On “Privilege”:

A Conversation with Phoebe Maltz Bovy and Robert Boyers


Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Interviewer: Boyers

Robert Boyers : In your recent book on The Perils of Privilege1 you write that privilege “is best understood not as a real trait, but as a construction,” so that “anyone can be ‘privileged’ if it suits someone else’s argument. There’s no wealth or income threshold for ‘privileged,’” you go on to explain. “It doesn’t require membership in the One Percent, or even the top fifty percent. And anyone can, with proper rhetorical flourish, play the role of the implicitly underprivileged.” Of course the idea that a view is merely a “construction” has become very familiar in the culture over the past fifty years, but rarely has the term been used so well to get at the heart of what has seemed to a great many people in the culture an “advanced,” impressively radical idea. Your book would seem—to this reader at least—to make a powerful case for retiring the term, and in the event that it should have that effect, I thought it a good idea to give the subject one more outing in this conversation. Thus, have you any way of explaining how or why such a construction became as widely employed as it has been in recent years—a fact you support by quoting in your book from a very wide range of sources? Is the explanation simply that it took hold because “anyone” can use it?

PHOEBE MALTZ BOVY : The concept of privilege took hold in part because of the term’s malleability. That is, it’s a way of suggesting that your opponent is aloof, oblivious, and insensitive on some profound level rooted in their experience. And I use the word “suggesting” intentionally – a privilege-check doesn’t have to line up with reality. Many privilege call-outs involve one well-off white person calling out the privilege of another, but doing so in a way that discreetly obscures the accuser’s own (identical) identity categories.

If privilege call-outs were simply about marginalized people alerting the not-marginalized (in whichever area) to their experiences, then it would be easy enough to support this. But that’s not how privilege discourse always plays out. It’s very often about privileged people finding rhetorical ways of portraying themselves as underdogs.

RB : Not so sure I agree that it would be easy enough to support this if those call outs were aimed at the “not marginalized” by the “marginalized.” In the first place, don’t you mistrust those very terms, “marginalized” and “not marginalized”? After all, they derive from a time when attention was rarely paid to the kinds of injustices now central to the American conversation. Though we can surely agree that race relations are not where we want them to be, and that white supremacy in particular has unmistakably reared its very ugly head in this first year of the Trump presidency, and that we have a long way to go to reverse the systemic inequality that has long been a feature of American life, the notion that black people are “marginalized” seems to me somewhat misleading. Beyond that, I’m not sure that privilege call outs can conceivably affect the situation in a beneficial way, and I suspect that they are mainly apt to stir self-righteousness in the callers, and bitter resentment in those on the receiving end. More, they encourage the callers to feel that there is no need to make important distinctions as regards privilege—that is, as regards degrees of privilege, and efforts on the part of those who are privileged to use their privilege in salutary ways. The privilege call out is in this sense what I would call a blunt instrument, and I see no reason to suppose that it would be otherwise if the callers were mainly what you call marginalized people.

PMB : I do think it’s appropriate to call groups such as people of color (black people especially), women, gay people, Jews, Muslims, etc. marginalized, in a contemporary US context. By “marginalized” I mean discriminated against, not necessarily oppressed to the point of disenfranchisement.

RB : Obviously a difference here in the way each of us hears the term “marginalized.” The whites who say they voted for Trump in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan also claim to be “marginalized,” which is to say overlooked by liberals like us, or Hillary Clinton, and those people too have reason to use that epithet, however inadequate their understanding of the far greater injustices routinely borne by people of color in this country. But then what of my notion that the privilege call-outs rarely do anyone any good?

PMB : As to whether privilege call-outs are bad news even when the person doing the call-out is a member of one of these groups, and speaking out about their own oppression, here’s how I see it: It’s true that as a strategy, a privilege call-out has strategic flaws. It’s going to inspire defensiveness. It’s going to make the topic at hand one individual’s privilege, rather than bigger issues. But I think leeway should be granted when people are discussing their own struggles. In such cases, a “check your privilege” might just be about venting, and not have much of a strategic aim, and that’s absolutely fine. What happens though – and this is the reason I focus in my book on cases where the privilege-checker is not marginalized in the relevant area – is that the conversation about privilege winds up dominated (as conversations tend to) by… the privileged, who will use privilege-accusations as a way of presenting themselves as morally superior (and obscuring their own privilege). The really irritating and potentially dangerous form of this phenomenon is when privilege-checking takes on a life of its own, and becomes about winning points in arguments.

