[A long time ago, I promised various skeptical friends that I would write a post on the idea of 'privilege', something about which I have had grave doubts for some time. Unfortunately life and work got in the way, and the post remained unwritten. However, I then made the same undertaking to various classical liberal friends, controversy about the Women in Secularism conference blew up, and I simply had to get my backside into gear. As you'll no doubt note, I've written it in the form of a legal advice. This is for two reasons. (1) Lawyers have to give fair play to the other side, which is why I have quoted the two best discussions of privilege I could find, and tried to be as clear and reasonable as possible; (2) Lawyers have to be firm but polite, not only to the other side, but to their clients. This sometimes means having to find the right way to tell a person something that he or she does not wish to hear. I do not claim to have always and everywhere achieved that, but I have sought to drain some of the fulminating anger out of the issue -- very often, part of the lawyer's role is to keep clients out of court.
One final point: I am neither a philosopher nor an economist, but I have relied on research by one of each: this post is something of a potted summary. I have very deliberately chosen not to link to their work, for the simple reason that many people on both sides of this issue will perceive them as compromised in some way by their existing views. If it is any consolation, one is widely perceived as 'left', and the other as 'right'. I don't think those labels are very meaningful, but there you go.]
Hume, Smith, and Wollstonecraft LLP
Edinburgh, London, Glasgow, and Oxford
30 St Mary Axe
City of London
25 May 2013
Dear Ms Skeptica Femina,
RE: The utility of feminist conceptions of privilege in skeptical organisations and debates
Many thanks for visiting our offices on 18 May expressing your concerns with Mr Ronald Lindsay’s opening address to the Second Women in Secularism Conference, delivered the previous day. Please find enclosed our advice in this matter. While we have tried to address the core issues in some depth and as clearly as possible, there are places where this advice is of necessity incomplete. This is because there seem to be large empirical differences between the United Kingdom and the United States when it comes to what actually constitutes ‘privilege’. This is a British advice; our sister firm in New York – Paine, de Cleyre, and Anthony LLP – may provide different advice based on local conditions.
Our first observation is one primarily of protocol and etiquette, and is separable from any discussion of privilege. That is, it is our view that Mr Lindsay chose the wrong moment and event in order to express equivocal views about aspects of feminism. Debrett’s advises a Master of Ceremonies or Opening Speaker to be welcoming, hospitable, and — if possible — witty. Debrett’s also recognises that the latter can be difficult — and we have all experienced the Best Man’s speech gone horribly wrong because the humour falls flat. In that context, we advise that humour is best avoided unless one is actually funny. That means Mr Lindsay should have avoided passages like the following:
Or would you? I know that I’ve had some conversations in which the claim has been made there is no significant division among true feminists. There may be people who call themselves feminists who sharply disagree with the correct understanding of feminism, but they’re just fake feminists. Worse, some of them are sister-punishers.
This, however, does not mean that Mr Lindsay’s observations and criticisms were necessarily in error. It just means that they were delivered at the wrong time, and in the wrong place.
The definition of privilege
Traditionally, privilege was a special entitlement to an immunity granted by the state or another authority to an individual, either by birth or on a conditional basis. It could be revoked in certain circumstances. In modern democratic states, a privilege is conditional and granted only after birth. By contrast, a legal right is an inherent, irrevocable entitlement held by all citizens or all human beings from the moment of birth.
Etymologically, a privilege (privilegium in Roman law) means ‘private law’, or a rule relating to a specific individual or institution. In Roman times, an individual could be made immune from conscription, or paying taxes, or giving evidence. Most of these privileges (which persisted in different forms in many societies) were swept away by the Scottish Enlightenment and the French Revolution. A few, however, remain. A very important privilege that we have as lawyers is legal professional privilege, which means in certain defined circumstances, we cannot be forced to divulge — to anyone — the details of our dealings with clients.
