A Utopian Delusion? A Critique on James A. Lindsay & Peter Boghossian’s ‘Privilege: The Left’s Original Sin’

A Utopian Delusion? A Critique on James A. Lindsay & Peter Boghossian’s ‘Privilege: The Left’s Original Sin’

In James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian’s article, Privilege: The Left’s Original Sin, the authors advance a case for the eradication of the concept of privilege. They argue that for many on the left the concept of privilege is akin to the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. Although the authors deal with privilege in relation to both male and white privilege, I’ll only be addressing it as it concerns white privilege in the US. In the authors’ words: ‘For many contemporary left-situated activists, privilege occupies the same role in a religion of contemporary identity politics. There is no greater sin than having been born an able-bodied, straight, white male who identifies as a man but isn’t deeply sorry for this utterly unintentional state of affairs’. Lindsay and Boghossian then evince a short list of some of the inequalities that have been demonstrated to exist within society between social groups, particularly between white and black Americans. These quantified and qualified inequalities include, but are not limited to: ‘Perceived worthiness for a bank loan [and] unequal treatment by legal authorities…’.

Notwithstanding problems with the authors’ analogy and their proposed solution to what they perceive as being the problematic nature of the concept of privilege, to which I shall return, I am in full agreement with them concerning their argument that some on the left have become utterly ridiculous about the extent and nature of privilege and racism (in the US). To these (loud) voices on the left, American society has made next to zero progress from the days of slavery, apartheid, and Jim Crow, contrary to observable reality. They see racism as an almost omnipotent supernatural force permeating every fabric of every society. They view all white people as being inherently racist, even those who actively contribute to the eradication of racism and the erosion of white privilege. They see white people as somehow hive-minded, plugged into an evil, conspiratorial cabal of super-powerful white supremacists who proactively plot the continued subjugation of minorities. Some even view science as part of this “racist conspiracy”. Students at a university in South Africa highlighted this curious brand of insanity in arguing to place ridiculous African magic on the same shelf as “racist, white science”, as if an obsession with identity politics can reverse gravity, evolution, or even alter the effects of tried and tested medicines.

The authors’ analogy to Original Sin, whilst sound in its application to some of the more absurd voices on the left, presents as a false analogy when applied to the majority of sounder opinions, for the properties of shame and guilt are absent. Further, Lindsay and Boghossian’s argument is nothing short of a reductio ad absurdum in relation to the existing discourse surrounding white privilege in general. White privilege is an observed social reality (in the US). It exists in white-majority countries to varying degrees, and numerous social scientists and commentators do not view it as something for white people to feel guilty about, so to reduce privilege to nothing more than an expression of guilt is to hinge a counterargument upon the weakest aspects of the existing discourse. In my piece on white privilege, I wrote the following caveat:

‘White privilege is not a reason to feel an irrational sense guilt for having been born with white skin in white majority countries. White privilege does not mitigate the observable reality that some minorities have it better than some whites, both socially and economically speaking. It does not imply that people who were born with white skin automatically owe something by virtue of an accident of birth to those who were not born with the same melanin deficiency (Melanin deficiency is a joke. Lighten up!) Further, white privilege is not a licence for minorities to indulge in fruitless and debilitating victimhood, because despite white privilege’s obvious and observable negative effects on social equality, victimhood has neither a role to play in resolving this inequity nor in helping the individual or disadvantaged groups overcome this obstacle. Finally, white privilege does not mean that an informed white person cannot discuss white privilege. In other words, beyond questions of an experiential nature, white privilege does not disqualify the informed opinions of people who happen to have white skin’.

Again, Lindsay and Boghossian’s analogy only applies if one is to reduce this discourse on the left to an absurd degree, and pretend as if the ‘Original Sin’ of white privilege is the discursive norm, which doesn’t appear to be the case in most sensible circles. Again, I concede that some of the louder, less informed voices on the left have sought to frame white privilege in this manner, yet most have not.  For the more sensible commentators, white privilege is simply a social reality that should be merely acknowledged rather than obfuscated. Here is where my second criticism with Lindsay and Boghossian’s article arises. The authors propose: ‘Framing these issues [of inequality] in terms of privilege, however, is the wrong way to conceptualize the problem. The real and appalling issue, of course, is discrimination – both outright and subtler, more insidious forms’.

