Saintly Thoughts

Privilege Alone, Power Alone

For the last couple of years or so a new word (or a very old word used in a new way) has arisen from out of the depths of the zeitgeist and made itself known: privilege.  It's not a bad word in and of itself.  In most contexts I had thought of it as a word implying a very good thing, such as when it is invoked to announce "it is a privilege to have known you" or "I had the privilege of being invited".  In these contexts it is akin to another good old word "honor" with which it has often been employed side by side to engender a sense of gentle humility, where the "privilege" and "honor" are not characteristics inherent in the speaker, but characteristics deriving from the treatment bestowed on the speaker by some third party.  How interesting then that in our modern parlance a "privilege" is some quality inherent in the person whether or not such is recognized by that person.  This is not to say that the usage is incorrect, for of course one could always refer to someone as "a very privileged person" pejoratively.  Still, the modern usage has a hard edge to it insofar as it evokes a sense of power that I'm not sure was always inherent in the definition.  For traditionally, to speak of someone as "privileged" in the negative sense almost necessarily carried with it a sense of moral softness; for privilege is akin to wealth and ease, and wealth and ease are not always to ones benefit.  And perhaps that is where the genius of the modern usage shows itself, for to bestow the concept of privilege upon another is to declare them at one and the same time the holder of a benefit which, from another point of view, turns out to be less than beneficial.

What intrigues me most about this modern usage is the inversion of the (declared) power principle.  That is, that the holder of privilege naturally and invariably owns a right of power which, by being named, loses some or all of its power.  For the privilege only exists insofar as it is tacitly rather than actually perceived by the holder of such privilege.  Thus the "un-privileged" assert their power over the privileged by bringing the power of privilege into the open, into the full light of day.  There is something very seductive about this, for it smacks of a sort of truth-telling perhaps most clearly imagined by the sciences.  That is, the scientist (by means of his subtle instruments and logical skills) wrests from nature the hidden truths underlying her processes and by this process, becomes master of her.  Just so the person who perceives the hidden privilege in another, hidden even to the person who is so privileged, understands the true secret machinations of the human mind and understands an esoteric principle of human interaction unknown to the common horde.  

But while not exactly false, I suspect that there is something else going on here.  It is a well known fact of human existence that power differentials always exist.  When I declare this a "fact" I am not suggesting that this logically must be so, but that historically we have never seen a situation in which this is not so.  That is what makes the language of calling out privilege so seductive, for it attempts to dredge up the power principle underlying a certain set of human interactions, negate the power principle, and by thus negating it put all persons on an equal footing.  This is the very definition of deconstruction and illustrates well the aims of this late 20th century theoretical construct.  And if it could in fact negate such power and banish it from the life of the body politic, then it would be a very good and useful thing.  Unfortunately, this is not what is being done, because it is not the nature of power to be so readily dismissed.  Power exists not upon the basis of some linguistic trick but upon the underlying threat of violence which underlies all human interaction.  Thomas Hobbes recognized this as the basis for equality (at least in a system which has no use for the gods) when he declared that all men were equal in that all men were mortal and could be killed by any one of their fellows.  And thus the greatest king is equal to the meanest beggar, for the beggar might always stick a knife in the king, and will do so if pushed to an extremity.  

And it is this pushing to an extremity that concerns me when it comes to this modern usage, for this is not some set quantity but is as variable as the individual human soul.  Bringing power to the forefront of our perception, even if that power is correctly named, always risks violence and ruin.  It is (perhaps) why complex human language and society developed in the first place, so that this power which underlies all that we do and all that we are might be buried and mediated under layers of linguistic complexity.  This is the true trick of language, not to make the source of power clearer, but more opaque, so that we might come at her obliquely and not risk the onslaught of the full force of her Medusa's gaze.  

What then of this modern usage, of this privilege?  Are we to simply ignore what truths might be inherent in this de-ontological critique?  I don't think that is necessary, but I do wish to suggest that, rather than using language as a means of exploiting underlying power differentials, we use it in the way most consonant with our humanity.  This is not the forum to go into what precisely that might be, but I promise you that it corresponds to the best aspects of the liberal tradition and Western society.