Checking privilege

There’s recently been a bit of fuss in the news over a series of poster campaigns in British Columbia and Ontario challenging the notion of certain groups having a special social privilege. If you are male, able-bodied (“physically and mentally,” though I’m not sure what being mentally able-bodied means), Christian, a Canadian citizen at birth, heterosexual, or (most damning of all) white, then you are privileged, defined as having “unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group.” For some reason being rich or coming from a wealthy family isn’t included, though I would have thought it mattered more than the rest of the markers combined. In any event, to become aware of your own level of privilege is considered a good thing, not because it becomes a source of shame or guilt, as unavoidable as that seems, but because it will lead to awareness and allow you to join in building “a more just and inclusive world.”

I’m a member of almost all of the aforementioned “dominant social groups.” And I’m aware of the fact that I’m better off in many (though not all) ways for being so. But what of it? I didn’t choose being any of these things, and I couldn’t not be any of them now without extreme difficulty. So what follows from this awareness?

In one poster a picture of Superintendent of Schools Teresa Downs appears alongside a quote: “I have unfairly benefitted from the colour of my skin. White privilege is unacceptable.” If this isn’t just empty virtue signaling, then what is Teresa Downs going to do about the unfair and unacceptable benefits she has received? Is she going to resign? Or does building a more just and inclusive world only mean getting other people to make restitution for your sins? I think it’s safe to assume the latter.

Luckily, this kind of rhetoric tends to go through cycles. Tom Wolfe satirized it in a pair of essays in 1970, later collected in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. In the mid-1990s radical chic became political correctness and hit another peak. It then went into remission but has since come back again. I’ve written about this before here, and my own sense is that we’ve entered into the late, silly stage of the current phase, which has resulted in the rise of such prominent anti-PC warriors as Donald Trump and Jordan Peterson. It seems the two sides depend on one another. Whatever results from all the sound and fury, I doubt it will be a more just and inclusive world.

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