Written in 2016, with the nomination of Donald Trump showing up in the epilogue as a late addition during the editing process, The Perils of Privilege is almost a time capsule full of things from before so much changed. The preoccupations of people in 2015 are recognizable – it was only seven years ago – but four years of Trump and two years of pandemic have happened. #metoo happened. George Floyd’s murder and all that came after it happened.
So reading it is a little strange because it is concerned with a lot of the things we are concerned with now, but the stakes feel different. Callouts over privilege, which probably felt pretty harsh at the time, seem more mild in light of the shifts in language and expectations. I don’t want to make too much of this. “Exiting the Vampire Castle” had been published two years before, and levels some of the same critiques, so it’s not like we’re in some Planet of the Apes situation here. Just … plenty has changed.
So, what’s it about?
Basically, it’s about callouts over privilege and how they are generally not helpful and in fact may serve to reinforce or deepen inequality by turning concern over privilege into a matter of intra-elite competition that effectively dead-ends any discussion about meaningful change by encouraging a sort of moralistic solipsism and flattening everyone into have/have-not categories that dismiss any material concerns that aren’t reflective of the most dire human privation as unworthy of consideration.
I can hear backs stiffening. Maltz Bovy is careful to preempt a few challenges from her left flank:
“I’m definitely not arguing—as some others have been of late—that the shaming of bigotry has become as dangerous as bigotry itself. This book is not an attempt to silence or stifle activism, social-media or otherwise. I’m not interested in telling people who’ve experienced discrimination that their belief that they’ve been oppressed is surely in their heads, or in dismissing arguments simply because they’ve been expressed in privilege-theory terms. There are times when “privilege” is effective; those tend to be when the term is used by people whose own identities actually match up with the one they’re advocating for, and who are using ‘privilege’ to illustrate their experience. It tends to be less effective, if not all-out detrimental, when used on behalf of theoretical marginalized people, who get invented as a way of winning a point in some argument.”
That out of the way, though, she spends the book surveying the interactions of YPIS (“your privilege is showing”) culture with assorted other political movements or social questions, discussing YPIS as a framework and assessing it for its actual utility, of which she does not perceive much, and its potential harm, which she both spots in the moment she was writing and shows some prescience over in what became the Trump era.
In terms of 2015, she calls out its bad effects on feminism both as a matter of weakening women’s concerns:
“Women speaking their truths on what used to be quaintly known as women’s issues must now tack on references to the possibility that other, less privileged women will not relate to their problems. Awareness disclaimers, in this context, are pleas to the reader to not take the author’s concerns too seriously, because other women, the author insists, have it worse.”
… and as a platform useful to misogynists:
”…the people most vocally riled/threatened/whatever by white women/White Ladies/whatever, and the ones with the most power, are male sexists (who aren’t especially keen on nonwhite ladies, either), not, say, working-class transwomen of color unconcerned with whether white female CEOs are getting enough quality time with their 2.5 kids. And the White Lady? Not always privileged, not always even white. A rhetorical strategy that can sometimes serve a purpose within the confines of internal activist debates falls apart upon reaching a broader audience. And with the Internet, there aren’t so many ‘confines’ to speak of. Thanks to the privilege framework, it’s possible—no matter who you are, or why you’re doing so—to bash women and be given the benefit of the doubt. Well done, privilege framework. Well played.”
On the flattening, essentializing nature of “privilege discourse”:
“The main problem with fashionable notions of allyship (that is, of privilege awareness) isn’t that its proponents are just as bad as bigots. Rather, it’s that privilege awareness has made it more difficult for baseline-well-meaning men, white people, etc., to treat members of marginalized groups as people, and not as anthropomorphized discussion points.”
“There’s always this underlying assumption that a show by someone who isn’t a white man is, in and of itself, a political gesture, and must, to be consistent, follow through with impeccable politics. This places an extra burden on already-marginalized performers, and produces too much think-piece-mirroring entertainment.”
On the way the YPIS framework is reflective of a sort of upside-down and curdled misuse of intersectional thinking:
“The privilege framework always fails when two underdogs face off. Take the parallel questions of gay male misogyny and homophobia among straight women. Both exist—but is the answer to decide who’s more privileged, a gay man or a straight woman, and declare one of the two bigotries inherently impossible? According to the rules of ‘privilege,’ though, that’s the only way.”
On YPIS culture as a general-purpose cudgel:
”‘Privilege’ is best understood not as a real trait, but as a construction. Anyone can be ‘privileged’ if it suits someone else’s argument. There’s no wealth or income threshold for ‘privileged.’ It doesn’t require membership in the One Percent, or even the top 50 percent. And anyone can, with proper rhetorical flourish, play the role of the implicitly underprivileged. To call out another person’s white privilege, you yourself can be white. And to call out class privilege, you don’t need to demonstrate that you yourself aren’t a J.Crew-wearing Whole Foods shopper. The trick is simply to announce that this other person is those things, and to do so in a tone that suggests that you go around in a potato sack and subsist on lentils (or better yet—because lentils suggest cultural capital—McDonald’s). YPIS is about constructing an underdog stance. It’s about making as if you’re craning your neck to look (and punch) up, regardless of where you’re actually situated.”
