Let’s Talk About Privilege
In a big, boisterous, free society, all of the privileges don’t run one way.
Dear Reader (especially those of you who tore yourself away from the Elizabeth Warren-Elon Musk Twitter wars to read this),
A couple weeks ago, Henry Charles Albert David, known by his world-stage-name Prince Harry, bought himself some grief for saying:
“Many people around the world have been stuck in jobs that didn’t bring them joy, and now they’re putting their mental health and happiness first. This is something to be celebrated.”
It’s worth pointing out that he’s the spokesmodel for some mental health startup, so he’s literally being paid to say it. But he’s got a point. All things being equal, if you can find a job that brings you joy that’s a good thing. Though the primary point of a job isn’t to bring you joy, it’s to provide an adequate income. If you can find one that provides both, great. Even if you have to sacrifice a bit on the income side to find joy, that’s probably a good trade. Of course, there are caveats aplenty. If you have a family to provide for, I don’t think you should put too much emphasis on joy. “Honey, I know the kids don’t have shoes, but I can’t give up the kazoo! It’s my vocation!” Conversely, if you like, say, murdering people and thus really love your high paying gig as an assassin, that’s nothing for the rest of us to celebrate.
Nevertheless, he got a lot of grief for it because in the annals of “easy for you to say” this has to rank high up there alongside Marie-Antoinette’s apocryphal “let them eat cake” or Gandhi’s even more apocryphal “no one should eat steak tartare.” After all, Harry’s a multimillionaire aristocrat who left his gig as a professional royal to be a full-time professional celebrity. Talk about privilege.
No, really, let’s talk about privilege.
The word begins as a legal term, from the Latin, privilegium, a “law applying to one person, bill of law in favor of or against an individual.” After 1200, the term meant a “power or prerogative associated with a certain social or religious position.” My favorite examples of this sort of thing are sumptuary laws. These laws regulated what members of certain classes could—or could not—wear, eat, drink, etc.
“Nothing was more resented by the hereditary nobles than the imitation of their clothes and manners by the upstarts, thus obscuring the lines between the eternal orders of society,” writes Barbara Tuchman in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. “Magnificence in clothes was considered a prerogative of the nobles, who should be identifiable by modes of dress forbidden to others.”
Henry the VIII issued an edict proclaiming that no one could wear “any silk of the color of purple, cloth of gold tissued, nor fur of sables, but only the King, Queen, King's mother, children, brethren, and sisters, uncles and aunts; and except dukes, marquises, and earls, who may wear the same in doublets, jerkins, linings of cloaks, gowns, and hose; and those of the Garter, purple in mantles only.”
But this kind of privilege wasn’t just a European thing. Societies around the world had sumptuary laws. The Aztecs had them for all manner of clothing. Indeed, only certain Aztec elites could drink chocolate. In China, violation of sumptuary laws invited corporal punishment. Japan went nuts with them, banning not just wearing certain clothes above your station, but various forms of art and writing. Doing pretty much anything above your social station was forbidden (though enforcement of these laws was a mixed bag). In the Islamic world sumptuary laws were derived from the Quran and often aimed at preventing the theological equivalent of interbreeding. Jews and Christians had to wear certain clothes or badges to distinguish them from Muslims. “Fashion crime” used to be a term with some teeth to it.
In the wake of the enlightenment(s), formal laws like this were steadily abolished over time. From this perspective, the objectively evil rules of Jim Crow, like slavery itself, should be seen as vestiges of the past that endured far too long in the New World and should never have been established in the first place.
But just because the laws came down doesn’t mean the natural human instincts that gave rise to them disappeared, too. Humans like to make distinctions—between in-groups and out-groups, us and them, good and bad, friend and enemy, etc. We do it all the time. George Orwell writes in “Such, Such Were the Joys” that in his British prep school:
In effect there were three castes in the school. There was the minority with an aristocratic or millionaire background, there were the children of the ordinary suburban rich, who made up the bulk of the school, and there were a few underlings like myself, the sons of clergyman, Indian civil servants, struggling widows and the like. These poorer ones were discouraged from going in for “extras” such as shooting and carpentry, and were humiliated over clothes and petty possessions.
