Wednesday, August 28, 2013

An individualist case for considering privilege

Julie Borowski has jumped into the fray with her post "The Problem with "Check your Privilege,"" that seems representative of how many libertarians think of the phrase - not as a plea for humility but as a tool "used to stop meaningful discussion and silence the alleged privileged person." The result is they've dismissed privilege as a legitimate concern. Perhaps "check your privilege" has been misused too often to save it - that's a conversation we can have - but she overstates the libertarian problem with privilege generally. From the post:
"The worst part about the concept of privilege is that it creates preconceived judgments about strangers. You cannot know someone’s full story by simply looking at their physical characteristics. As a woman, it would be presumptuous to conclude that a straight white male acquaintance has it easier than me, or is inherently privileged. Perhaps I should check my prejudice and acknowledge that I do not have enough personal information about this individual to make that claim. Perhaps he grew up poor? He has a learning disability? He is physically unattractive? He is battling a life threatening disease?

We probably all know the old phrase about what happens when you assume, and what it makes out of you and me."
Ms. Borowski approaches this with the best intentions, but she gets the nuances of privilege wrong when she opposes its use in our conversations about government and society. The context-specific nature of privilege is important to remember. In fact she talks about it here:
"A woman in the United States has likely never experienced discrimination like a woman in Saudi Arabia. An American woman may find cat-calling on the street to be sexist, but a Saudi woman cannot legally drive a car or leave her house without a male guardian." 
but falls short of grasping the implications when she continues:
"The concept of privilege is Eurocentric and becomes inconsistent when applied to different locations."
There are degrees of disadvantage. People who have experienced the worst forms of discrimination are not the only ones subject to it. This is the same trap that those who use "Check your privilege" to shut down a conversation fall into. There are situations in which being a white male puts one at a disadvantage, and refusing to discuss them because generally being a white male is "thoroughly good" [nsfw] requires ignoring the importance of context and consequently a poor understanding of privilege. And ignoring all privilege because others ignore some privilege doesn't help anyone.

In The Facts of the Social Sciences, Hayek`s observations offer insight into how limited experiences will tend to contribute to the knowledge problem of privilege:
"We thus always supplement what we actually see of another person's action by projecting into that person a system of classification of objects which we know, not from observing other people, but because it is in terms of these classes that we think ourselves. If, for example, we watch a person cross a square full of traffic, dodging some cars and pausing to let others pass, we know (or we believe we know) much more than we actually perceive with our eyes. This would be equally true if we saw a man behave in a physical environment quite unlike anything we have ever seen before. If I see for the first time a big boulder or an avalanche coming down the side of a mountain toward a man and see him run for his life, I know the meaning of his action because I know what I would or might have done in similar circumstances."
(p. 63-64 Individualism and Economic Order.)
Failure to recognize privilege may be rooted in a natural but mistaken assumption that our experiences are generalizable given the facts we're presented. After all, it's how we understand the world. Properly understood, privilege does not treat us as members of a group with pre-defined strengths and weaknesses. Acknowledging privilege is fundamentally respectful of individuals. To overlook the possibility of privilege is to overlook the possibility that we don't fully understand others' experiences. The knowledge problem we face in the economy is insurmountable and acknowledging that should help to keep us humble, but when the range of experiences we aren't party to is taken into account it becomes simply staggering. Borowski gets that!
We can and should show empathy for others, while understanding that we do not truly know what other people go through on a daily basis. I do not know what it is like to live as a gay man or a black woman. But here’s the thing: I will never know what it is like to be another individual. Period. No one on the face of the earth has lived a life identical to mine... It’s important to take into consideration that your background differs from others, but keep an open mind and recognize that communication is a two way street. And remember to always keep your prejudice in check.
If you lack experience in discrimination but make strong statements about how and if it's a problem, odds are you'll reveal that you face an "experience gap" in your understanding. This doesn't make you racist, sexist, or anything-else-ist, but it's going to be obvious to those with intimate knowledge of the problem that you don't really understand it, and it's going to be harder to take your input seriously, to assume goodwill, and to keep a level head - in other words, to have a productive conversation.

