What is ‘Privilege’? Where Does it Come From?

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I began to hear the term “invisible backpack of white male privilege” in the 1990s. As I understood it then it was an effort to raise awareness about the fact that white, male Americans start off on better footing than women and minorities. That seemed like a positive effort. We could all stand to be more aware of our advantages.

However as the years went on, with that concept established in the public psyche, what came next was the weaponization of it. Basically that if you’re part of a privileged group, you don’t get to have an opinion about matters of race, class, sexuality or gender. You have to be quiet, listen to critical theorists and internalize what they tell you.

I had a problem with this, even then. I grew up being told that we lived in an egalitarian society, and that this meant fairness. But critical theorists have a special definition of fairness which they say is informed by historical atrocities, such as the transatlantic slave trade.

Did you know most American college students believe that slavery was an American invention? That it never existed before in history until white European settlers came up with it, and that it ended when abolished by the North following the civil war?

That doesn’t surprise me, because that was the only education I ever received about the history of slavery. 100% of the blame was placed on European colonialists, including the American subset of that group. We were never taught that in fact, slavery was widely practiced by native Africans before any European ever set foot there. That in fact, European slave traders bought their slaves from native African slave traders.

It’s also the case that slavery was not as widespread in the US as most college students believe. At the peak of American slavery, only 4.9% of Americans owned slaves. It was a practice reserved for the wealthy, and not nearly as commonplace as slave ownership was in say, ancient Rome or Egypt.

This does not justify it obviously, but it begins to raise the question of why 100% of blame is placed on European colonialists. Especially when you factor in that slavery was practiced around the world throughout history, by every culture…until American abolitionists put a stop to it, following the example of the French and the British before them.

Nobody in all of history has done more to forcibly put a stop to slavery, around the world. No other people in history fought to free their own slaves, voluntarily, and for moral reasons. So why are we the focus of 100% of blame for all slavery ever to occur? Why do US college students emerge from their history courses wrongly believing that slavery is a white, American invention?

I would wager that it’s because if you accused Saudi Arabia of utilizing slave labor, which they do in the present day, they would either deny it or acknowledge it with a shrug. Likewise with other parts of the middle east, India, Africa and China. You cannot use guilt to get what you want from people who don’t feel guilty.

White Americans however are in love with guilt. I suspect that’s mostly attributable to their multi-century Christian background and the Christian focus on critical self-examination. Guilt has become a status symbol and a way to communicate to your peers that you’re a compassionate person.

But besides being very easily made to feel guilty, white Americans are also very wealthy. That’s a critical connection to understand. If you are a member of a group that has been thoroughly dominated by another group, and you cannot overcome them by violent means, you will look for other ways to get what you want from them. An achilles heel, if there is one to be found. In this case, it’s guilt.

Guilt is in large part why the US is the #1 most generous giver of aid in the world. Where do you suppose most of that aid goes to? How long have we been giving so generously, and will it ever be enough?

But I digress. Slavery is the main reason furnished by critical theorists as to why equality should not mean across the board fairness for all groups. Their contention is that the historical crimes of white males in particular mean that we are excluded from that standard of fairness and will have to accept a great many handicaps under the new system.

Other reasons include the Spanish conquest of South America and the conquest of North America by European settlers. Key word being conquest, because up until very recently in human history, conquest was considered glorious.

The impression US college students get is that only white colonialists ever sought to conquer. That the world before their reign of terror was a beautiful, peaceful place with all PoC living harmoniously with one another, their cultures never engaging in warfare or seeking to expand their territory.

Of course this is nonsense. You could only believe this if your history education only focused on America and didn’t extend back much further than a few centuries. Anybody who received a comprehensive education on the ancient world knows that war, slavery and expansionism have always existed.

It was always a free for all of unapologetic competition, every culture imposing itself to the greatest extent possible with the power and resources at its command. To conquer was seen as glorious. The histories of ancient nations lionized and trumpeted their past conquests. Not one was ever relentlessly negative about their past. Not one ever sought to shame their ancestors for their victories.

