Privilege and Its Limits

boundaries-2After the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, a lot of talking heads said that the people deserved what they got because they knew the storm was coming but didn’t evacuate. What a lot of them didn’t realize is that many of the people didn’t have the means to leave, or anywhere to go if they did.

We’re often blind to our own advantages. Discussing privilege is necessary and important. Having someone point out your privilege is like having someone point out your blind spots. It provides context and, hopefully, compassion as we learn to walk in someone else’s shoes.

When the talking heads criticized the folks hurt by the hurricane, they were really just dismissing them out of hand, which is an important aspect of othering. When we dismiss others, we deny them any possible reasons or causes for their actions; if they behave differently than us, it’s because they’re just deficient.

The context of our actions matters, and discussing privilege can open up our eyes to the way people work.

A friend of mine just told me a story. He’s second generation Irish American and one day he was complaining to his dad about the Taliban. (And I complain about them too, before you get the wrong idea).

His dad said, “You love your grandpa, right?”


“You know he was a member of the IRA, right? And that they’re considered a terrorist organization?”

“Yeah…. oh.”

The point wasn’t that terrorism is good. The point was that it’s not a hobby engaged in by people who are just randomly wicked. It’s something people do when they’re at the end of their rope and don’t see any other option for change. It’s the weapon of the disempowered. This doesn’t mean we just allow it, either, but it may change the way we respond to it and, more importantly, the ways we try to prevent it before it gets to that point.

In morality, context matters. I’ve heard the following analogy often when discussing magick, but hopefully not so often that it’s become a cliché. Magick is like water. You can fill a tub with water to wash a baby or to drown a baby, but the water remains the same. It isn’t good or evil, but what you do with it can be. So too, in morality, we can have identical actions (drawing a bath) but the context will determine whether or not that’s a good thing to do.

Context doesn’t determine principles; it determines application of principles.

I’ve noticed a trend recently and it’s been disturbing me. I mentioned in my last article that I was accused of being privileged in an online discussion. I’m the first one to say that when you’re accused of privilege, the first thing to do is not to defend yourself, but to listen.

I did listen. I really didn’t want to. And there were some parts where I did learn something. But ultimately I think the accuser was off track. Not because I’m not privileged, because of course I am. But because it wasn’t relevant.

Here’s the backstory (and I wish I had gotten screenshots so I could share some of it with identifiers blurred out). A feminist had posted an article saying that the foundations of feminism also suggest and support veganism. When it was posted to Facebook it generated hundreds of comments, both in support and opposition. Some commentors said that asking people to become vegan was an example of privilege and elitism. They cited a lot of reasons, some of them interesting to think about, but none really relevant to the issue at hand.

I’m going to stop myself before this article becomes a second part to my previous article, “Feeling Like an Oppressor.” I’m tempted to get into a rehash and say that these kind of arguments miss the fundamental point (in this case, animal rights) because they are more about defending our status as good people than actually addressing whether or not the proposal (we should go vegan) is a good one. But I’ll leave it at that since I already made that point.

If you will, imagine with me a day in the United States’ past. A white Southern slaveowner speaks with a Northern abolitionist. The abolitionist suggests that owning slaves isn’t a moral thing to do.

“Easy for you to say,” the Southern gentleman replies. Oh yeah, in this scenario they talk like modern Americans. “The North mostly runs on manufacturing. Your livelihood isn’t threatened by this idea. You’re speaking from a place of privilege.”

And that’s true as far as it goes. The Northerner probably has more freedom to even think about the issue because his job isn’t directly dependent on slavery. If he gets his way, a lot of people in the South will lose their livelihoods. But it should happen anyway. The manufacturer’s privilege is irrelevant, and the danger to slaveowners’ livelihoods, while regrettable, is also irrelevant.

What the slaveowner isn’t considering is his own position of privilege in that he legally owns someone. The people in bondage don’t owe their servitude no matter how much someone else needs it. The point he’s missing probably sounds completely obvious to people living now, but it didn’t in his time.

Northerners didn’t tend toward an abolitionist position because they were inherently better. They had a different culture with different pressures and needs and that gave them a different vantage point. And a big selling point was that the Emancipation Proclamation was strategically advantageous in the war. So though mutual issues of privilege were important to discuss, abolition of slavery is a fundamental moral principle.

I’m going to repeat my previous claim: Context doesn’t determine principles; it determines application of principles. It would take a heck of a context to make slavery seem like the best choice.

I remember a few discussions I was involved in. One centered around GMO foods. I’m not going to give my opinion on GMOs or organic food because that’s not the point. But some friends were advocating an organic diet and someone else, also a loved one, started to talk about the benefits that fast-growing GMO crops have for developing countries that don’t have enough food. I can’t comment to that because I haven’t researched it, but it has nothing to do with what we, as Americans, should eat if we have a better option. Eating as well as possible I think is a reasonable goal to seek, and doesn’t depend much on context. What that diet actually winds up looking like is heavily dependent on context. A statement like, “Try to eat organic if it’s feasible,” is not an elitist statement; it’s an opinion about diet and health.

