We hear it said a lot these days: white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege. It suggests an advantage that is in some way illegitimate. The concept acquired greater sharpness for me recently while reading Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Under the ancien régime, ennobled families were granted privilege in the literal sense; that is, they answered to a different set of laws (privy: private, leges: laws). In particular, they were exempt from taxation. Making matters worse, one could buy into this arrangement through the purchase of “venal offices,” which granted one the same immunities. One might become an inspector of cheeses, for example. It really was that ridiculous. Such positions proliferated as the fiscal crisis of the 1780s deepened; the sale of offices was a way for the crown to finance its present needs through the sacrifice of future tax revenue. Those who purchased offices were entered, along with their descendants, into the lists of noble families, permanently exempt from the tax burden.
Meanwhile, one of many forms of taxation that peasants were subject to was the corvée (literally, “drudgery”): The men of a village would be rounded up to perform some public works project such as the building of a road, and for whatever reason this tended to happen during the harvest, just when their labor was most needed at home. It was a bitter injustice.
Obviously, the whole system of privilege was parasitical. It was also quite different from what we mean today when we speak of privilege. According to current usage, it means something like good fortune. In a polemical discussion of education, for example, it will be said that a child who grows up with two parents is “privileged,” from which we are meant to infer that there is something illegitimate about the source of his relative calm and competence.
But it’s not as though such advantages make him a parasite on society. For us, the meaning of the term is reversed. If you are privileged, it means you are expected to contribute more, not less, than someone who is “underprivileged.” But at the same time, your being in a position to do so may be subject to the same resentment that was directed to the privileges of the ancien régime. From the perspective of eighteenth century usage, it looks as though the point of recasting any advantage as “privilege” is to suggest that all inequality of condition is illegitimate, based on an underlying injustice.
But what this injustice consists of is usually not elaborated. If one presses for details (and this is already a breach of etiquette), the reasons offered are often tendentious. The term privilege is used not to make a case but rather to convey a mood. Why is there so much political opportunity to be had by deploying this mood, as a weapon? What accounts for our susceptibility to being cowed by it, or indeed to indulging it ourselves, this fuzzy indignation? In particular, we need to account for the fact that accusations of privilege are most prominent among…well, the privileged. (For example, Ivy League students.) Hold that thought. Continue reading
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