In her book, The Perils of "Privilege": Why Injustice Can't Be Solved By Accusing Others of Advantage, Phoebe Maltz Bovy examines the rise of the word "privilege" and its potency in political and social discourse. The book, published this year by St. Martin's Press, is the basis for the author's interview with Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer.
Toronto, July 29, 2016
In May 2016, I turned in a revised manuscript for The Perils of “Privilege." It’s a mere two months later, as I finish going through copy edits. Not a long time, under normal circumstances, but the past couple months have been anything but. As I write this Afterword, Donald Trump has recently accepted the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency; when this book appears, there may be a President Trump. Even if (as I hope) Hillary Clinton is elected, the success of her opponent’s hate-filled message revealed that much of the electorate endorses that hate, or at least finds it tolerable. Nativist ideas long limited to the extreme right have suddenly become mainstream in America and beyond. The June 2016 Brexit—the United Kingdom’s startling vote to leave the European Union—marked the abrupt beginning of a new era.
There’s a sense in which Trumpism can be interpreted as a reaction to the “privilege” framework. Absent any further context, one might guess that the constant drumbeat against “political correctness” at the 2016 Republican National Convention was merely white working-class frustration. Frustration, that is, at an elite culture in which “white” has, all too often, become a euphemism for “privileged.” Alas, I think that would be way too generous an interpretation. In the 2016 presidential campaign, “white working class” has emerged as a dog whistle. It now refers not just to the plights of those who actually meet that description (such as: layoffs, income inequality, and cultural elitism—all of which also impact the non- white working class, as well as working-class women, who don’t seem to register in this narrative), but also to racist, sexist resentment experienced by many white American men across the socioeconomic spectrum.
What if Trump’s appeal isn’t (just) that he gives the impression of caring about overlooked communities in Appalachia, but that he confers victimhood status to great swaths of the population that aren’t actually victims of anything?
Trumpism isn’t about weaving poor and working-class white men back into discussions of socioeconomic inequality. It’s about declaring whiteness and maleness forms of marginalization. The problem with the “privilege” approach, remember, isn’t that it offers an incorrect assessment of who falls where. The approach’s messiness surfaces when its use is imagined to extend beyond description. The way to counter “privilege” isn’t to maintain the framework, while using it to offer up a plainly inaccurate description of the social structure. Yet that’s precisely what Trump fans have done.
Frustratingly, the relativism inherent to the “privilege” approach makes the left wary of speaking out against Trumpist bigotry. To denounce sexism and white supremacy—not inadvertent microaggressions on Tumblr, but overt declarations from a major party’s presidential nominee—now comes across as snobbish and condescending. It’s no longer socially acceptable to criticize racism or sexism without affixing a point-weakening disclaimer about the legitimate cultural and economic resentments of Trump’s white male supporters. Trumpism subverts “political correctness,” such that it’s now politically incorrect to reject Donald Trump. It’s thus more urgent than ever for those concerned about systemic injustice to find alternatives to the “privilege” approach. Addressing unconscious bigotry—never the most effective strategy—is altogether hopeless against the conscious variety. And it’s the conscious one we’re now up against.
From The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage by Phoebe Maltz Bovy. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
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