A leading British newspaper was forced to check its callousness this week when readers objected to the best example yet of how “privilege” discourse has spun out of control.
Understanding The Guardian’s error in judgment requires some background information. Thirty years ago, when the feminist academic Peggy McIntosh published White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, she hoped the book would spur readers to self-reflection, enhancing their capacity for empathy and compassion. “What I believe is that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life,” she once commented. “We’re all put ahead and behind by the circumstances of our birth. We all have a combination of both. And it changes minute by minute, depending on where we are.”
Her ideas spread through academia and beyond. Like many, I’ve found value in them and endorse the project of reflecting on one’s unearned advantages. Alas, the privilege framework has long since been corrupted in popular discourse.
With the rise of social media, where nothing spreads faster than pretexts for treating others cruelly while performing righteousness, privilege has been twisted into an accusation, or worse, a rhetorical tool to diminish or dismiss the pain of others—as though unearned advantage voids a person’s claims to sympathy.
As those modes gain footholds in journalism, many outlets have published ill-considered claims that promote reductive, essentialist beliefs about race and gender.
Last year, for example, I noticed a striking sentence in a New Yorker article about the actor Ben Affleck, who’d announced his divorce after a decade of marriage. Naomi Fry observed that he appeared despondent. “Affleck’s was the kind of middle-aged-white-male sadness that the Internet loves to mock,” she wrote, “a mocking that depends, simultaneously, on a complete rejection of this sadness, as well as a hedging identification with it.” How was “white-male sadness” at the dissolution of a marriage presumptively different from what a woman of color, say, might feel?
That brings us back to The Guardian, which went even further in twisting a concept intended to increase compassion and empathy to achieve the opposite.
The occasion was the publication of former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s memoirs. Many Americans will be unaware of the conservative politician’s family life. His first child, Ivan Reginald Ian, was born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. The little boy required intense medical care for his entire life. He died at 6.
What ordeal could be more harrowing for a parent than watching a child suffer all his life before dying prematurely? Yet The Guardian, a left-wing newspaper, diminished the gravity of this event:
Mr. Cameron has known pain and failure in his life, but it has always been limited failure and privileged pain. The miseries of boarding school at seven are entirely real and for some people emotionally crippling but they come with an assurance that only important people can suffer that way. Even his experience of the NHS, which looked after his severely disabled son, has been that of the better functioning and better funded parts of the system.
That no parent of a dead child would be comforted at all by this “privilege” clarifies the editorial’s absurdity.
To its credit, the newspaper quickly apologized and amended the editorial. Its editors are usually more careful, and I do not write to pile on. But it’s worth considering what led to the error, so that others might avoid repeating it.
The Guardian editorial illustrates how the privilege framework, or rather its perversion, can cause people to lose sight of their shared humanity. Suffering and grief are universal––and that awful burden can unite us. But like any framework that divides people into different categories, especially along fraught lines such as race, gender, ideology, and class, the concept of privilege is vulnerable to tribal power-seeking and othering. Sadism and cruelty inevitably follow.
Those who invoke the privilege framework need not abandon it entirely due to such abuses, but they should better understand its perils and how to guard against them.