"Privilege" is not what it seems

published Aug 18, 2016, last modified Dec 28, 2021

What is privilege theory? Let's find out.

"Privilege" is not what it seems

Privilege is a Marxist new theory that explains why the bourgeoisie straight white cis Christian males have so much more money and power than the proletariat disadvantaged minorities.

According to the theory, people become capital owners well-off through class consciousness exploiting their own privilege against the proletariat disadvantaged minorities, who do not enjoy this class consciousness privilege.

This is bad, of course.

The solution to this badness — and the prescriptive conclusion of the theory — is to empower a Soviet worker social democratic party or other authority, which will collectivize eliminate capital privilege, so that the proletariat disadvantaged minorities can finally enjoy the wealth privilege that they have been traditionally denied by the bourgeoisie patriarchy.

OK, can you be serious about this?

Alright.  OK.  I was joking, but there's a bit of truth in that joke.

You may have guessed that I'm no fan of privilege theory.  However, I've never quite explained why.

It's time to explain why privilege theory is (a) delusional conspiracy theorizing (b) flat out baseless (c) dangerously immoral.

Let's begin.

When is "privilege" not a privilege?

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their own names.

Merriam-Webster tells us that privilege is:

  1. A right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others.
  2. A special opportunity to do something that makes you proud.
  3. The advantage that wealthy and powerful people have over other people in a society.

We'll strike out point #2 since that is clearly not what the term means in this context.  That leaves us with #1 and #3, noting first that these meanings are compatible with the colloquial use of the term (especially before the advent of privilege theory) and extracting the following elements:

  1. A privilege is a type of advantage; it is not a universal right everyone enjoys.
  2. This type of advantage is not for everyone; only certain people enjoy that advantage.
  3. Someone else bestows that advantage; it is not natural or the product of effort, like intelligence or strength.

So far, so good, right?

Is element #1 consistent with privilege theory?  Yes, it is.  Privilege theory claims that privileges are some sort of advantages or benefits.

Is element #2 consistent with it?  Yes, it is as well.  Privilege theory claims that some people enjoy advantages others do not.

It is #3 where we come to the alleged contribution of privilege theory.  Much like I did in my writeup about "wage slavery", #3 forces us to ask of privilege theory: if there is a beneficiary of a privilege, then who is its bestower?  By definition, it cannot be true that someone enjoys privilege not bestowed by anyone, as that would mean that someone enjoys an advantage that doesn't qualify as a privilege.  If privilege theory is to work, there must be a bestower.  This leaves us with two situations:

  1. The scholars and defenders of privilege theory have engaged in concept creep; they took the word "privilege" and repurposed it to mean "advantage" for no obvious reason.
  2. Those people have identified a privilege-bestowing person, group or analogue.

What happens if we assume #1?

Well, in that case, privilege theory means no more than "some people are born taller, others more intelligent, others are born in wealthy families".  There's nothing new about that, as we have known since time immemorial that humans are born and grow to have a panoply of advantages and disadvantages compared to one another.   In that case, "privilege theory" would be an observation of reality rather than a theory, and it would be an observation not about privilege, but about advantage.  More importantly, no prescription can be derived from a simple statement of fact like that.

But that's not the whole of privilege theory — it is merely an antecedent to its first premise.

So, for the purposes of this analysis, we must assume #2.

The bogeyman that props up privilege theory

Privilege theory academics knew they would face resistance popularizing privilege theory if they did not offer an answer to "who is the bestower of this privilege?".

To counter that, they proposed a bogeyman: the Patriarchy (but see below for an update).

This term is often defined as a social system in which males [and now cis people / whites / Christians / more] hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property.  It is central to the theory that access to these goods is a privilege which is controlled (or at least influenced) by the Patriarchy, and therefore the Patriarchy is intended to be the reason why there's so much difference in advantages and disadvantages that people in society enjoy.  Finally, according to most proponents of the theory, the Patriarchy is to be understood as a Very Bad Thing, whose end would be Very Good.

