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.


mike250 said...

our knowledge is ever expanding and contextual. it is good to be introspective enough to question how your "environment" has impacted you. It is also good to have the intellectual empathy in understanding the same in others. Rational people try to monitor themselves for such biases. the notion of privilege is more reasonable then people who dismiss it want to admit. the claim that life experiences often provide important perspective on various issues is a reasonable one to make. The problem comes when people overreach the information aspect of privilege and start using it as a justification for class-determined logic and guilt-inducing original sin.

mike250 said...

oh and you're point about context is very crucial and more often than not tends to be ignored when discussing aspects of privilege. well done on the article

Stephen Peterson said...

Excellent post. Hayek's description reminded me a lot of the fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias): the tendency to generalize single-instance observations of a person to a description of their character. For example, if we see a guy kick a vending machine for no apparent reason, we tend to think that he's "an angry person" rather than that (as we might understand if we were kicking the machine) there's a less overarching reason---perhaps it ate his money, or isn't dispensing, or he just missed the bus, or...

Behind the poor use of "check your privilege" (but how many important economic or political terms AREN'T poorly used?) there's a very useful nugget of truth.

mike250 said...

btw humility isn't a virtue and a pea for it is not a very good thing. I think it gets confused with honesty which is what we should be pleaing for,