Saturday, October 18, 2014

Why "Privilege" Is So Hard For People To Understand



John Stewart does his best to explain the concept of "white privilege" to Bill O'Reilly. The discussion is interesting, though a lot of it feels very much "two steps forward, one step back."

The concept of "privilege" itself is not very difficult to understand. The idea that there is a certain type of privilege associated with belonging to a race (or gender, or any other socially recognized characteristic) simply means that societal benefits (and the lack of societal burdens) are more heavily distributed among members of that race. White privilege in the United States is the legacy of imposed white supremacist policies and attitudes that shaped our government, our institutions, and our culture. There are many different forms of privilege, just as there are many forms of disadvantage.

It seems it's more difficult to accept the reality of the concept of privilege than to understand, though one's ability to accept a belief and one's capacity to understand it are in practice intertwined. Obviously, it's hard to accept a belief that you don't understand, but it also seems that resistance to a certain belief can undermine one's understanding of it. This is clear in the video above.

One point of confusing for O'Reilly is purely mathematical. At one part of the discussion, he lists President Obama and Oprah Winfrey as proof that white privilege doesn't exist, or perhaps rather to show that African Americans are not systematically disadvantaged. But this is clearly a mistake, because statistically we should expect some people from disadvantaged groups to be exceptionally successful in society's terms. The point is that in general, there will be more obstacles for members of these groups than for members of the privileged group, and these obstacles will have significant costs.

He also makes the mistake on the other side of the problem, when he asks Stewart if they are both well-off only because they are white. But the point isn't that everyone who is white will have a well-paying job or become famous, but that it will in general be easier for white people to occupy the spotlight than people of other races. But "easier" doesn't mean "easy", and this is no reason to discount the skill and talent both O'Reilly and Stewart have developed to have achieved what they have achieved.

Even more deeply though, there's a fearful undercurrent to O'Reilly's remarks. It's not just that his own success is apparently threatened if racial privilege played any part in it (though insecurity is certainly a factor). But he is worried that those who are worse-off will use "disadvantage" as an excuse to avoid helping themselves.

The worry here is quire common among American conservatives, and I think it might be genuinely more complex than is often recognized. To be sure, conservatives don't want disadvantage to be used as an excuse because they think it might be seen to justify taxation and redistribution of wealth away from the wealthy and privileged. On this point, they are just factually and morally wrong. Historical and continuing injustices have severely privileged certain groups at great cost to others, and this unequivocally justifies financial redress (before considering any other moral reasons we might have for pursuing socioeconomic justice).

But there's another worry here that is legitimate, if unfounded. Do the concepts of "privilege" allow for the abdication of responsibility? If we acknowledge that we are thoroughly influenced by our culture and circumstance, do we diminish the importance of personal choices? That is, can disadvantage an excuse for any bad actions done by those who are oppressed?

Certainly not. The importance background factors does not mean that we cannot, to some extent at least, take ownership of our actions. We are the ones who are acting, we are not mere dice being rolled. (Obviously, such claims require a plausible account of choice and freedom for support, but I take my potential interlocutors in this instance to be on board with these assumptions.) Surely, many of the consequences of our actions are completely our of our control, but this doesn't imply that our actions are divorced from our agency.

The conservative mistake is confusing this kind of responsibility as attributability, as T. M. Scanlon has deemed it, with substantive responsibility. Responsibility of the first kind allows us to make judgments about individuals and the choices they make. Substantive responsibility concerns what obligations a person has because of choices they've made. It is an error to assume that because someone has made choices for which they are responsible(in the first sense), that they are necessarily obligated to bear the full weight of the consequences.

Assessing which choices produce which obligations and duties is a complex task, and a hallmark of daily moral life. I won't attempt to give a sketch here. But it is the claim of many, including myself, that the background circumstances of an individual's life, the privileges and disadvantages they carry, should weigh significantly in our judgments of what they deserve.

This view preserves our judgment that the actions of others are open to moral assessment, while clarifying that this is not the sole determinant of what individuals are owed.  To those who are interested only in reducing their responsibilities to the disadvantaged and oppressed, the clarifications I have made here will seem to make little difference. But for those who believe that injustices and unfortunate life circumstances demand compensation, but don't wish to give a blanket acquittal to those who act wrongly under bad conditions, this view has considerable appeal.

2 comments:

  1. I concur! Thank you for so clearly articulating so many important ideas.

    ReplyDelete