RB : One feature of your book is its lavish use of anecdotes and quotations that are bound to strike many of us as hilarious—often appalling and hilarious all at the same time. Thus, for example, you quote from an academic named Steven Salaita, to the effect that “Supporting #Hillary [Clinton] on feminist grounds fully negates Black, Iraqui [Iraqi? – PMB], Latina, Palestinian, Pakistani, Native, Afghan, Yemeni, and poor women.” This is one aspect of the so-called privilege critique that it’s hard—for some of us at least—to find anything but idiotic and deplorable—to use a word (“deplorable”) that bought Hillary Clinton herself a good deal of trouble during the 2016 campaign. In any case, would you speak a bit about what makes hilarious, and also somewhat appalling, the kind of thinking that produces something like the Salaita passage?

PMB : What often happens with a privilege framework is that it gets applied without regard to a larger picture. So someone – and that could be anyone from a Democratic politician to a progressive-enough celebrity to a random liberal on Twitter – who slips up in some way will get demonized, while those who are full-on on the opposite side (white supremacists, Trump…) get spared. (Rather tough to make the case that Clinton losing to Trump was good for feminism!)

This dynamic absolutely lends itself to absurdity, and to inadvertent humor. I’m thinking of a headline in The Advocate, “Taylor Swift Has Been Problematic But Still Deserves Support During Her Assault Trial.” The need to highlight slip-ups at the expense of whichever main story leads to an out-of-place hyper-serious tone, and to the sort of sanctimonious earnestness that can indeed come across, to those not wrapped up in these conversations (but even to some who are) as amusing.

RB : The word “problematic” jumps out for me in the headline you cite. In what sense is it legitimate, do you think, to characterize a person as “problematic”? Does that use of the term not point in its way to what is more than “problematic” in the privilege turn, that is, that it has encouraged all sorts of people—journalists, students, academics, on line nuts and fanatics—to believe that it’s okay to sort people and condescend to them as if somehow these ostensibly beyond-reproach specimens of virtue were chosen to enact that role? And by the way, what seems to these virtuous commissars “problematic” about Taylor Swift?

PMB : Yes, “problematic” has become another all-purpose, much-mocked buzzword. In a social-justice criticism context, it means that someone (often a celebrity) is somehow associated with racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted politics. As with “privilege,” it’s ambiguous – the bar for “problematic” can be anything from ‘was accused of multiple counts of sexual assault’ to ‘embodies white-woman tears in her lyrics.’ Everything is problematic, everyone is problematic. But this comes up the most with celebrities who claim to be on the right (as in, correct, progressive) side of things, but fail while doing so. Lena Dunham being the obvious example.

As for what made Taylor Swift the target of this (vague) criticism, it was a mix of a spat she’d had with other celebrities, where she did indeed come across as dishonest if not (necessarily?) racist, and her overall celebrity persona, which (as a whole bunch of think-pieces before and after the one I mention have argued) is that of a victim. And for many it’s irritating – which is by today’s criticism’s standards, problematic – for a rich, attractive white person to take that stance. What was so off-putting with the headline I mention, though, was… in this specific case, Swift was a victim, and was speaking out about this. That her lyrics about unreciprocated love can seem disingenuous is neither here nor there.

RB : I’ve noticed that in discussions of privilege the fetishization of powerlessness is often cited.

PMB : Privilege and power are very different things. At least they seem so to me. Privilege is much more about potential control over situations, potential ability to own a nice house, have a good job. If anything is fetishized in privilege discourse, it would be not coming across as privileged. Which is a different thing from not being privileged, and a very different one from being powerless.

RB : A recent essay in the pages of this magazine cites “the mob moralism of social media” to account, at least in part, for the virulence of recent controversies, like the fury whipped up by partisans demanding that a painting shown at the Whitney Museum Biennale be taken down and “destroyed.” We’ve addressed that particular controversy in a brilliant essay by Will Murray, but I wanted to ask you whether the durability of the privilege critique, and its often venomous character, does really have much to do with “the mob moralism of social media,” and whether in fact there is anything at all we can do, as a culture, to impede that species of “mob moralism”?

PMB : Without commenting on the specifics of the painting or the essay, let me respond to the social media question more broadly. Does social media encourage “mob moralism”? It can, and it can do so in a few ways. One is by obscuring the identities (and common-sense level of privilege) of participants in any discussion. Another is by ease of sharing criticisms. It takes a second to hit retweet. Even legitimate, much-needed criticism of bad ideas gets to be disproportionate when coming from hundreds, thousands, of online critics. Each individual criticism might be reasonable (although once dozens get involved, that’s rarely the case across the board…), but the sheer number of participants is its own threat.

RB : Much has rightly been made of what Steve Fraser calls “the cruelty of sensibility” embodied in the behavior, the tweets and public proclamations of President Trump, and of course that quality is often a component of political discourse. Still, some of us have been disappointed to find that quality very prominently displayed in a large proportion of the privilege call outs you cite in your book, their obvious desire to humiliate and punish, their indecent readiness to reach for insult and innuendo, their often “bullying” malevolence. One example you cite is the recent obsession with “teen fashion-blogger-and-more Tavi Gevinson’s supposed socioeconomic ‘privilege,’” so that her work can’t be considered on its merits but must instead be accounted for (and attacked) by citing some conspiracy devised by a cabal of sly sponsors or perhaps filthy rich relatives. This is a very mild instance of the “cruelty of sensibility” at issue here.