When did we go from “glorious conquest” to “shameful historical atrocities” and why? Why, to this day, is only US history education like this? Go and try to shame the Japanese for the rape of Nanking. Will they fall on their knees, tearfully apologizing? Will you be able to get money from them for it?

Go and try to shame Turks for the genocide of the Armenians. Will they even admit that it happened, much less roast themselves alive in the flames of their own guilt? Will they give Armenians even a single lira in reparation? Not as of yet, the matter is still hotly debated to this day. They do not roll over and cry, pissing themselves in submission at the first accusation lobbed their way.

Go and try to shame the Islamic world for the historical and ongoing atrocities of Islam. They won’t apologize. Probably you won’t get halfway through the sentence before some brainwashed lily white western college student admonishes you as Satan McHitler for even bringing it up. Why are their brains like that? How did they get that way?

I hope I have illustrated how slanted US education is concerning slavery, colonialism and the historical conquests of European nations. It is viewed in isolation, lying by omission about the fact that every other culture was attempting to do the exact same thing. One group just got much, much better at it than everybody else.

That’s what this is really about, and it brings me to the matter of defining what privilege is and where it originates. This is a no-go zone for the sort of people looking to hold privilege over you as a means of silencing your voice in a debate, or getting something they want from you.

They would prefer that the concept of privilege remain unexamined except from a single narrow, ideologically approved angle. There is no quicker way to get on the bad side of a social justice warrior than to challenge them about the origin and meaning of privilege, in the way that they use the word.

Let’s say you had five large islands. You plop down a stable breeding population of perhaps 1,000 people on each of the islands. At first, they progress at more or less the same rate. But necessarily, because in the real world identical starting conditions do not reliably yield identical end results, differences begin to manifest.

Some islands will begin to pull ahead of the other islands. Why? Because each generation of parents naturally seeks to provide their offspring with a better life than they had, but some more effectively than others. Is that wrong? Is it sinister? Do they do that specifically in order to impoverish other families that don’t perform as well? Of course they don’t.

Because of the way in which accomplishments build upon each other in an exponential fashion, the islands which pulled ahead early on will enjoy a continued, accelerating advantage until there are large gaps between the islands in terms of how advanced they have become, their standard of living and so on.

The islands doing much better than the rest enjoy more privilege. The children born on those islands emerge from the womb into stable, safe, clean and productive conditions they of course played no part in creating, but which their parents helped to create for their benefit. So that they could have the best possible chance in life, right out of the gate.

Is that unfair? If you look at the children in isolation, it is. They did nothing to earn their advantages. But if you consider the toils of their parents, and of their grandparents to create those conditions for the sake of future generations, I don’t think that’s unfair at all.

So far our thought experiment has the islands competing in isolation from each other. As such it doesn’t acknowledge stuff like war, pillaging, slavery and so on. So let’s lift the hypothetical dividing walls between the islands and have them compete in a violent way.

The critical fact here is that it’s still competition. The islands with better technology and tactics will be more successful in conquest because they developed better weapons, sooner. Keep in mind every other island was trying to do the same thing, developing their own weapons and waging their own wars.

Only when one island comes out solidly on the top of the heap, dominating all the rest, does the whining begin. Islands whose populations were exactly as warlike, just less effective at it, suddenly become maudlin and moralizing. “What monsters you are” they cry, “to dominate us all like this! Truly you are the most evil people of all.”

Do you see what myopic nonsense that is? If conquest is so terrible and evil, why were they trying to do the same thing themselves, only condemning the practice once a clear winner emerged that they had no hope of toppling?

Privilege, then, is the result of successful competition.

Cultural competition, technological competition and military competition. Over time, some groups pull ahead of others because they are more effective in one or more of those areas. They do a better job on average of handing to the next generation a more prosperous and effective civilization than they inherited from their parents.

