Wednesday, August 12, 2009


There are several words that have been so overused lately that they have been emptied of all content. The word "privilege" is one of them. Regardless of the topic under discussion, people fall over themselves trying to detect, confess and bemoan every kind of "privilege" they might claim to possess.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides the following definition of the word:

• noun 1 a special right, advantage, or immunity for a particular person or group.

2 an opportunity to do something regarded as a special honour: she had the privilege of giving the opening lecture.
3 the right to say or write something without the risk of punishment, especially in parliament.

Paradoxically, in today's usage the 1st and the 2nd definitions of the word are being applied to destroy the third. Simply put, when people want to prevent you from "saying or writing something without risk of punishment" (i.e. having and expressing an opinion), they tell you that your "privilege" disqualifies you from doing so.

To give an example, recently a reader has told me that I shouldn't have an opinion about Carleton University because of my own "educational privilege" (meaning that I went to a more prestigious school as an undergrad). Of course, I could respond in kind and turn the "privilege" argument against him. I could say that as an immigrant, I'm by definition less privileged than he could ever be, so he should refrain from expressing his opinions on my experiences. Maybe in response he could claim some other area where my privilege trumps his. And so on and so forth.

Of course, then we would be stuck at the point where nobody can have an opinion on anything. Everybody's experiences are different, so you can always excavate some "privilege" that your opponents possess and throw it back at them to silence their point of view.

In liberal circles, people often enjoy tracing every shadow of their own "privilege." They tend to announce the results of this search with a self-deprecation that often becomes self-congratulatory. Then, they engage in public exhibitions of being ashamed for all that privilege. Of course, if you look long enough, you can discover privilege in anything: race, class, gender, language, body type, long hair, short hair, and the list continues ad infinitum. They love confessing how they are still not doing enough to recognize their privilege and fill page after page, discussion after discussion with talk about privilege.

The reason for this is, of course, that "recognizing your privilege" frees them from a need to have an opinion. As a "privileged individual" you can never understand the reality of those who are less privileged. Having an opinion about that underprivileged reality is absolutely unacceptable. Nobody is ever underprivileged enough to afford to have an opinion.

For me, any use of the word "privilege" today equals the person's saying as loud and clear as possible: "I refuse to think, consider, and analyze and try to hide this refusal underneath empty verbiage."


donna darko said...

Lately, the words "privilege" and "intersectionality" just mean "Don't talk about sexism/feminism."

Clarissa said...

Even more than that. They often mean "don't talk about anything."

You are right about intersectionality. Thank you for the suggestion, I'll take it up in one of my future posts.

Laura said...

I do think that sometimes the word "privilege" is overused (even by me). But I also think that the concept of privilege and one's own privileges are worth examining and questioning. I do sometimes fall into that trap that since I am privileged in one way, I can't have an opinion about that. But lately, I've been trying to move away from that. I own the privilege that I have but refuse to let that stop me from having an opinion. Yes, I have white privilege, but I can still have an opinion about racism. But I also think it's important to examine the ways that our privilege prevents us from questioning our own complicity in systems of oppression.

Maybe I'm just one of those people who talks about privilege way too much. But I still think it's an important thing to examine. But it shouldn't get in the way of having an opinion about something. And I don't think people should be silenced because of their privilege.

Clarissa said...

Well said, Laura.