f you wander onto any American college campus or into certain progressive corners of the Internet, you will quickly come across someone railing against “privilege.” Frequently preceded by the words “white” and “male,” privilege communicates the notion that certain people possess unearned and undeserved advantages in life for which they must atone. As a political weapon, the accusation of “privilege” can corrode reasoned debate because it empowers people to dismiss the merits of an argument based on the demographics of the arguer; a white person who wants to weigh in on urban policing and a man with unpopular ideas about campus sexual assault can be summarily written off as being too lucky to have any stake in such matters. What’s more, the opinions of those outside the “privileged” class are deemed credible and important—whatever their actual failings.
Conservative arguments against playing the privilege card are well known. But in The Perils of “Privilege”, Phoebe Maltz Bovy examines the notion of privilege from the left and finds it problematic for different reasons. Her critique is comprehensive; the book’s sources range from Twitter, to the archives of the author’s own blog, to the bowels of online comment threads on websites most readers never knew existed. Bovy, who writes for the Forward, has seemingly read every clickbait article or think piece on privilege—and, indeed, she has written a few of the latter herself. She argues that “privilege” fails to do what “privilege” advocates claim to want, namely to make people aware of the injustices from which they benefit. Instead, she says, the privilege paradigm harms many of the marginalized groups that it seeks to help.
The vague term “privilege,” she notes, conflates relatively common attributes (such as growing up in a two-parent home) with circumstances of immense affluence (such as inheriting a trust fund). This allows for “all basic rights and any bare minimum standard of living”—for example, living free from discrimination—to be recast as “luxurious advantages” so long as someone else does not possess them. The problem, as Bovy sees it, is this: The billionaire can freely admit that he has “too much” money and so can also acknowledge any unearned advantages he receives as a white man. By contrast, a white man working at Best Buy for an hourly wage does not see himself as rich, because he is not, and so will reject the privilege framework’s attempt to fuse his skin color and gender with actual riches. Bovy, therefore, recommends that liberals tone down the “privilege” rhetoric to achieve certain progressive aims, particularly the aim of refocusing public discourse on income inequality.
The book is strongest when Bovy shows how the modern concept of privilege harms the moderately marginalized and helps the extraordinarily wealthy, as in the college admissions process. It can be dangerous for an applicant’s essays to reveal his or her (mostly economic) privilege, but the truly affluent hire tutors who teach high-school students how to compose balanced personnel statements; only less well-off “upper-middle-class” kids make gauche mistakes that reveal their “wealth.” Rather than undermine economic disparities, concern for privilege thus reinforces them by creating a language that only the truly privileged are taught to speak and write. White feminist women, Bovy believes, are particularly harmed by the privilege ideology. Because they advocate a progressive cause—feminism—the left expects these women also to regularly acknowledge the privilege accorded to their skin color. And when one of these women forgets to check her privilege, critics pounce, shaming and silencing the offender.
In the end, Bovy doesn’t really explore the logical conclusions of her argument, which is that the privilege paradigm cheapens the fundamental rights it ostensibly seeks to vindicate. An African-American man deserves to live in a society without racism, to take an important example. Framing elementary civil rights as “privileges” devalues those rights altogether as mere indulgences. Yet despite acknowledging this criticism as “the biggest theoretical challenge to the privilege turn” in her introduction, Bovy provides it relatively little discussion thereafter.
Written on the eve of the 2017 presidential election, The Perils of “Privilege” might have provided a satisfying analysis of the Trump phenomenon or at least a sharp look at our class-focused election. Unfortunately, the book merely nods to the theory that some Trump voters resented being told that their skin color provides them with fabulous advantages when they live in decaying towns and cities where there is little opportunity. And even this Bovy quickly chides as “way too generous an interpretation.” As she sees it, Trump supporters embraced their own kind of privilege framework, demanding that coastal elites check their privilege whenever those elites legitimately criticized Trump-fueled bigotry. In her words, “once the privilege approach is used to support (and not just to explain) resentment, racism, and xenophobia, it has, it would seem, overstayed its welcome.” This left-leaning jujitsu obscures why some voters might have honestly resented America’s elites and consequently elected Trump as president.
Indeed, The Perils of “Privilege”’s largest failing is its refusal to ask more from true elites. While Bovy suggests that privilege rhetoric can foster introspection, she dismisses the idea that elites can or should engage in meaningful self-reflection about their own prosperity. She tells us to simply accept “that the haves want to remain in power” and that families such as the Bushes and the Kennedys will never give up their riches.
The error here is not that elites refuse to surrender wealth and embrace redistributive economics. The sounder critique of contemporary American elites would take into account their widespread abandonment of civic republicanism and their failure to acknowledge that with their great (yes) privilege comes a certain responsibility to society. No one embodies this virtue better than the Bushes, a clan of well-off patricians who dedicated their lives both to business and public service but never flaunted their money—in sharp contrast to Trump’s ostentatious penchant for gilt.
When elites strike the right balance between noblesse oblige and humility, Americans respect and admire them. Witness the universal acclaim for the aged President George H.W. Bush when he recently appeared at the Super Bowl and received genuinely spontaneous and enthusiastic applause. No one would deny that the 41st president benefited from great privilege, but he spent his life using the unique opportunities he possessed to give back to his country, from his military service in the Second World War to his many elected and appointed positions in government. Would that more elites willingly embrace their “privilege” and their capacity to contribute to the Republic.