What is the cure for this? How do you prevent such disparities from forming, and growing more severe over time? Should parents who over-perform deliberately neglect their children, so that the children of parents who under-perform won’t be left behind?

There’s a great deal of focus today on income inequality. But for the most part it’s framed as if the wealthy robbed the poor, rather than creating more value and reaping the rewards. Poverty is also relative, such that if there are two groups and group B becomes wealthy much faster than group A, very soon their income is highly unequal. But is it because group B took anything from group A? Or because group A did not compete as effectively?

This is of course an oversimplification of the causes of income equality in the US. But if we are to discuss the underhanded advantages which the wealthy have pressed to the detriment of the poor, they’re only able to do so because they come from a long line of effective competitors. Their distant ancestors have not simply “always been rich” going back to the dawn of time.

Rather, their modern day advantages are the result of multigenerational successes built upon prior successes. Even if they got that way by ruthless means, that’s still a valid form of competition, and we must then explain why they were so much better at it than their victims. By now they’ve pulled so far ahead as to seem unfairly, monstrously powerful to the rest of us, but that’s always how it looks to the underdog, who never considers that he or she appears the same way to somebody worse off.

If somebody competes more effectively, why should they be ashamed of it? Why should they have to slow down and handicap themselves so that others can catch up, when everybody else is just trying to get ahead as well? Why should their success be held against them, except that it is politically useful to movements that resent the successful?

A great deal has also been said in recent years in condemnation of the 1%. That’s the wealthiest 1% in the US. How dare they be so disproportionately wealthy? They didn’t earn it, they were born into it, benefiting from advantages secured for them by the toil of their parents, or grandparents! They should have to share with the rest of us!

However, if you zoom out and take an international perspective, every American is in the global 1%. Do the Americans agitating for the wealthiest 1% of US citizens to share their wealth want to also share their wealth with the rest of the global human population?

Oh no, they say. That’s different. I’m not wealthy! I am a normal person. My standard of living is normal and is what everybody should be able to expect. I don’t even have enough for myself, to live the way that I want to. I cannot afford to share with everybody else on the planet!

But wealth is not binary, it’s a spectrum. Wealth and poverty are relative terms. People all along the spectrum between moderate and extreme wealth believe they have just enough to live the way they want to (or not enough), that their standard of living is the baseline by which quality of life is measured and that calling them “rich” is unfair hyperbole.

That’s not to say I don’t support basic income, for example. But let’s not pretend that it’s economic justice. It’s robbing the wealthy at the point of government guns so that they don’t pull so far ahead of everybody else that we’re destroyed.

This will hopefully reframe the conversation about privilege. Whenever that concept is invoked, it should be questioned. What is privilege, but the result of successful competition? Where does it come from, but the efforts of parents to provide a better life for their children than they had? What’s wrong with either of those, except that it makes ineffective competitors feel bad about themselves?

More take-away questions to ponder on your own time:

  1. What historical crime of white European colonialists was never committed by any other culture?
  2. Why was conquest admired right up until one group succeeded in dominating the rest?
  3. What other people in history abolished slavery at their own expense for moral reasons?
  4. What other people then went on a crusade to abolish slavery around the world?
  5. Why are these people the ones blamed by everybody for the historical practice of slavery?
  6. Why is the continued, modern day practice of slavery in Africa, China, India and the Middle East practically ignored by comparison?
  7. What is wrong with parents striving to provide their children with better lives than they had?
  8. How do you solve the problem of privilege without handicapping parents who overperform?
  9. What right does any nation which attempted conquest of its neighbors for centuries have to complain when it is conquered?
  10. Why, when European colonialists arrived in Africa/North America, did the natives not have comparably advanced weapons with which to defend themselves (even though both sides had the same amount of time to develop)?
  11. Who is teaching US college students such a slanted view of history, and for what ultimate purpose?

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