Otherwise, we might as well call clean drinking water elitist, rather than a goal for all people.

Circumcision, in areas without access/knowledge about condoms and hygiene, can help prevent some STIs. But in the developed Western world, condoms and hygiene are sufficient and make circumcision wholly unnecessary. So “don’t do this particular surgery” isn’t a rule that can be made universal without context, but “don’t perform unnecessary surgery without someone’s consent” is closer to a universal-izable statement.

So when I was accused of privilege because I was advocating veganism, I could see somewhat of where they were coming from. I have access to all kinds of food, access to health and nutrition information, and so on. I’m reasonably healthy and, if I want, I have enough money to splurge on things like vegan meats and cheeses. As a human being I can thrive on a vegan diet; a cat probably can’t.

Some of the people I talked to said they lived in a food desert where vegan food wasn’t available. They said they didn’t have the time or money to cook that way. And it was brought up that some people are severely allergic to many different types of vegetables. I could address several of these things individually, though that doesn’t address the accusation of privilege in and of itself. Food deserts probably still have some amount of produce you can eat. If you’re allergic to most vegetables, adding in meat isn’t going to add anything healthful to your diet unless you are really eating almost nothing else but meat and it’s that or starvation. Otherwise, there’s nothing in it you need. And beans tend to be cheaper than most meats. I could also have said that the problem with food deserts isn’t vegans expecting too much; the problem is economic injustice that sticks people in that kind of situation.

Beyond any of that, what I wanted them to realize is that they, too, were coming from a place of privilege. The privilege of a modern American, even an extremely poor one, is to be able to literally say to another sentient being, “I want to eat your body parts so you don’t get to have them anymore.”

Veganism isn’t a diet. It’s the principle that we don’t get to harm others or impose our will on them. I would add “even if we think we need to” but I might be taking a license there.

To bring up privilege in that context isn’t morally relevant if veganism, like abolition of slavery, is a fundamental moral issue. If you don’t think it’s a fundamental issue, then that’s the discussion we need to be having.

Context matters somewhat. I’m not going to go preach veganism to a lion because they aren’t in a situation to do things differently. I’m not going to go talk about it to members of a poor fishing village on the west coast of Africa. Besides, they’re barely catching any fish anymore because people in the Western world ate them all. That’s a relevant place to bring up privilege.

To the lady who claimed a vegan diet would put her in a coma, I said that if she had exhausted all her food options, and gotten as much help for her obviously serious medical condition as she could get, I couldn’t fault her for doing what she needed to do to stay healthy. Just as I don’t fault Inuit for doing what they can with what’s available. It’s not a perfect world and sometimes good options aren’t available. But of course she’d done none of those things. She simply didn’t agree that animal rights was an important moral issue, and instead of discussing that she used privilege as a smokescreen to turn it back on me.

Privilege should be a way to open us up to compassion, and to see the ways that we might be oppressing others or benefiting from that oppression. It can also help in understanding people’s situations and motivations in order to best reach them/help them/influence the world.

When used wrong, it’s another way of making morality about the actor rather than the acted-upon. It sends the message that activists can’t work against oppression if there is some minority of people invested in that oppression. It’s an excuse to not care, to ignore the consequences of one’s actions, to exempt oneself. It diffuses responsibility onto others with more privilege than oneself, while also tying their hands because the privileged should never make universal moral assertions.

It becomes a “who’s qualified to have a moral stance” competition. It’s almost always an excuse and a distraction.

Taken to an extreme, can any sort of behavior be acceptable so long as the perpetrator is also oppressed ? No; this particular smokescreen usually only gets pulled out to combat concerns that are generally seen as trivial, or nice but not actually morally important.

This kind of thing cheapens the concept of privilege and it really stops conversations in their tracks. The conversation can’t progress if the real disagreement is over a fundamental issue, but false privilege is invoked as a veil, or as a guardpost to say who is and isn’t allowed to have an opinion.

Bringing up privilege should be an eye-opener. Please don’t use it as a weapon.

3 thoughts on “Privilege and Its Limits

  1. Corvus (Corvi) Black

    I could write an entire essay on why this blog post is so wonderful. There are too many good nuggets of wisdom to focus on. I’ll just say this: The opinions you shared may not have fallen on deaf ears. This person’s accusation of privilege may very well have been because the alternative was to admit something uncomfortable within themselves. People who don’t care are indifferent, they aren’t defensive.

  2. isaturnine

    The best answers if veganism is denounced, by a person from the same society/environment as the vegan criticized, as merely an use of a privilege?

    “Then why do YOU not exercise it?”
    “I think having such privilege makes me responsible to consider exercising it.”

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