Pliable Privilege, pt. 01

Posted: February 1, 2023 in Culture, Ethics, History, Philosophy, Politics
Tags: , , , , ,

Buzzwords circulating heavily in the public sphere these days include equality, equity, inclusion, representation, diversity, pluralism, multiculturalism, and privilege. How they are defined, understood, and implemented are contentious issues that never seem to resolve. Indeed, looking back on decade after decade of activism undertaken to address various social scourges, limited progress has been made, which amounts to tinkering around the edges. The underlying bigotry (opinion, motivation, activity) has never really been eradicated, though it may be diminished somewhat through attrition. Sexism and racism in particular (classics in an expanding universe of -isms) continue to rage despite surface features taking on salutary aspects. Continued activism use the buzzwords above (and others) as bludgeons to win rhetorical battles — frequently attacks on language itself through neologism, redefinition, and reclamation — without really addressing the stains on our souls that perpetuate problematic thinking (as though anyone ever had a lock on RightThink). Violence (application of actual force, not just mean or emphatic words) is the tool of choice deployed by those convinced their agenda is more important than general societal health and wellbeing. Is violence sometimes appropriate in pursuit of social justice? Yes, in some circumstances, probably so. Is this a call for violent protest? No.

Buzzwords stand in for what we may think we want as a society. But there’s built-in tension between competition and cooperation, or alternatively, individual and society (see the start of this multipart blog post) and all the social units that nest between. Each has its own desires (known in politics by the quaint term special interests), which don’t usually combine to form just societies despite mythology to that effect (e.g., the invisible hand). Rather, competition results in winners and losers even when the playing field is fair, which isn’t often. To address what is sometimes understood (or misunderstood, hard to know) as structural inequity, activists advocate privileging disenfranchised groups. Competence and merit are often sacrificed in the process. Various forms of criminal and sociopathic maneuvering also keep a sizeable portion of the population (the disenfranchised) in a perpetual and unnecessary state of desperation. That’s the class struggle.

So here’s my beef: if privilege (earned or unearned) is categorically bad because it’s been concentrated in a narrow class (who then position themselves to retain and/or grow it), why do activists seek to redistribute privilege by bestowing it on the downtrodden? Isn’t that a recipe for destroying ambition? If the game instead becomes about deploying one or more identifiers of oppression to claim privilege rather than working diligently to achieve a legitimate goal, such as acquiring skill or understanding, why bother to try hard? Shortcuts magically appear and inherent laziness is incentivized. Result: the emergent dynamic flattens valuable, nay necessary, competence hierarchies. In it’s communist formulation, social justice is achieved by making everyone equally precarious and miserable. Socialism fares somewhat better. Ideologues throughout history have wrecked societies (and their members) by redistributing or demolishing privilege forcibly while hypocritically retaining privilege for themselves. Ideology never seems to work out as theorized, though the current state of affairs (radical inequality) is arguably no more just.

More to unpack in further installments.


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