Features, Literature, Top Stories

Privilege: a Term That Has Lost Its Utility

Earlier this year, Twitter was on fire with claims that Margaret Atwood was “abusing her privilege”. She had written an op-ed in the Globe and Mail (“Am I a bad feminist?”) in which she compared the immoderate zeal of the Me Too movement to the purity campaigns following other tectonic social revolutions. The movement wasn’t ready for uncharitable comparisons. How dare she equate Me Too’s calls for rough justice with Stalin’s purges? In the Globe and Mail piece Atwood explained why, unlike several other Canadian authors who had buckled under pressure from their detractors, she had declined to remove her signature from an open letter to UBC. Steven Galloway, formerly the Chair of UBC’s creative writing program, had been fired, without severance pay, following a series of complaints of sexual misconduct, despite having been exonerated. Atwood and her fellow writers had protested the opaque process by which Galloway was tried and found wanting by the university.

In the wake of Me Too, Atwood’s call for transparency in the case was viewed by many as just another ode to the patriarchy, power protecting power. Atwood, a successful doyenne of Canadian letters, was a dinosaur. Feminist credentials be damned, this privileged author was abusing her privilege. She should have the grace and decency to step aside and let other, lesser-known, less-powerful writers have their say. Especially those who thought Galloway was a villain.

Taken aback by the vitriol against Atwood, I tweeted that Margaret Atwood had every right to express her opinion in the Globe and Mail, and that she had earned her place atop the literary heap by dint of talent and hard work, not privilege. My statement was met with a torrent of indignant responses from people determined to convince me that Atwood would never have achieved the kind of success she has if she hadn’t been born of white, middle-class parents, one of whom, I was informed, had been a university professor. I didn’t need much convincing; Atwood’s background informed her writing, allowing her to craft stories that resonated with lots of other middle-class people, who constitute the majority of the reading public.

But that wasn’t the point, according to Twitter, which continued to insist that she wouldn’t have achieved her success without her privilege. I was bombarded with impatient and relentless demands that I agree on this essential point. She wasn’t the best, she hadn’t won her success honestly. She had levitated to the top on an invisible cushion of privilege, and it was imperative that I admit it. I dislike being forced to accept cant, so I’m afraid my Twitter scolds are still waiting.

Both the Left and Right wings of the political spectrum brandish this new, knowing, propagandized version of “privilege” to invalidate “elites” and underscore the unearned advantages that give some members of society an unfair leg up. But how useful is the concept? How has society been improved by the Maoist self-examination of checking one’s privilege (or reproaching others for theirs)? Indeed, one can point out the unearned advantages that lie beneath just about any individual or group. White male, white female, heterosexual, cisgender, educated, able-bodied and middle-class individuals are routinely reminded to check their privilege, with all the assumptions, generalizations and admonishments implicit in the command. Interestingly, nobody tries to undermine Tanya Tagaq’s fame and success as a throat-singer on the grounds of the unearned advantage conferred by her status as an Inuit person. No right-thinking privilege-checker would scold a Kenyan for luxuriating in his or her marathon win just because their lungs are so well suited to long-distance running.

Privilege checking is explicitly ideological. On the Right, it’s used to mock limousine liberals and Ivy League socialists. On the Left, privilege is invoked as a reminder that one’s point of view and accomplishments are a product of the social inequities that have led to the domination of all spheres of society by white men. Even if one is to accept that premise, what does the privilege-checking actually accomplish? If Margaret Atwood examines her life through this stern lens and notes that an accident of birth (beyond her talent) has given her an advantage over some other, theoretical would-be writer, what should she do — stop writing? Recuse herself from national conversations to allow for other voices? Which other voices would be promoted and approved by all, and how would they achieve that sort of prominence? How would any of this be to society’s advantage?

There are writers and readers for all occasions. The Internet is proof of that. Publishers who wish to sell enough books to stay in business, however, can’t necessarily afford to spurn the work of “privileged” authors in order to promote works by the less-privileged. Like any other business, they’re going to want to put out books they know they can sell. If a young indigenous woman writes an original, well-crafted novel that the publisher thinks will resonate with the reading public, and that same writer looks like she might be in it for the long haul, and is likely to do well on a book tour, then the publisher might consider taking a chance on her book. But how did that young, indigenous woman arrive at a place in life where she was able to achieve the hallmarks of a successful writing career?

She probably benefited from parents or teachers who recognized her potential and encouraged her passion for literature and her desire to become educated. She would also be uncommonly bright and curious about the wider world. If she came from a broken home and a community ravaged by alcoholism and domestic, then she would presumably have been blessed with a fortitude, equanimity and laser focus that gave her a significant advantage over her peers. In other words, she was privileged. If one day, this talented indigenous author rose to international fame, would she too be harassed by the weighers of privilege, or would she get a pass because of her hardscrabble background? Perhaps all authors should be inspected for class or colour, kept or discarded, applauded or scorned depending on how much or how little they were born into.

But, no. We live in a society that offers the same basic rights to all of its citizens. We are all free under the law to choose how and where we want to live. Whether to avail ourselves of educational and other opportunities. Whether to join the dominant culture or operate on the margins. Whether to vote conservative, socialist, or nothing at all. Advantages and disadvantages arising from family circumstance, cultural inheritance or native ability can be mitigated to a point, but they cannot be legislated away. Regimes that have tried to smooth away the natural and cultural differences between its citizens are remembered with horror as totalitarian nightmares. Variety and diversity are features of the human experience, and the ability to transcend difference and achieve communion with others is a precious gift to be nurtured and celebrated, wherever it arises.

 

In a former life, Genevieve co-founded a personal carbon trading company. She now works as a writer and translator for film and magazines and is currently writing a murder mystery set in the age of migrant crises and climate change. Follow her on Twitter @GWeynerowski.