None of this implies that someone without first-hand experience can't make valuable contributions. It implies only that in the absence of experience the conversation ought to be approached with, as Borowski suggests, curiosity and an open mind. And, to get Smithy, there's an important role for impartial spectators. Experiences are often emotional, and this type of input can help those who carry them to keep a level head.

If Borowski's post is representative of libertarian opposition to privilege then "The Problem with "Check your Privilege"" is a rhetorical one. We need only to remember that our knowledge is incomplete to consider the role of privilege and engage more people in respectful and productive conversations about liberty.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hayek and privilege.

In response to my last post on the topic, a Facebook friend offered the following;
Following Hayek... I take "privilege" to mean legal discrimination in some form - deliberately advantaging some at the expense of others - and don't think of it in (the normative) terms of "desirable" or "successful" at all. But aside from this, I still have trouble getting what you're saying.

Obviously, we should be wary of arguments for rent-seeking whatever form they may take. But beyond that, are you saying that we should be sensitive to social differences that may be privileged (in Hayek's sense) by laws that, say, protect or establish private-property rights? If so, what can be done about that? Even laws that follow the Rule of Law will advantage some and disadvantage others - but ideally no one should be able to predict who they might be.
I've been turning this over in my head and think that it deserves a two-part response. So first: he's quite right that Hayek uses a narrow definition of privilege. However, my intention was to include in the broader concept of "privilege" something that is (I've learned) referred to as "silent" privilege, and also Hayekian in nature.

To expand upon what started here as the concept of "privilege as a knowledge problem" here is a rather lengthy excerpt from The Constitution of Liberty:
It may be an exaggeration to assert, as a modern anthropologist has done, that "it is not man who controls culture but the other way around"; but it is useful to be reminded by him that "it is only our profound and comprehensive ignorance of the nature of culture that makes it possible for us to believe that we direct and control it." He suggests at least an important corrective to the intellectualist conception. His reminder will help us to achieve a truer image of the incessant interaction between our conscious striving for what our intellect pictures as achievable and the operations of the institutions, traditions, and habits which jointly often produce something very different from what we have aimed at.

There are two important respects in which the conscious knowledge which guides the individual's actions constitutes only part of the conditions which enable him to achieve his ends. There is the fact that man's mind itself is a product of the civilization in which he has grown up and that it is unaware of much of the experience which has shaped it - experience that assists it by being embodied in the habits, conventions, language, and moral beliefs which are part of that makeup. There is the further consideration that the knowledge which any individual mind consciously manipulates is only a small part of the knowledge which at any one time contributes to the success of his action. When we reflect on how much knowledge possessed by other people is an essential condition for the successful pursuit of our individual aims, the magnitude of our ignorance of the circumstances on which the results of our action depend appears simply staggering. Knowledge exists only as the knowledge of individuals. It is not much better than a metaphor to speak of the knowledge of society as a whole. The sum of the knowledge of all the individuals exists nowhere as an integrated whole. The great problem is how we can all profit from this knowledge, which exists only dispersed as the separate, partial, and sometimes conflicting beliefs of all men.

In other words, it is largely because civilization enables us constantly to profit from knowledge which we individually do not possess and because each individual's use of his particular knowledge may serve to assist others unknown to him in achieving their ends that men as members of civilized society can pursue their individual ends so much more successfully than they could alone. We know little of the particular facts to which the whole of social activity continuously adjusts itself in order to provide what we have learned to expect. We know even less of the forces which bring about this adjustment by appropriately co-ordinating individual activity. And our attitude, when we discover how little we know of what makes us co-operate, is, on the whole, one of resentment rather than of wonder or curiosity. Much of our occasional impetuous desire to smash the whole entangling machinery of civilization is due to this inability of man to understand what he is doing.

(End of section 1 of chapter 2.)
The concept of silent privilege is grounded in our inability to understand all of the ways in which the attitudes and norms in our society affect not just concrete outcomes, but how we interpret (and shape) the world.* We can be advantaged in ways beyond those granted to us explicitly by the state, but it's hard to see them unless we experience the uglier consequences of our institutions. We ought to be troubled not only by privilege awarded by the state, but also by that which is unintended and undesigned.

Deliberately granted privilege is low-hanging fruit, but it's not the only way that we hold back one another's potential.  Humility when it comes to understanding how different individuals experience and are impacted by the complex web of institutions we've built (legal and otherwise) is key if we want to avoid overstepping our bounds when creating a society where our sense of justice doesn't stir within us a willingness to allow the state to intervene.