Whilst I wholeheartedly endorse the sentiment above, I cannot help but see this approach as obfuscating a social reality for perhaps the appeasement of irrational white guilt (?); the very problem these authors are attempting to address. Of course, I could be completely wrong about the authors’ motivations for writing this piece, but in my own experience I have found that such obfuscations are commonly employed by those who appear incapable of coping psychologically with the effects of irrational white guilt. It seems that this guilt manifests in two primary forms. It either turns the sufferer into the legitimate target of Lindsay and Boghossian’s article, or else it turns them into the authors – who appear to be seeking shelter within a purely idealistic and artificial construction of reality – a reality in which the authors do not belong to a privileged class of human beings.  Speaking as a white person who does not experience such guilt, and who does acknowledge the reality of white privilege, this article seems soaked in an irrational idealism I have neither the credulity nor the faith to enjoy.  If racial inequality did not exist, and if white privilege was not an observed and observable reality, then conceptualizing the problem in terms of discrimination would make perfect sense. However, this is simply not the case. Lindsay and Boghossian are attempting to transform an ‘ought’ into an ‘is’. We ought to live in a colour-blind, equal society, but we do not. It is fun to imagine the existence of a utopia in which privilege does not exist, one in which Lindsay and Boghossian’s recommendation for an identity-politics-free method of dealing with discrimination would be appropriate, but again, we do not live in such a utopia. Societies do attach politics to identities and they do ascribe unequal and unearned benefits to members of privileged classes; this is simply a present reality. To put this another way, if we wish to create a society in which some groups do not profit from unearned, inherited membership, there is little beneifit in pretending that such is already the case. This is not to say that things on this front have not markedly improved, nor is to say that there is any merit in obsessing over identity politics to the point where objective facts become irreparably obscured beyond any semblance of observable reality, as is the case with the South African students’ complaints concerning “white science”, but the converse extreme – the pretence of the total absence of identity politics and inequality – is also harmful and contrary to not only reality but to the goal of progressing toward the ideal these authors so aggressively aspire. By censoring the concept of white privilege from discourse the problem of privilege becomes protected by ‘The Voldermort Effect’ in much the same way as the problem of radical Islam is protected by similar censorship on the left. The Regressive Left have a go-to argument for keeping Lord Voldermort’s name an unspoken proper noun. “If you say radical Islam, you’ll evoke contempt for innocent adherents of Islam”. This is where the Regressive Left’s reasoning meets Lindsay and Boghossian’s. According to these authors, merely saying privilege evokes contempt for its beneficiaries. They write: ‘The very word privileged almost makes you find its target contemptible. The privileged don’t hinder themselves; they hinder you. A sinner can be redeemed; the privileged must be taken down a notch’.

Whilst there is some truth to this argument, it assumes that the use of word privilege will naturally cause members of privileged groups to be targeted by members of out-groups. Again, this line of argument reflects the reasoning of Regressive Leftists who propose that innocent Muslims will be targeted if we discuss radical Islam. The truth appears to be, however, that the acknowledgement of privilege causes members of privileged groups to express greater empathy and reduced bigotry toward minorities, which paves the way toward the utopia these two authors appear to believe we have already achieved. To sum up, I have three main problems with this article: 1. It reduces an observed social phenomenon (privilege) to an absurd degree by framing it exclusively upon the worst arguments available. 2. It seeks to censor privilege from the existing discourse by arguing that it unfairly targets beneficiaries of privilege, despite its actual existence, and in this way the argument suffers from ‘Regressive Left logic’ (The Voldermort Effect). 3. It seems to be based upon a delusional perception of reality in which privilege no longer exits, thereby conflating what ought to be with what actually is.

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