One of the wacky laws of human nature that only certain breeds of anarchists, libertarians, and sociologists ever seem to give much credence is that when formal law is weak, informal laws fill the void. The best examples come from the world of crime, precisely because criminals, by definition, exist outside the scope of the law. Some criminal gangs create their own sumptuary laws, dictating what colors you can wear or not wear (think Crips and Bloods), what tattoos befit your rank or group, etc. The Hells Angels are famous for all sorts of rules about what you can wear, say, and do. In the Mafia, “made men” are in effect a criminal aristocratic class who have privileges “associates” don’t. A made mad man can say and do stuff others cannot.
Which brings us back to privilege.
We hear a lot about privilege these days, particularly “white privilege.” Now, I think white privilege is a thing. My problem with the concept isn’t that it’s fake, but that it’s not nearly as explanatory as those who denounce it think it is. Like systemic racism, it’s an important factor for some things, a minor factor for things, and utterly irrelevant to a whole bunch of things. For instance, If you think “white privilege” explains everything, your essay on the causes of American slavery might make a lot of worthwhile points. But your essay on the causes of World War I is gonna need work.
Anyway, I googled “examples of white privilege” and one of the first results was this article, “10 Examples That Prove White Privilege Exists in Every Aspect Imaginable.” Now, I think the headline is sophomoric click-baity garbage and the whole thing is written with a lot of indefensible hyperbole. But some of the examples have merit. The first is that white people, broadly speaking, are more likely to have a positive relationship with the police. Again, there are all manner of caveats one can raise, but sure, fair enough. Another is that white people can “learn about my race in school” (the author, Jon Greenberg, is writing in that popular first-person confess-my-white-sins mode so popular today among those obsessed with the souls of woke folks). I can raise so many more caveats, but I get the point.
But here’s the thing: There are so many other kinds of privilege. The ability to call whole categories of people racist without much evidence is a privilege. The power to police the language other people use is a form of privilege. I mean, who are college administrators to tell Latinos how to use their own language the “right” way? The assumption that transgender activists have the moral authority to tell the rest of us that we are bigots if we don’t adhere to their grammatical-metaphysical engineering is a gobsmacking assumption of privilege because it elevates their feelings above all other considerations. One doesn’t have to be categorical about this. I have zero problem with the cultural prohibition of the n-word. But two things need to be said about that. First, there’s a consensus about that. Second, it’s worth noting that blacks have largely exempted themselves from this prohibition. You can argue whether that’s right or wrong, but I don’t see how you can argue it’s not a form of cultural privilege.
Again, yes: There is white privilege. But there is also black privilege. To say this isn’t to buy into some fevered alt-right lunacy about “black supremacy.” It’s simply to note that the culture is full of all sorts of informal rules. Blacks can say stuff about blacks without paying the price white people would pay for saying the same thing, just as Jews can say things or tell jokes that non-Jews should probably avoid.
Rachel Dolezal declared herself black because she wanted to enjoy black privilege. And, a bunch of actual black people said, “No friggin’ way.” This was an informal sumptuary law at work. There’s all sorts of fascinating inconsistency wrapped up in all of this. Why is it verboten to identify as a race other than the one you were born with but glorious to identify as a sex you weren’t born with? I don’t have a great, never mind pithy, answer to that question. But it is interesting nonetheless.
Victims, particularly celebrity victims, have special privileges in our society, too. Objectively, there’s no reason anyone should give a rat’s ass about what David Hogg (or Kyle Rittenhouse or Joe the Plumber) has to say. But here we are. Jussie Smollett understood that victims, especially hate crime victims, get all sorts of privileges in our society, so much so that he was willing to fake a hate crime. “You get what you subsidize” isn’t just a public policy truism, it’s a cultural one as well.