… and on YPIS as an impediment to solidarity and collective action:
“Why, precisely, would rendering all hierarchies transparent lead to these hierarchies’ disappearance? Why, indeed, wouldn’t it just lead to those at the bottom of each despairing, while encouraging those at the top to view their unearned advantages as that much more precious? This implicit, but implausible, step after the awareness epiphany is, at its essence, my issue with ‘privilege.’ Constantly reminding everyone of where they fall … why would such candor lead to empathy? Why wouldn’t a society where systemic injustices are front and center in everyone’s mind at all times only serve make interactions between men and women, blacks and whites, rich and poor, that much more fraught, inhibiting the development of everyday social and professional bonds?”
… and with a point most recently raised by a New York City public defender in the wake of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial:
“Built into ‘privilege’ is the idea that the normal state of affairs is for things to be going terribly. This assumption emerged as a necessary corrective to the idea that it’s ‘normal’ to be rich, white, able-bodied, and so forth, but has wound up—as tends to happen with ‘privilege’—as overcorrection. It can seem as if the desired goal is for everyone to be oppressed, rather than for all to be free from oppression. Is it a problem that white killers are captured alive by police? That white drug addicts appear in the media as real people with a medical condition? Or is the problem that black killers and drug addicts, respectively, don’t get that treatment? It seems right to use ‘privilege’ if your point is that some people do indeed have it too easy. That is, after all, what ‘privilege’ implies, which is why it’s such an odd fit for cases where the point being made is that the world is just for some and unjust for others. Calling justice ‘privilege’ is certainly a way of highlighting that not all experience it. The problem is that it also implies that no one should.”
On YPIS culture as a demonstrated way to get peoples’ behavior to move backwards:
“A 2015 study showed that white people prompted to ponder ‘white privilege’ wind up exaggerating their own disadvantages in other areas. Is this defensiveness evidence that white people should be further educated in their privilege, or maybe that an entirely different angle is needed?”
And on YPIS culture as a matter of elite status signaling, and expensive schools that mention anti-racism not as a moral good, but as a matter of social competency rich people should learn to avoid being canceled:
“Global society, 21st-century skills: These are buzzwords for the international capitalism the students of these schools are being trained to lead. Far from being educated to dismantle privilege, they’re being schooled to perpetuate and preside over it.”
As I noted, most of the book was written while Trump was merely a Republican primary candidate. But she anticipated the ways in which the privilege framework would be weaponized and turned back around:
“Frustratingly, the relativism inherent to the ‘privilege’ approach makes the left wary of speaking out against Trumpist bigotry. To denounce sexism and white supremacy—not inadvertent microaggressions on Tumblr, but overt declarations from a major party’s presidential nominee—now comes across as snobbish and condescending. It’s no longer socially acceptable to criticize racism or sexism without affixing a point-weakening disclaimer about the legitimate cultural and economic resentments of Trump’s white male supporters. Trumpism subverts ‘political correctness,’ such that it’s now politically incorrect to reject Donald Trump. It’s thus more urgent than ever for those concerned about systemic injustice to find alternatives to the ‘privilege’ approach. Addressing unconscious bigotry—never the most effective strategy—is altogether hopeless against the conscious variety. And it’s the conscious one we’re now up against.”
So, what are her alternatives?
“Less awareness. Or, rather, we should hang onto awareness in the numbers sense. By all means, be aware if your company is favoring white men, or if the university you’re in charge of is only admitting billionaires’ kids. Be aware if you’re a reporter and your news publication is featuring only elites and their travails. Be aware, as a person—as a citizen, if you prefer—of what’s going on in the world, in your locale. However, that’s a different, and fully external, sort of awareness. It’s not about looking into our own navels and contemplating why we may act in ways that support discrimination. Indeed, given that members of marginalized groups often internalize bigotry against them, the whole surely-you-think-X-because-of-who-you-are assumption is flawed.”
”… return to the anti-prejudice framework of yore, but with intersectionality this time around. There’s no reason that an –ism approach (racism, sexism, anti-Semitism) can’t be used to describe forms of bigotry that weren’t much discussed until recently. (Yes, ‘transphobia’ sounds jargony [good example of how much has changed in six years -mph] and I’m sure the National Review finds the very thought hilarious, but anti-trans discrimination is a real concern.) Nor is there any reason one would need to present society in terms of privilege in order to acknowledge the unique struggles of those facing more than one form of systemic discrimination. Speaking of prejudice rather than privilege doesn’t fix the call-out issue, but it’s a way of addressing injustice that doesn’t end up inaccurately categorizing huge swaths of humanity under the haves umbrella. It avoids the inevitable confusion when someone white and wealthy apologizes for what is ultimately not just white privilege.”
