Academia and pop culture currently use an important descriptor for our economic and social differences. The word “privilege” serves to explain these differences according to their benefits. Some are more or less privileged depending upon their wealth, class, race, gender, sexuality and even religion. This is a positive trend. It is an attempt to recognize social inequality.
This inequality is a very concrete aspect of our lives. Certain individuals, such as those of us wealthy enough to attend UConn, have access to far greater amounts of opportunities and benefits than others. We should seek to examine our differences in this regard, why exactly they exist, whether or not they are beneficial to our society and how we might change things for the better. However, the word “privilege” and its use in academia, news and pop culture might bear a more sinister purpose.
The use of the term to describe one’s livelihood is completely inappropriate given its cultural connotation. Google dictionary describes privilege as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” And “special” is key here. What are some examples of these special privileges? Casual Friday at the office. Ice cream after dinner. Having a pet companion in the dorm. Free access to the car keys on the weekend. Things which, while unnecessary, provide us tangible satisfaction. Things which we get in exchange for fulfilling some preliminary demand or which we are awarded given some sort of understanding. We are not to misuse our privileges, which must exist in balance with the remainder of our lives and our surroundings. Privileges are conditional, they must be earned, and they may be revoked at any time given any misbehavior on our behalf.
Here, this use of the word privilege to describe fundamental differences of class, race and wealth completely misplaces social responsibility. Suppose you happen to be born poor, rather than rich. You will, statistically, have less access to primary education, a stable household, secure housing and healthcare from the moment you exit the womb. Are we seriously suggesting that these services and goods are privileges? Things for which you must work in order to earn? Will we point at the malnourished child, born to a single mother in the projects, in a neighborhood of endemic violence, drug abuse, crime, homelessness and unemployment, and tell them they should work for the privilege to be free from those ailments?
No. We understand our obligation to fix our various social ills but also that they aren’t the fault of any one individual. These are the consequences of entire systems and historical trends. If nothing else, we must begin to see economic circumstances as a product of these historical and systemic factors rather than some base culpability which one acquires upon being born. Our language must acknowledge this reality.
This is why the use of the word privilege for material and social differentiation is completely wrong. We are discussing systemic, institutional barriers to the securing of what are fundamentally human rights. Not privileges. These words are not synonymous culturally. Food, water, shelter, education and medicine cannot be things which our privilege determines. We need robust, democratic institutions which ensure that all of these things essential to basic human existence are awarded to every human upon birth. There is a very lively conversation to be had about what specifically constitutes a right in comparison to a privilege and how these two might conflict with each other. However, none of this can be considered before properly defining the terms of the discussion and ensuring that our language use is appropriate to the gravity of both the questions and our conclusions.
The way that we use words is inextricably linked to our collective subconscious and to the ideology which drives us about our daily lives. And as it is with the majority of things in life, the powerful and wealthy have a disproportionate control over our language and thoughts. Here, the use of the term privilege to describe concrete material social differences obscures the true violence of inequality. It lessens and normalizes the devastating and torturous consequences of our feudal institutions.
We are, indeed, quite privileged. We are privileged to reflect upon our collective usage of language, which can reveal true material conditions of our existence and better our lives. We must use language reflective of the world we wish to create. We must begin to conceive of the world not in terms of privileges but instead in terms of rights.
Harrison Raskin is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.