Some of this stuff isn’t entirely informal either. Blacks are literally privileged in all sorts of government programs and in college admissions. I have problems with all of that, but there’s no need to rehash all that here. My only point is that in a big, boisterous, free society, all of the privileges don’t run one way. For instance, celebrities have ridiculous privileges in our culture. In an aristocratic society, if a duke or earl walked into a full tavern for a meal, the innkeeper would leap to clear a table of patrons or bring out one to cater to him. In today’s society, the exact same thing would happen if a Kardashian walked into a restaurant.
As I’ve written countless times, all-explanatory theories of life are enemies of serious thought. The Marxist who reduces everything to class conflict is blind to the powerful forces that don’t have anything to do with class conflict. The scientist or journalist who starts with the conclusion that climate change is the explanation for some problem isn’t doing science or journalism. And if you start from the assumption that white privilege or white supremacy explains everything, you’re blinding yourself to the complexities of life.
For instance, the argument for privileging blacks in certain spheres of life might be right or wrong depending on the specifics. But given the complexity of American history and the unique place that slavery has in it, that argument is simply different than the argument for privileging other racial groups. The left forgot that for a long time, instead leaching off the moral power of the black experience by trying to extend it to all non-white groups. Now they find themselves in a cul-de-sac of hypocrisy as they rig the system to discriminate against Asians in higher education.
Captains of ourselves.
I got to thinking about all of this because of a conversation I had with Sally Satel on the latest Remnant. She’s been chronicling how social justice has been infecting the medical profession for decades. Sadly, things have gotten worse. Mental health professionals are increasingly pressured to apply the all-explanatory theories of white privilege and institutional racism to their work. I think this is outrageous.
As I said to Sally, there’s a kind of classical liberal poignancy to fields like psychiatry and medicine generally. At the core of classical liberalism is the idea that the individual is sovereign. You cannot assign guilt to an individual just because he or she is a member of some abstract group. Pre-Enlightenment societies did this wholesale. Membership in a class or caste defined you. Identity politics does this, too. The idea that I can make meaningful judgements about your character or integrity going just by the color of your skin or your gender is bigotry. This is a matter of formal law, but it’s also a matter of informal cultural law. Sadly, the informal cultural law isn’t as binding or powerful as it should be. Arguably the best thing about American culture is the habit of the heart that says “take people as you find them.”
And that’s what I mean about the classical liberalism of psychiatry (and psychology and medicine generally). It’s perfectly fine and probably necessary for the therapist to take into account the larger cultural context. But at the end of the day, each person is his or her own person with individualized problems and experiences. The idea that a mental health professional already knows—or even has a good guess—what the causes of an individual person’s anxieties or difficulties are by the color of their skin is grotesque and should be considered malpractice. The fact that it isn’t is a kind of privilege, too.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: Sadly, Pippa’s joint issues are still a major problem and we are at a loss about what to do about it. The case for surgery is mixed with a high possibility that it will create as many problems as it might solve. Medications only mask the pain and make the problem worse. Also, I think because Pip is in pain she often feels more vulnerable which makes her more scared to go on trips or risk getting picked on by mean dogs. She’s not miserable or anything like that. We learned from Cosmo that dogs just handle pain differently than we do. And Pippa is still a goofy sweetheart. But it is a challenge and a depressing one. Meanwhile, Zoë is doing great, even if she gets frustrated that we go on less ambitious walks because of Pippa’s limitations. She got to play with Sammi yesterday, which she always loves. The Dingo—or as Elizabeth Warren might say, the Dingx—did not like me doing radio before the morning walk yesterday. She also has taken to thinking that if she eats her dinner very quickly, that is evidence she didn’t get enough to eat. And, of course, Gracie is the most wonderful cat ever.
And now, the weird stuff