The Personalist Project

Privilege is usually discussed in terms of race, income, class, gender, etc. However, I found myself thinking about a different sort of privilege recently when a friend, a convert, tried to share a bit of her past with a friend of hers on Facebook. She replied to a post about Planned Parenthood with an account of her time interning in an abortion clinic, describing the kinds of interactions and dialogue that helped her make her journey from proabortion to prolife. While the public response was muted, she was attacked in private messages as an “accessory to murder.”

The acquaintances who attacked her found it impossible to believe that she had really acted out of goodwill and concern for women during the time she spent at the clinic—one lambasted her over her failure to immediately recognize abortion as murder: “It’s just so obvious. How could you?” Having never suffered a qualm of doubt over the righteousness of the prolife position, the writer could not wrap her mind around how prochoice reasoning had once attracted my friend. Her very virtue in this particular arena fueled her lack of mercy to the testimony of a repentant convert. She had, I think, a form of privilege that made it hard for her to understand the struggles others face—virtue privilege.

I’ve heard similar stories from women who have had (and repented) past abortions, from those who have left behind a sexually promiscuous lifestyle, from chaste individuals who identify as gay, from individuals recovering from broken marriages.  Depressed people are reluctant to discuss their struggles with suicidal despair for fear of the lecture about the evils of despair that is sure to follow. Those of us who are blessed by upbringing, temperament, environment or circumstances to have never had an inclination to one or another sin or set of sins can so easily take unearned credit for our ‘virtues’ or disparage those who lack what we never had to work overmuch to attain.

I’m not sure how useful the idea of privilege is in furthering discussion. It is not likely to be useful at all if it is used primarily to silence the “privileged,” which is how it has occasionally been used. But it seems to me that the usual purpose to pointing out privilege, of whatever type, is an intensely personalistic one—the intention is to make someone conscious of the subjectivity of those whose lives, experiences, and norms differ from their own. Awareness of the ways in which we are formed by our environment, upbringing, and social roles can remind us not to project on to those around us.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collecter, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Only when we learn to differentiate between the accidents of our birth and upbringing and the truly universal will we find grounds for communion with one another. While I may not be tempted to the things that tempt you, I know what it is to be tempted. While my suffering has different causes and effects than yours, I do know what it is to suffer. Whatever our advantages, we know, or should know, all too well how easily we fall prey to our own pet vices. We need not be able to imagine how a woman could believe herself to be doing good while working in an abortion clinic—we need only be able to remember how often we ourselves have been tempted to ignore or deny a “lesser evil” out of disordered but sincere love for something or someone.

The idea of virtue privilege may be especially relevant to those of us who are cradle Catholics. Being raised in the faith has not made me especially immune to temptation, but it does give me a particular advantage in recognizing sin—or at least, certain sins—when they are encountered, and gives me access to the graces to resist sin and recover when I succumb. This is, after all, the primary function of the Church—to teach us how to be like Christ, and to give us the graces we need to pursue that goal.

Privilege, we are told, is typically invisible to those who benefit from it. The child of wealth may underestimate his own advantages while struggling to establish himself as an entrepreneur. He knows the hours he has put in to his business and prides himself on his success when so many others fail. Having struggled, he fails to recognize the role his connections and capital have had in his victories. Likewise, those of us who have been steeped in the graces and wisdom of the Church for years may fail to recognize how those very graces have eased our path—that as hard as we have struggled (for everyone struggles), we have had unearned riches to draw upon along our way. 

But maybe I need not invent a new term to counter hard-heartedness towards those who fall because they lacked the graces, knowledge, or advantages of temperament which I enjoy. Perhaps I only need to call upon a somewhat older response to the sins and struggles of others, a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s mercy, of petition for the future, and of solidarity with the fallen. Perhaps what is needed is that I, and all of us, remember: There but for the grace of God go I.

Comments (6)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jul 23, 2015 3:48pm

Thanks so much for this, Kate!
I've often regretted the stridency of the "Check your privilege!" demands of leftist activists, because it's occurred to me, too, that it's otherwise got some potential.