However, privilege in feminist discussions had moved far from its Roman law origins and is now routinely applied to groups and the idea of ‘group entitlements’. There are two particularly useful discussions available, the first (in the midst of an extensive discussion that we have found helpful in preparing this advice) defines privilege like this:
Male privilege is a set of privileges that are given to men as a class due to their institutional power in relation to women as a class. While every man experiences privilege differently due to his own individual position in the social hierarchy, every man, by virtue of being read as male by society, benefits from male privilege.
An earlier comment in the same discussion provides elucidation:
Since social status is conferred in many different ways — everything from race to geography to class — all people are both privileged and non-privileged in certain aspects of their life. Furthermore, since dynamics of social status are highly dependent on situation, a person can benefit from privilege in one situation while not benefiting from it in another. It is also possible to have a situation in which a person simultaneously is the beneficiary of privilege while also being the recipient of discrimination in an area which they do not benefit from privilege.
It is our view that this comment is significant and contains important claims that are often ignored in discussions of privilege.
The second discussion does not use the word ‘privilege’ at all, instead outlining the concept using computer games of the World of Warcraft type. It has the merit of genuine candour and is well written — its author is a successful writer:
Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?
Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.
This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.
The effect, then, of these definitions is to delimit a term where the ‘privileges’ that were once accorded to certain individuals, or Roman citizens, or people with Keys to the City, or the Catholic Church — or which are now accorded to lawyers when it comes to one aspect of the law of evidence, and which always required explicit enactment by a competent authority (like parliament) — are unconsciously enjoyed by large groups of people, mostly males.
The effect of this definition in practice
Research by our clerks and trainees indicates that a number of beliefs and practices flow from this definition. They include the following:
1. There is a hierarchy of most advantaged > least advantaged that can be established without detailed information about the individuals involved in any given debate. Often the only known detail is that some of the participants are male, and others female. Males (especially if white) are always at or near the top of the hierarchy, while women are not always at the bottom: black people are sometimes placed there. Little attention is paid to class or cultural capital, probably because many of the discussants are Americans.
2. One’s lived experience as a member of an ‘oppressed’ or ‘disadvantaged’ group confers special knowledge or ‘insider’ information, in much the same way as a trader can go short on a stock if he or she knows that a particular company is about to experience financial difficulties.
3. Members of oppressed or disadvantaged groups — even very large ones, like ‘all women’ — have a commonality of interests.
4. The hierarchy that flows from (1) above — and largely developed in the United States — can be uncritically applied to the United Kingdom.
The problem of privilege
Clearly, (1) and (4) are related, so we deal with them together. We then consider the other effects separately.
Britain has the lowest social mobility in the OECD, controlling for both race and gender. Race and gender are relatively unimportant: in fact, they are so unimportant that women (until the average age of first childbirth) in Britain have now opened a statistically significant gender wage gap on men. If a woman is lesbian or chooses not to have children, the wage advantage persists. Despite repeated claims that austerity has hit women hardest, men are its primary victims, and this is added to a systemic decline in male employment rates and wages over the last 25 years.
We have deliberately used large data sets here, in part to reflect the way ‘privilege’ is used in debates: if being a member of a given group means certain characteristics can be assumed on the basis of one’s membership, then in Britain, to be a middle-class, childless, gay woman confers a significant wage advantage, statistically speaking. Of course, income isn’t everything, but it is an important indication of one’s relative position in British society, at least when compared to other people in equally large data sets.
These studies concern employment and income (apart from the OECD social mobility study). They do not take account of other aspects of British society of crucial importance when one considers who has power and privilege in these Islands: Did you go to Oxbridge? Where did you go to school? Are you from the North? Do you have a Home Counties or Edinburgh accent, as opposed to a Hull or Glasgow accent?
To that end, our advice is that if the concept of ‘privilege’ is to have any utility, Americans (and others) must exercise great care when applying their understanding of it to Britain generally or British women in particular. It is quite possible that none or very little of the understanding behind it is empirically verifiable.
In markets, inside information is destructive, which is why there are laws against insider trading. It is also why the LIBOR scandal undermined further the already weakened public confidence in the global banking system. However, the trader who knows that Company X is a week away from an awful annual report knows that inside information because he learned it from an external source. He does not know it because there is something inherent in his lived experience.