If you know any history, you probably know why I call it a bogeyman, because you noticed that this bogeyman has many common elements with prior art like Karl Marx's bourgeoisie and the anti-semites' Zionist Conspiracy:

  1. There is a group of people.
  2. That group of people is powerful because they enjoy many privileges.  Assorted examples:
    1. In the case of the Patriarchy, the blessed ones enjoy jobs more lucrative than the rest.
    2. In the case of the bourgeoisie, the blessed ones enjoy control of the capital extracted from others.
    3. In the case of the Zionist Conspiracy, the blessed ones enjoy control of international banking.
  3. That group bestows these privileges unto others they select, based on whether they belong to or serve the group.  This is bad / unfair.
  4. Very few people have witnessed the group's privileges being granted to others.  However, "everybody knows" that this group has privileges they deny to others.
  5. It is relatively easy to identify who they are by relying on external characteristics:
    1. Sometimes you can tell who is a man / white.  Men / whites obviously have male / white privilege.  Therefore they must be part of the Patriarchy.
    2. Sometimes you can tell who is wealthy.  Wealthy people are obviously bourgeois.  Therefore they must be part of the bourgeoisie.
    3. Sometimes you can tell who is Jewish.  Jews are obviously part of the Jewish race.  Therefore they must be part of the Zionist Conspiracy.
  6. When the bogeyman fails to explain some aspect of reality that its theory ought to have explained, ad-hoc pretexts are invoked or reality is denied:
    • The anti-semite studying the Holocaust must logically conclude that there is no such thing as a Jewish Zionist Conspiracy, but he can't, so he either denies six million murders or insists the dead were not benefactors of the Conspiracy.
    • The Marxist cannot explain why there are workers who amass capital and become capitalists themselves, but can't stop believing in class consciousness, so he insists that those workers had false consciousness.
    • The privilege theory defender can't explain why some women choose to stay at home instead of work at a business, or why so many women prefer nursing to computer programming, but he can't use the bogeyman to explain this choice, so he insists that the women have internalized misogyny.
  7. Being skeptical of the existence of such a group, or their alleged activities, makes the skeptic bad, an enemy, or a supporter of the group.
  8. Eliminating them or stopping their conspiracy is good and will make us all better off.

Those aren't the only parallels — much of the divisive Marxist language has been repurposed by privilege theorists, such as the use of the words "exploitation" and "oppression" — but this incomplete list of parallels should be enough to get a historic perspective.

A word about "unconscious bias" and other bogeymen

As you may have imagined, the conspiracy theory called "the Patriarchy" has overstayed its welcome and is no longer believable. Thus, peddlers of privilege theory are slowly replacing it with a new bogeyman: "unconscious bias". You'll note this new 'splanation for privilege theory shares many of the elements of its predecessor, right down to its unfalsifiability. Computing Forever brings us this recent discovery, in the form of a short video:

There are plenty of other concepts, sometimes quite sophisticated, that privilege theorists have invented to prop up the failures of their bogeyman — for example, we could analyze "intersectionality" in the same light — but the central point remains the same: "the Patriarchy" and "privilege" simply do not work as theories that explain anything reliably.

Thus we know that the purpose of the bogeyman is not explanatory, but rather to keep privilege theory unfalsifiable.

Privilege theory explains nothing about privileges

What do we call a theory that (a) explains nothing it purports to explain (b) is often in contradiction with concrete reality (c) proposes ad-hoc pretexts to explain away its failures (d) is effectively unfalsifiable?

We call it a great lie.

Here is the naked truth:

  1. There exist people who have advantages others do not have.  It is true that advantages are not uniformly distributed.  So its first premise is true.
  2. Lots of people enjoy advantages — some of them use their advantages, some of them don't.  Lots of people suffer disadvantages — some of them can't overcome them, some of them do.  But contrary to what privilege theory says, none of these phenomena are adequately explained by a group of people dishing out special privileges to anyone else based on bigoted criteria.  So its second premise is not even wrong — it's unfalsifiably so.

Privilege theory, like its predecessors, is an obscurantist edifice full of conspiracy theorizing and abstractions disconnected from concrete reality, all necessary simply because it assumes a premise which is clearly false.  There exist far better explanations for people developing and enjoying advantages than a conspiracy theory based on skin color, genital shape or sexual preference.  We do not need to invent a conspiracy to explain these facts, and we certainly do not need to invent a litany of pretexts when the conspiracy fails to do so.  Common sense suffices to know there is no grand conspiracy to keep "the disadvantageds" down.

Okay, so privilege theory is frivolous as a descriptive theory.  But perhaps it does serve us well as a prescriptive theory?

The hidden premises in privilege theory

Have you noticed that privilege theory, as commonly stated, is not actually a valid theory?

