Privilege. It denotes the idea that certain groups have historically been afforded undeserved societal favour due to immutable identity traits rather than merit. Activists argue that once the existent privilege is recognised, arrangements which operate to the detriment of non-privileged groups can be dismantled. This sounds progressive, it feels emancipatory, but reality demonstrates that the weaponisation of privilege is a force for amplified corrosion, rather than cohesion, within our society.
Recently, I stumbled across “#thinprivilege” while trawling through my Twitter feed. This concept and the ferocious discussion which ensued was emblematic of the threats a mismanaged use of privilege can pose to an appreciation of specificity and individuality.
“Thin privilege” was defined by Cora Harrington as “the ability to move through life without people insisting you need to be a smaller size”, as “societal discrimination and prejudice do not target you for being thin”. Now, nobody can deny the existence of challenges to those living on the larger side of life. However, her brazen use of privilege is deeply concerning and highly misplaced. And more importantly, it demonstrates integral deficiencies within modern liberalism.
It’s all too easy to reduce complex social structures and relationships to binaries. This approach appeals to people – it appeals to their need to belong and to combat the privileged “other”. Each individual is understood as being either privileged or not. Whether one is perceived as privileged rests upon fragile circular logic employed by the accusers. This approach does not concern itself with context or evidence. It relies on the attractiveness of homogenisation, as they define major cohorts of the population to underpin their often narrow and misguided worldview and argument.
This stereotyping is lazy and dangerous. The power to define and accuse is seemingly held by the non-privileged. There is a clear imbalance on social media of who can and cannot speak. And it is a clear threat to free speech. Indeed, all viewpoints that challenge or undermine arguments based on homogenisation are discredited as being from those who are “unable to face up to their privilege”.
Nevertheless, people on both sides of this binary find their uniqueness lost behind the identity provided by the particular characteristic in question. This raises other issues with privilege. Individuals are unique, their experiences are theirs and theirs alone. Someone can be privileged in one way, and not in another. So how can assessing issues through individual identity traits be useful? It ignores each person’s unique experiences and in many cases devalues the hard work and smart choices made to earn this so-called privilege.
Frankly, this obsession with victimhood must come to an end. Binaries and privilege have been used to rescind individual responsibility for particular people. Indeed, the dominant view on social media suggests that it is solely the responsibility of the supposed privileged to dismantle oppressive systems. Meanwhile, we rarely hear about the oppressed or their own accountability for the situation in question. We frame people as helpless and unable to exercise any agency. There always seems to be a structural reason why they cannot thrive.
This misuse of privilege blames society for poor lifestyle choices made by people who were most likely completely autonomous over their situations. Victimhood culture has discouraged independence and equality – it encourages paternalistic approaches which do not promote truly equitable relationships.
I am not in the business of debunking real and lived experiences of discrimination. Nor am I interested in denying the existence of privilege. Instead, I am concerned with the representation of inequity. How social injustices are framed will inevitably shape attempts to deconstruct them. Therefore, to form a more productive and equitable society, we must become less concerned with exactly who is privileged and by how much, and spend more time focused on what changes need to be made in order to improve the opportunities of the disadvantaged.
What is needed is a dual approach which inspires personal achievement and positive individual attitudes. One which encourages recognising structural inequalities, while inspiring individuals to better their own situations and refrain from dismissing the opinions of large cohorts of the population due to their visible identity.
Responsibility must be relished, rather than run from. Inequalities must be tackled, but not at the cost of individual liberty. After all, we have the power to shape our futures, victims do not.