Friday, March 17, 2017

The Perils of "Privilege"

The Perils of "Privilege" by Phoebe Maltz Bovy
St. Martin's Press: 3/14/17
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250091208

The Perils of "Privilege": Why Injustice Can't Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage by Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a very highly recommended, blunt and well-documented discussion of the current social justice phenomena of accusing people of "Privilege" and the ever present insult to people "Your privilege is showing" or YPIS.
Author Maltz Bovy states that The Perils of "Privilege" is an argument against using the concept of privilege to understand and fight against injustice. "It is an attempt at taking a step back and asking whether the privilege-awareness project is a valuable one. And it’s my sense - with some caveats - that it’s been a disaster." "This is the biggest theoretical challenge to the privilege turn: An approach that’s ostensibly about achieving social justice winds up suggesting, or seeming to suggest, that everyone should be miserable. A further flaw: "Privilege" is based on an analogy, namely that other forms of unearned advantage are similar to, and as important as, wealth." It is all about sensitivities and tends to make far too much of minor problems and far too little of big ones.
Chapter 1 covers the online privilege conversation, a tangled accusatory atmosphere where it is easy to call out someone for YPIS, as I'm sure many people have observed. Chapter 2 looks at American high schools and universities who now regularly host privilege-awareness workshops and now Privilege Studies is an academic field." I know from personal experience that these workshops are presented in a wide variety of careers, including all public school employees and expanding to health care fields. Chapter 3 shows the "impact privilege theory has had on the arts and on cultural criticism. Books, movies, and TV shows are now evaluated in terms of privilege, to the exclusion of all other observations or reactions." Chapter 4 examines the effect and the presence of privilege on politics. Chapter 5 examines the use of privilege by the far right and the plight of the straight, white, middle-class male, among others.

This is an excellent, thought-provoking well-written look at privilege. Phoebe Maltz Bovy makes a plethora of thoughtful comments and provides well-documented examples. In many ways this book is over whelming because there is so much information and so many examples. It is information-dense. According to her calling out someone for YPIS harms more than it helps. It has become a way to bully people online, which has caused irreparable damage to its original use. As she succinctly states: "There is, of course, the even stronger case for checking the privilege of privilege checkers, namely that the people making these accusations tend to be fairly privileged themselves." I really agree with her that all of these accusations of YPIS terrify people that they’re losing the basic right to express themselves, their freedom of speech.

The first time I saw the accusation or thinly veiled insult of "your privilege is showing" was in a comment on a book review. I was rather taken aback that in order to disagree with what I assumed was a white male book reviewer based on his picture, the female commenting had to tell him YPIS. This was for a review on a novel, fiction. So, rather than saying you disagree and envisioned the characters another way, it made more sense to attack the reviewer's privileged status, which is really just a kind of trolling. Goodness.

Then there are the encounters with privilege-awareness-raising exercises. The questions require participants to disclose information, private information, that, perhaps, you don't really want made public to co-workers. However, if you chose to hide certain information then you are higher on the privileged scale. It becomes a dilemma. You certainly don't want to be near the front of the room with the well-educated, cis, white male, but how much do you really want to reveal about yourself or your background? 

A couple of quotes - and I had pages of them saved - that I'm including without comment:
"[P]olitical commentator Andrew Sullivan.... spelled out the Trump-and-privilege connection in a New York magazine piece that, while highly critical of Trump, sought to understand where his supporters were coming from: A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to 'check his privilege' by students at Ivy League colleges. Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain."

"Thanks to the privilege framework, it’s possible - no matter who you are, or why you’re doing so - to bash women and be given the benefit of the doubt. Well done, privilege framework. Well played."

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of St. Martin's Press.

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