a way for people with much better social prospects, far more access to social levers, who are much more insulated from the costs of their preferred policies, than so many of the folk they use the concept as a weapon against is where the contemporary usage of the notion of privilege moves from the destructively overblown to the utterly contemptible.
The concept of privilege is poor analysis, poisonous politics and profoundly morally deficient framing of social issues and events. And no amount of clever gaming metaphors can rescue it from that. 


  1. When looking at your link to a Vox article I saw this underneath:

    You might learn something by reading it as your argument comes across as hopelessly contrived. A few counterfactuals don't alter the fact that if you are born x,y and z the likelihood that you will live a long, happy and wealthy life is an order of magnitude greater than if you are born a,b and c and that, because the advantage is unearned, it constitutes a privilege. This is an elegant concept and in my view an undeniable truth. The fact that some folk will deploy the concept in a way that is offensive and simplistic to those in the privileged class is reprehensible but the concept nonetheless remains an insightful and productive analytical tool. As a white male, it took me a long time to warm to this theory and my tender feelsies still get hurt when I'm bludgeoned by an overzealous feminist or whatevs with this particular analytical tool, but I'm big enough to build a bridge and get over it. Why aren't you?

    1. Because I don't believe in politics as therapy? Or as a moral status game. The point is precisely that being, for example, a white male in the US doesn't generate order of magnitude better life prospects. The patterns of advantage and disadvantage are much more complicated than that. And much more fluid over time.

    2. "because the advantage is unearned, it constitutes a privilege"

      Why not call it luck? Like the luck that some people are relatively healthy, and others aren't. Some people are in the right place at the right time - pure luck. You couldn't make life fair if you tried.

      Some go on to say we should try to enforce equality by handicapping those considered to have this "privilege" - which is treating people unequally and therefore unfairly discriminating. Very dubious. At one stage it was called "positive discrimination", then "affirmative action", then "quotas". It's not equality, whatever you call it..

      And then we have the people saying that white people can't have an opinion on racism, or the deeply dubious proposition that they can never be the victims of racism because they are white, or that men should shut up when sexism is mentioned, or whenever a woman talks. A guy piped up on BBC's Question Time the other day talking this rubbish.

      I'm sure poor whites in the UK and US would be delighted to hear this simplistic rubbish about privilege, which treats them as members of a group whose wealth has been measured in a dodgy way..

  2. Are you seriously saying that white males and black males have identical outcomes? A quick look at imprisonment rates, income and various other measures says absolutely not. Plus there are literally hundreds of studies that demonstrate the colour of your skin will influence the way you are treated in almost every imaginable social interaction and if you're white you are advantaged. I've already mentioned the Paul Fritjer's bus study as an Australian example. This isn't about politics as therapy, it is about a reality that is easily demonstrated by the available evidence. Since you've chosen to psychologise the theories adherents, may I proffer the suggestion that you're somewhere between depression and anger in the grieving process?

    1. "Are you seriously saying that white males and black males have identical outcomes? A quick look at imprisonment rates, income and various other measures says absolutely not"

      Imprisonment rates are tricky, but you may have a point there. Sonja Starr did a big study - controlling for type of offence etc - and found that blacks were indeed more likely to go to jail & get longer sentences etc.

      The twist in the tale is that she also found that women got shorter prison times than men & were less likely to go to prison. The differential between men and women was six (!) times that between blacks and whites. Women are treated *far* more leniently - backing up previous research saying the same.

      The number one political use of the word privilege is to bash men on the heads with the term "male privilege". Yet the very stats you point to show that this supposed privilege is a lie..

  3. Lorenzo, can you explicitly state whether or not you believe blacks are genetically mentally inferior to whites and Asians? A simple yes or no would clear up a lot of things.

  4. "The Trump administration has withdrawn a piece of federal guidance requiring transgender students to have unfettered access to bathrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identity, in a move that could embolden many schools to restrict trans rights."

    Identity politics, anyone? Anyway, Mr Porch Monkey, do you share Milo's view that transgender folk are disordered subhumans?

  5. This essay is easily the most interesting thing I've read in a year.

    I have a minor quibble:

    A way to read the fight over PC (including trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc) is between a female-dominant perspective that people must fit in and not offend ("it is about civility") and a male-dominant perspective that we must be willing to take risks and be competitive to find the facts, to find what works ("it chills speech and distorts debate").

    Perhaps another way to look at PC isn't concern about peoples feelings, but rather putting certain subjects completely out of conversational bounds.

    Among those who, for instance, insist that gender differences are solely the consequence of culture, then any discussion of innate gender correlated differences reeks of misogyny, and needs stopping.

    Or, if you were to go to one of our ever so enlightened campuses with any advance notice of your analysis of privilege you would get shouted down on PC terms for contradicting a shibboleth, not for failing to be nice.

  6. I always call people up on this intellectually barren use of the word privilege. The problem is that good critical thinking just isn't a match for the thrill people get out of bashing white men...

    They'd rather not think. Thinking is hard, and sometimes leads to conclusions they were hoping to avoid.

  7. Even worse, the intellectually barren use of privilege leads nowhere.

    I am happy to grant that as a white American born in the mid-1950s, I enjoyed a great many societal advantages over the descendants of slaves. Moreover, racist housing restrictions and other impediments to wealth accumulation added more to their burden. And we haven't yet gotten to the predations of the Great Society.

    Okay. Many privileges.

    Now what? No matter how many privileges stick to me, how does that fix the horror shows that are Black urban America?

    Finger pointing doth not a solution make.