Which brings me to the second part of my response: If this form of privilege might be partly to blame for allowing the expansion of the predatory state, what can we do about it? Designing a solution, after all, is not very Hayekian. More importantly, a wholesale redesign of our interactions with one another is doomed to fail. But that doesn't mean there's nothing we can do.

How the world changes is important. Established morals and norms evolve slowly in a process we can't understand or predict the outcomes of by competing with new ideas. Contradictory as it seems, pushing for the changes we believe to be beneficial is part of that unplanned evolution.

The most important thing we can do to achieve a freer world is to build institutions grounded in civil society rather than the government and let them out-compete antisocial and cynical planned government "solutions." Maybe those of us who believe this is important have pushed too far where we've suggested silent privilege might have implications for libertarianism. But that doesn't mean it's not important for liberty.

We don't have to wait for someone to start building this, we just have to start living it. "Checking our privileges" is another way of saying "Remembering that our knowledge is incomplete." We can do it, and if we do it's a step in the right direction.

*I wonder: How much is the anger felt by so many libertarians when it's suggested they consider their privilege part of our natural tendency to push back against that lack of understanding that Hayek references?

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Privilege, tolerance and a free society

If you spend all your time trying to reform the state, what will you have built to replace it with when it collapses?
Isaac Morehouse posted this on his Facebook wall this morning, which on my newsfeed put it in middle of various reactions to a recent article about privilege as a knowledge problem. The article suggests that because our experiences are limited - like our knowledge - we should be aware that they may leave us prone to lack empathy and understanding for people in circumstances different than our own.

This got me thinking.

Privilege, in this sense, is not a synonym for "desirable" or "successful," but acknowledges that in a given societal context, some people are more likely to succeed. Privilege emerges in a given society in the same way that certain companies become dominant in the market given a certain set of rules. No one ought to feel guilt because they occupy a position of privilege any more than they ought to feel guilt about being lucky or wealthy, so long as they have not rigged the game - something accomplished most easily through force.

Privilege is not only context-specific but also pervasive. Consider the following:
A prison in which all of the cell doors are locked, but the outside doors are open. It is normally staffed and filled with normal inmates.
Without warning, the outside doors lock and the cell doors open.*

Chaos and violence won't necessarily ensue but things are definitely going to change. Power relationships and perceived freedom will shift with the reversal of privilege and transform the range of possible actions for any given person. It's likely to affect a lot of things in a lot of little ways and to make everyone aware of (dis)advantages they'd never consciously acknowledged. Most importantly, it's going to change who makes the rules and how those rules are made.

Power relationships and social stigmas are ripe for exploitation by the coercive machinery of the state. When they're ignored we miss opportunities to call out vested interests seeking to entrench their advantages and opportunities to protect the most vulnerable from coercion. When privilege skews the results enough, or runs unchecked/unacknowledged, it creates an excuse for the state to intervene and entrench power relationships in an attempt to correct them.

I went to bed thinking about this last night and woke up to find that two people had posted an article on "White Liberal Dude Privilege Syndrome" with two wildly different reactions - one thought it was a cool example of introspective thinking, while the other thought it was so pathetic it was representative of why the Left can't be taken seriously. Articles like this act as a litmus test of our ability to separate positive claims about power relationships from normative claims about what they imply - something we must learn to do if we want to engage in meaningful discussion about how many oppressive regulations become so widely acceptable.

As individuals, libertarians who practice the inward-looking exercise of acknowledging privilege ought only to concern themselves with fostering understanding (and through that, respect and tolerance) for individuals' choices given the societal pressures and challenges they face.

But by encouraging a culture that acknowledges privilege, we can promote the same humility that ought to stop us from trying to plan one another's lives in the market in order to help discourage the idea that we can understand our social environment well enough to successfully manipulate it. In doing so, we take one more tool away from planners and lay an important part of the foundation for a tolerant and free society. We build something more lasting than any state.

[*The prison scenario is at least a play on Sarah Skwire's example of "a businessman walking through a bad neighbourhood alone at night" reversing privilege, and possibly wholly her idea. Either way, I think it's neat.]