The problem with making claims that there is a knowledge advantage to be had from lived experience as a member of an oppressed group is threefold.
1. It may not be true.
2. It assumes that other people (regardless of their backgrounds) have no imagination or empathy.
3. It may be that structural privilege (in Britain: Oxbridge, public school, membership of the professions) confers a knowledge advantage that is greater than any knowledge advantage conferred by the experience of oppression.
Consider, for example, education, which is an outgrowth of (3): many of our beliefs about education and its importance are based on the idea that knowing more and being well-informed about the world around us means that we will be more capable, more advantaged, better able to make wise decisions about ourselves and others. That is why there is a civil service exam, and why we licence doctors and lawyers. Indeed, it may be that the broad education that confers cultural capital and ‘privilege’ — at least in Britain — is of more knowledge value than any experience of oppression. Bertrand Russell, on visiting Soviet Russia for the first time (and rapidly becoming disillusioned with it) made the following observation:
I am infinitely unhappy in this atmosphere – stifled by its utilitarianism, its indifference to love and beauty and the life of impulse. I cannot give that importance to man’s merely animal needs that is given here by those in power. No doubt that is because I have not spent half my life in hunger and want, as many of them have. But do hunger and want necessarily bring wisdom? Do they make men more, or less, capable of conceiving the ideal society that should be the inspiration of every reformer? I cannot avoid the belief that they narrow the horizon more than they enlarge it.
Obviously enough, if (2) were true, the whole of imaginative literature would be ruled impossible tout court. Writers and artists trade on their ability to imagine themselves into the positions of people unlike themselves. It is true that empathising with someone unlike oneself is difficult, but just because something is hard does not mean it is impossible, otherwise George Eliot and Margaret Atwood and J.M. Coetzee could not exist.
(1) is most serious of all. If you claim that there really are ‘ways of knowing’ peculiar to the experience of being a member of an oppressed or disadvantaged group — independently inaccessible to people who are not members of that group — then you are denying everyone else the opportunity to test your knowledge claims empirically. This is dangerously close to making your claims an article of faith, and is characteristic of organised religion. While we are aware that not all skeptics are atheists — indeed, this has been pointed out to us repeatedly — it is our submission that an unwillingness to submit truth claims to empirical testing is antithetical to the aims of skeptical organisations.
Commonality of interests
People are different, a trite but nonetheless demonstrable reality. This means that individuals cannot be reduced to group characteristics, and any comment that begins ‘men do…’ or ‘women have…’ or ‘blacks are…’ must have appended to it the words ‘statistically speaking’. What is likely to be true of 1000 people or even 100 is unlikely to be true of the person one encounters in the checkout queue at Marks & Spencer, no matter how many measurable characteristics he or she has in common with the group about which commonality of interest claims are being made.
Outside statistical evidence, it is unlikely that there is enough that unites all women in order to ensure their political interests intersect, even in a limited way. That is why Margaret Thatcher was a Conservative Prime Minister who supported abortion rights, while Dilma Rousseff is a Socialist President who opposes abortion rights, and why women — like men — express political views that fall across the spectrum. To suggest — as some feminists do — that women like Thatcher or Rousseff (on the basis of their views on, say, economics or abortion) do not understand that they are oppressed as women is to make the extraordinary claim that even the most capable and powerful women do not know their own minds.
In our view, feminism as a group of related philosophies and political practices is immensely valuable and important, but the argument from privilege — especially as applied to claims about knowledge and inside information — is weak and does not do the philosophy and political movement credit. It is particularly unhelpful in skeptical organisations, which have an independent mission that turns on the empirical testing of truth claims. While — like all community organisations, charitable bodies, and the like — skeptical organisations like the CFI are prone to error and rudeness, it is also clear that they are committed to ideas ultimately derived from the scientific method. As we say in the law, arguments must be ‘put to the proof’.
If you have any further queries or concerns, do not hesitate to contact us at one of our UK offices; if your concern relates to the United States, then please — as suggested earlier — direct your enquiries to our sister firm in New York.