So far we've understood that the first premise of privilege theory is true — certain individuals enjoy certain advantages that others do not.  We've also understood the second premise to be a bald-faced lie — advantages in society are not distributed like the theory says they are. 

But even if we were to assume both premises to be true, the theory as stated would simply remain invalid.  You see, its conclusion cannot follow merely from premises 1 and 2 — there need to be more premises that mate descriptive premises 1 and 2 with the theory's conclusion, which is prescriptive.

It so happens that there is a tacit premise — or rather, a pair of premises — key to understand how privilege theorists arrive at their conclusion.

  • Premise 1: There exist people who enjoy some advantages others do not.
  • Premise 2: These advantaged are bestowed or denied like privileges to people by unfair and bigoted criteria.
  • Premise 3: It is a great wrong to give or deny advantages to others by unfair and bigoted criteria.
  • Premise 4: It is a great right to reverse this great wrong.
  • Conclusion: we must take away advantages from people who have advantages and give them to disadvantaged people.

Premises 3 and 4 happen to be necessary for privilege theory to be valid.  Formulated as such, if it is indeed true that some enjoy advantages, that those advantages are bestowed like privileges using bigoted criteria, and that it is wrong to privilege people in that manner, therefore the right thing to do is to counteract that privilege distribution system.

Now that we have a valid theory, we can finally ask the question: is privilege theory true?

Unfortunately, adding these missing premises doesn't cure the problems with privilege theory:

First of all, there is zero evidence to assert that it is wrong (at least enough to merit the punishment of premise #4) to share advantages to certain people on bigoted criteria, whether conspiratorially or not.  Is it wrong to give a construction job that involves loading containers by hand to a strong man over a weak woman?  No, it is not.  Is it wrong to deny a person in a wheelchair the privilege of running the 100m race in the Summer Olympics?  No, it isn't.  Like these examples, there are many counterexamples that show premise 3 to be flat out mistaken.

Last, and more importantly, even if premises 3 and 4 were in fact 100% true, the conclusion of privilege theory remains unsubstantiated.  Why is that?  Well, logically, if premise 2 is not true — that is, as we have already seen, there is in fact no conspiracy dishing out privileges based on bigoted distinctions — then by necessity, premises 3 and 4 are moot, and therefore, the conclusion just doesn't follow.

In other words: much like the Marxist and anti-semitic theories of yore, privilege theory is quite literally a baseless and unjustifiable sham.

the program of intentionally disadvantaging the alleged "members of the Patriarchal Conspiracy" is quite literally a baseless and unjustifiable sham.  Much like the Marxist and anti-semitic analogues of their time.

OK, so privilege theory won't work.  Can it tell us anything?

We can learn a lot from privilege theory, once the hidden premises are made explicit.

For example, it can tell us a lot about the behavior of its believers.  It explains everything about the bizarre, mean-spirited, bigoted behavior of the devout believers of privilege theory called "social justice warriors":

  1. It explains the demands of SJWs that whites / males / cisgendered folks be silenced, passed over for promotion, denied work, badmouthed, mistreated, and otherwise made worse off.
  2. It explains why they demand U.S. style affirmative action, whose alleged goal is to make disadvantaged people better off (in a zero-sum game that comes at the expense of everyone else).
  3. It explains why they demand that the people they perceive as "disadvantaged minorities" be treated as superior / given unearned advantages / free passes / spaces that segregate out anyone else.
  4. It explains why they rationalize their desires and behaviors through bigoted pretexts and motives.
  5. And it finally explains why SJWs are so keen on coercing institutions into enacting these favoritist behaviors. 

In summary, the theory is the explanation for the biased and bigoted behaviors and demands so characteristic of SJWism.  If they must right the great wrongs allegedly perpetrated by the "Patriarchal Conspiracy", it follows that they must act purposefully to disadvantage those they perceive as "members of the Patriarchal Conspiracy".  That is exactly how they act.

There's a delicious irony in all of this.  In fighting that great "Patriarchal Conspiracy", the SJWs' own actual behaviors and demands end up mirroring the evil they imagine from "the Patriarchy", sometimes quite literally.  So they often generate bizarro Opposite Day situations, like petitions for women-only buses, or job offers that exclude white people, or blacks-only meeting spaces, or different race-based standards for college acceptance.  In short, they support standards that literally demand and enforce unequal treatment on the basis of sexual preference, gender, race and other forms of bigotry.  That bigotry which we thought had been soundly put to rest, has been repurposed by the SJWs in their fight against their "monster under the bed".

