Wednesday, October 22, 2014


One of the problems with American English is its imprecision, a trait which is exacerbated by, among other things, our habit of looking to obtain people's attention through a certain amount of exaggeration, if not hyperbole.

When I was growing up, the term "privileged" meant that more or less the rules were different for different people, and they tended to favor the privileged at the expense of others. Consider the plight of Japanese-Americans interned during the Second World War. A significant amount of their property was expropriated by whites in the communities that they had been removed from and for a long time this wasn't considered unjustified theft. Or, to use an example with which I am more personally acquainted, in my freshman year of college, a football player cut in line in front of another student in the cafeteria. When she complained, the football player struck her hard enough to knock her unconscious. He was never disciplined - at a school that otherwise allowed for fairly draconian punishments for infractions such as missing classes too often. This is what I understood to be "privileged" - there were literally, if not formally, two (or more) sets rules in play. But now that "privilege" has entered the broad public discourse, the definition has expanded.

There are many different ways to define and conceptualize privilege, but one that makes sense for me (as a person of privilege) is that privilege is the freedom to not notice difference.Taste Privilege and GamerGate
Now, this sometimes irks me, but I understand the expansion of the concept, especially as it pertains to social justice circles. But it's still hard for me to understand the current definition of privilege as anything other than "Person A isn't as miserable in their life as Person B is in theirs, and that's unfair." Which to be sure, it a legitimate way of understanding it. It doesn't work that well for me, but hey, I'm old. But I'm also willing to be hip to the times, and use the language as other people use it.

But I do think that the older understanding of what it means to be privileged is useful, and something that should be preserved. Because being able to punch someone out without consequences is really something very different than simply not needing to care that what works for you doesn't always work for others. So, we'll just have to find a new word for it. "Exempt" strikes me as a useful term, because it really gets to the heart of things. Some people are, for whatever reason, exempt from the rules that the rest of us have to live with. And those exemptions are very helpful to them, as I suspect that the football player, whether he appreciated it or not, benefited a good deal from not being expelled from school as the rest of us had been told that the rules dictated.

In the end, I realize, I'm in the minority. For many people all levels of privilege are effectively the same, and all are to be stamped out. Which is all well and good. But when it's all a single amorphous mass, it's hard to see progress being made. And the fact that the egregious behaviors that privilege once encompassed are now being frowned upon matters. We should speak in a way that allows us to see that.

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