What's Tony Thinking

On Privilege


Events and attention spans being what they are, the hostage-taking at a synagogue in Texas earlier this month has pretty much vanished into the rear-view mirror.

But there were a couple thoughtful commentaries on that incident and how the reporting of that story reveals bias.

One of those was written by Bret Stephens of the New York Times. Published on January 21, 2022, the headline was, “What An Anti-Semite’s Fantasy Says About Jewish Reality.”

Stephens argues that underlying anti-semitism is a fantasy about Jewish power, namely that Jews wield enormous, behind-the-scenes, power, and do so monolithically. That assumption not only is at work in anti-Semitic acts like the one in Texas and other recent synagogue attacks, but it effects how these incidents are understood and reported.

In the course of his discussion Stephens includes some insightful observations about our broader culture context and one of its current buzzwords, “privilege.” Here they are:

“A moral conviction of our time, especially prevalent on the cultural left, is that the powerful are presumptively bad while the powerless are presumptively good. These categories aren’t just political. They are also social, economic, ethnic and racial. It’s why so many conversations today revolve around the concept of ‘privilege’ — a striking redefinition of success that removes the presumption of merit from those who have it and the stigma of failure from those who don’t.”

You don’t have to deny the contention that the American playing field has been an uneven one, particular but not exclusively for African-Americans, to also have reservations about the language of “privilege.”

That language has, among other things, become in-group/ out-group talk, a signal of one’s enlightenment or lack of same. As such it is “coded speech.” And, as Stephens says, it provides a moral judgment that sweeps away any notion of merit or effort.

While I am often skeptical about what our society terms “success” and those it identifies as “successful,” I don’t think it wise to embrace a wholesale “redefinition of success that removes the presumption of merit from those who have it and the stigma of failure from those who don’t.” The desire to achieve, to do well, to be excellent in a field or pursuit, and the effort people make to attain such goals is a good, not a bad, thing.

Yes, all that can be overdone. And people can claim, regularly do claim, too much credit for themselves, forgetting how they have been helped and supported, and yes “advantaged,” in attaining whatever “success” they enjoy. Most of those I would term the truly “successful” also have the grace and wisdom to be grateful. They would say, and mean, things like, “It is a privilege to teach at this school.” Or, “It is a privilege to serve as your pastor.”

Nor does it seem wise to assume “the powerful are presumptively bad while the powerless are presumptively good.” A society needs those distinctions, words like “bad” and “good” to mean something. Eroding them beyond recognition only breeds cynicism and resentment, qualities in which our cultural supply-chain is already functioning just fine.

If life isn’t so simple that we can and should attach automatic moral merit to all forms of success, neither is it so simple that we can or should engage in an inversion of that assumption.

Of course, my modest remonstrations on this point may be only a sign of my own lack of “enlightenment,” which is something some have long suspected.

Nevertheless, life is gloriously complex. Things are often not as they appear to be. And, gratefully, people surprise you, eluding the boxes and categories to which we so relentlessly assign to one another.



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