Thus, we understand that things which ordinarily would be considered wrong, become virtuous in the mind of the SJW, because privilege theory provides the moral justification for them.  "Die cis scum" and demanding all men be shot?  No problem.  Giving college to a black man while denying it to the Chinese woman with higher SAT score?  No problem.  Having someone fired for an innocuous comment in passing?  Granted!  Slandering a white policeman who defended himself against a black assailant?  No problem.  Holding that assailant as a hero?  No problem!  Lashing out at those who point out the guilt of the assailant?  Sure, why not?  Insisting it's just for men to be raped?  No problem.  Defending false rape accusations from a woman?  No problem!  Participating in and rationalizing a deadly riot with the excuse that "they didn't give us enough money?  Of course!  Turning a blind eye to Islamic aggression against women?  Pfft, easy.  And so on and so forth.  These sorts of egregious wrongs keep being perpetrated by SJWs, because privilege theory justifies them.

In short: the SJWs become cartoons of that which they want to take down.

All of this could  have been predicted, merely from what privilege theory prescribes to its adherents.

Why should we care that privilege theory is a scam?

The short answer is: as we've seen from the behavior of SJWs, theories inform people's behavior, and this theory quite literally makes people crazy in the head.

Privilege theory isn't just false— it's also a toxic thing to believe and to teach.  It makes us all — disadvantaged people in particular — worse off and puts us at serious risk.

Here's a sample of the unconscionable beliefs that privilege theory instills in people's minds:

  1. It teaches folks an appealing but false cause for their problems and vicissitudes.  It's seductively easy to believe that others are to blame for one's own misfortunes, and that belief dooms the believer to never try to improve their lot.
  2. It teaches them that their problems are effectively outside of their control (short of a revolution or a "parental figure righting the scales").
  3. It makes them feel that they are stuck in a tribe of losers who will never see their lot improve (again, short of a revolution or other sort of power intervention).
  4. It teaches them to engage in bigoted reasoning and leap to wrong conclusions, such as believing "that guy over there is white, therefore he must not have had hardships", or "all white people are racist".
  5. It generates resentment and envy of others who have accomplishments, and to struggle to take those accomplishments away by force, instead of generating one's own accomplishments.
  6. It teaches them learned helplessness over the supposed lack of control over this outcome.
  7. It makes people believe that the only way out of their misfortune will come in the form of an authority punishing or stealing from others and favoring or giving to them.
  8. It teaches anyone who has some sort of advantage to feel guilty and ashamed for simply having that advantage, rather than embracing the advantage to live a better life or improve others' lots.
  9. It serves to rationalize the highly-destructive and deadly violence — violence whose very cause is hate and envy generated by privilege theory.

In short: when believed and taken as an article of faith, privilege theory creates demented individuals who are 100% hostile to facts, paranoid in their relationships with others, psychotic in how they interpret reality, and mean-spirited (even violent and destructive) in how they treat others.  And it couldn't be any other way.

Oh, about that Marxist connection — it isn't just a joke

Now, throughout this text I've been sort of alluding to how analogous privilege theory is to Marxist class consciousness theory.  I even opened the post with a joke about that.  Sadly, that joke was deadly serious.

Privilege theory is in fact more than just analogous to Marxist class consciousness theory — they actually have a common philosophical origin.  You see, the scholars who came up with privilege theory are in fact cultural Marxists — they are critical theorists who explicitly set out to apply Marxist class analysis to society.  Privilege theory is, therefore, one of the many bastard children of Marxism.  They knew what they were doing, they knew the evils that their ideology had caused, and they still resurrected that evil ideology in a different body.

With historical perspective to explain how deeply these evil ideas are intertwined, the truth is plain: we're talking about the stuff that causes literal violent revolutions.  History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes, and we know that tune already.  When the music stops playing, after the revolution is over, the party never ends with the underprivileged in power and happy.  On the contrary, the useful idiots are always the first to die.

The failed ideas of Marxism, and its bastard child cultural Marxism, keep coming back to haunt us.  Every time we cut one of the heads of the hydra, it regrows in a different shape.  I've decapitated this head.  Which head should we decapitate next?