When, as you said, it's not about silencing another person, but rather increasing our own awareness of how much we've been protected from evil and harm, so that we learn to be more merciful and receptive, less harsh and judgmental in our approach to others.

I recently heard the story of a woman about 10 years younger than I am. Her mother was a prostitute and a drug addict; her father was abusive. She was passed between her parents and various foster homes for years. The first bit of sanity and stability in her life came at an orphanage when she was about 17.

Just listening to her story made me intensely aware of how privileged and protected my upbringing was, but also how judgmental I had been taught to be.

I don't want to think that way or be that way anymore. 

Devra Torres

#2, Apr 6, 2016 11:41am

Kate, I somehow missed this (we were deep into move preparations even back then), and it articulates something I've been trying to get at.  One thing about "check your privilege" that bothers me is that it's so limited in the kinds of things it recognizes as "privileges." It pigeonholes people instantly on the basis of their skin color or economic status, for example. It reduces the person to the category he or she belongs to, and it reduces the number of categories to just a few. And then it takes the information and is content to use it to silence people and make them feel guilty and intimidated, not to change themselves or help others.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, Apr 6, 2016 12:26pm

Devra, I can see that it is used that way sometimes, particularly in the "check your privilege" formulation you cite. But farther into the circles where the idea of privilege is used, there's a lot more depth, complexity, and self-examination than that. The privilege concept is central to examinations of "intersectionality"--which is about reconciling the ways that an individual person may be both oppressed and oppressor, or may be "privileged" in some ways but not others. Both of these things arose within activist circles in response to conflicts and ideological blindness, not *outside* those circles (the "middle class white male" or whatever), but *within* those circles--between feminist leadership (largely white professionals focused on white-collar interests) and minority feminists (largely interested in working class issues), for example.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#4, Apr 6, 2016 12:31pm

I think the trouble is that it doesn't really matter what language you use--there's no easy way to tell someone to reexamine their assumptions about the world and their own achievements. There's no easy way to *hear* that your achievements are not solely your own--not in the extremely individualistic culture of the US, anyway. So whether or not every instance of "check your privilege" is meant to be reductionist or dismissive or make people feel guilty, it's not surprising that it is heard that way. Ironically, and sadly, I think it is usually easier for us to be challenged to examine our advantages when the speaker is someone who comes from similar advantages. Maybe because there's less guilt attached, less feeling that the speaker might want or need something from us? 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#5, Apr 6, 2016 12:37pm

Talking about privilege in terms of virtue helped me understand the idea a lot better, but I think what really drove it home for me were some discussions of violence against women online a couple years ago. Women were speaking about their experiences, and frequently men--or women who had had different experiences--would interject to argue that it really wasn't so bad. And it was clear that first, they were uncomfortable with allowing the conversation about a different, less-privileged experience to go on, and that second, they were oblivious to the possibility that their own experience may not be the normative one--or that, even if it were normative, it wasn't the only experience that mattered. a woman in those conversations, there never seemed to be a way to say, "Hey, you can't know what these women experience without listening to them, so let them have this conversation, your experience is heard often enough already" without causing emotional reactions to being "shut down" or "made to feel guilty."

Devra Torres

#6, Apr 6, 2016 12:49pm

there never seemed to be a way to say, "Hey, you can't know what these women experience without listening to them, so let them have this conversation, your experience is heard often enough already" without causing emotional reactions to being "shut down" or "made to feel guilty."

That's a good point--not everything that's heard as an attempt to silence or guilt-trip somebody is meant that way. I run into that a lot--people hear me as trying to make them feel guilty for something when that's really not what I meant at all--and it's frustrating because it seems to me that they're centered on themselves and how they feel and I wasn't really talking about that at all, and wasn't even especially focussed on them, but was just trying to get something done, some hardship alleviated or some injustice remedied. But "it's not all about you, you know!" is not a helpful way to make the conversation more fruitful...

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