”… shift back toward the macro, away from the micro, where aggressions are concerned. That doesn’t mean mirroring the problems of “privilege” and responding to specific, but relatively minor, complaints by pointing out that things could be worse. Rather, it means looking into editorial strategies and social-media approaches that don’t involve digging for digging’s sake. The emphasis on micro gives the false impression that the macro problems are done. [emphasis mine] That racism these days consists merely of pop stars culturally appropriating, or of Princeton students finding building names problematic. Even when (as with the building names) those speaking out are right about the merits, the disproportionate coverage these issues tend to get makes it seem as if the Left, as a whole, has its priorities wrong.”
On the above point, I want to hasten to repeat that this book was written six years ago. I think our focus was torn to the macro with the awareness George Floyd’s murder generated.
“Enough with the gaffe story already. The aspect of ‘PC’ I fully support is where it’s no longer acceptable to be casually bigoted in polite society. Yet the fifty aggregated think pieces that appear every time a celebrity says something that could be interpreted as problematic (a quote that will reliably, with context, appear less so if at all) haven’t actually moved things forward. All that they’ve done is turn the person-accused-of-bigotry into a sympathetic figure.”
“A complete and utter (and here I will, for once, get word police-y) halt on use of ‘violence’ to describe things that are not, in fact, violence. Shootings, sexual assaults: violence. Cultural appropriation? Tweets of questionable tone? Not violence. This rhetoric, and its cousins (‘rape culture’ for discussions of billboards of women in lingerie, ‘white supremacy’ for casual racism in the you-all-look-alike vein) …”
“Rethink the concept of the ‘ally.’ Scrap it, or better yet, restrict it to the people who are full-time dedicating themselves to a cause that doesn’t line up with their identity. (Unless it’s Rachel Dolezal. If you’re posing as a member of the group you’re trying to help, you’re in your own special category.) What we can do without is the category of a ‘woke’ layperson. The default should be human decency. Not some sort of hyperawareness where everyone is magically in on what might offend everyone else. Just don’t be overtly racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory. It’s that simple.”
“Keep social justice as a means to an end, not the end in itself. While the ‘I don’t see color’-type approach clearly fails, so, too, has the hyperawareness reaction. The goal needs to be recognizing the humanity of all, which means remembering that life isn’t just about structural oppression and the feelings it inspires. Too much awareness from haves winds up becoming exhausting for have-nots, who would like their hurt to be acknowledged, but who would also like to be seen as just people, people who experience joy and heartbreak and annoyance that the café Wi-Fi is down. [emphasis mine]”
and finally, most importantly from my perspective:
“Understand that the haves want to remain in power, and that their enlightenment is not, in fact, the road to justice. Yes, one microaggression is avoided when a prep-school senior remembers not to mention his family’s estate in Saint-Tropez. Yet his choice to cultivate sensitivity doesn’t in any way change the social structure that allows his family to have a second (or tenth) home while his interlocutor can barely make rent on a first. Ostentatious self-awareness has become a way of signaling status in its own right.”
This is an important book to me in the same way Racecraft was. Being of the left, but wanting to critically examine left tendencies, is sort of a tough gig because socially we are dug in and extreme polarization is real.
Critical analysis of left shortcomings as a process of sharpening arguments, improving tactics, and exposing blindspots – not as a tool to further intra-left conflict – isn’t super easy to come by because people don’t have much appetite for it. Worse, among the “heterodox left” you can sense mounting reaction that will only support the backlash we’re already experiencing via the CRT moral panic and other developments. I think she does an admirable job of keeping her eye on her feminist, antiracist values while critiquing YPIS culture.
It’s also not lost on me that she cites Freddie de Boer and a few other socialist/materialist left writers throughout, because it’s the socialist left – not the centrist Democratic left – most willing to keep driving the conversation to materialist concerns. The centrist Democratic left has largely decided to treat YPIS culture and the social justice left broadly as a management problem to solve and energy to harness as a means to support its post-ideological, neoliberal politics.
The one issue I had throughout came down to style and context. A lot of the YPIS discourse she documents happens online. She cites a parade of now defunct blogs and websites, some of which I remember with a lot of annoyance, and it all reads a little breathlessly, perhaps because the book is not about people doing things, it’s about people saying or signifying things. The moments where she touches back down from flying over the treetops of YPIS discourse to make a grounded assertion come as a relief, then it’s back up to the swirling gyre of signification, narcissism, and navel-gazing. It can be a little much, especially if you’re already familiar with the general contours of the discourse and don’t need a lot of reinforcing citations to understand the critique.
Anyhow, yes: Strongly recommended. I share a number of her concerns and appreciate the depth and detail she brings to her analysis.
The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage by Phoebe Maltz Bovy 📚