PMB : I think the human impulse to bully is present across ideology. Because “privilege” is a construct, it’s possible for anyone – even a Trump – to rhetorically position the person they wish to bully as the privileged party.

The biggest cruelty of privilege call-outs, though, is when they’re used as a way of diminishing the significance of a personal or broader tragedy.

RB : I’m not sure I understand what you intend here when you speak of “diminishing the significance of a personal or broader tragedy.”

PMB : By tragedy, for example, I refer to the case of someone diagnosed with an awful illness, very young, but expected to recite a disclaimer about how lucky they are to have health insurance. Which in a sense, they are, but also… not really. Not according to a common-sense definition of the term. Or someone will be upset about a war or attack in their own part of the world, and get chastised for not caring (or being imagined not to care) about a different, more distant tragedy. Telling people to care less than they do, or that they’re wrong to be upset about things that are genuinely upsetting, is cruel.

RB : David Bromwich has spoken about the danger entailed in wanting to belong to what he calls an “opinion community,” and I’ve been thinking about the opinion community that has sponsored, or legitimized, the current obsession with privilege. It’s not an ideologically coherent opinion community, so far as I can tell, and I’m not convinced either that it has obvious primary source texts it relies upon, or what used to be called “presiding presences,” to guide or inspire constituents—in the way that Herbert Marcuse or Simone de Beauvoir could in an earlier time. Would Claudia Rankine, say, be such a presiding presence?

PMB : That’s a subject for a book length examination, and more than I’m equipped to speak to right now. But what I can say is that the sources I use, the thinkers I’m looking at, range from pseudonymous internet commenters to columnists in major newspapers. The conversation spans that range. Do participants in privilege call-outs rely on “presiding presences”? I doubt it.

RB : There is a tendency—it is very pronounced on the American academic left—to associate any criticism of ostensibly “enlightened,” ostensibly “progressive” ideas with reaction or what you call “quasi-reactionary” thought. This was an element, twenty-five years ago, in at least a few prominent responses to the David Bromwich book, in spite of David’s very scrupulous efforts to differentiate his criticism of academic culture from the kinds of critique then coming from right-wing authors like George Will and William Bennett. At any rate, I thought that you might explain what differentiates your own critique of the privilege turn from the “quasi-reactionary” criticism of that phenomenon. Is there in fact what might legitimately be called a reactionary critique of the privilege turn?

PMB : There are many reasons someone might balk at “privilege,” some rooted in progressive politics, others quite the opposite. For me, and for some others on the left, opposition to a privilege framework is about finding a way towards a more effective political strategy. I don’t think privilege call-outs have proven effective. That’s my objection to them.

RB : In fact, you argue in your book that campaigns focused on privilege manage mainly to “reinforce the status quo,” and I’d add that those campaigns avoid enlisting people in the kinds of political struggle promoted by thinkers like Bryan Stevenson. For those who want real politics, well, they need only invest in what Stevenson calls “equal justice initiatives.”

PMB : For people on the right, of course, it’s another story completely. If you’re someone who doesn’t think racism or sexism exists, then hearing about white privilege or male privilege would put you off. If you want to maintain white supremacy or patriarchy – like the so-called “alt-right” – then your objections to “privilege” are objections to the entire notion that systemic injustice exists and requires pushback. Those objections to the privilege turn differ drastically from yours or mine.

RB : Have there been criticisms levelled at your book from the left, that is, from people who associate all criticism of what they take to be “progressive ideas"—like "privilege"—with "reactionary” thinking? Either way, whether or not you have had that sort of criticism directed at you, is there, in your view, a growing tendency on the left to regard non-doctrinaire thinking like your own as dangerous? The intolerance to which I refer has been noted frequently of late by numbers of influential liberals like Frank Bruni and Nick Kristof at The New York Times.

PMB : Yes and no. Some have interpreted my book (from the title, mainly) as being further to the right than it is, or to be making more controversial arguments than it does. Others have taken issue with my refusal, in the book, to engage in a privilege self-analysis… when one of my central arguments is that I find privilege self-analyses unproductive. (Biographical facts about me are readily available; how aware I am of where I fit into society is an ultimately uninteresting question, because none of us can ever really be aware, as in deeply, thoroughly aware, of such things.) But I think because my book is not a Team anti-PC intervention, it has not been received as one.

RB : One of the more surprising features of your book—a most welcome surprise, I would call it—is the attention you pay to the “belief that Jews are unusually privileged,” that “Jews have money, power, and influence beyond our numbers” and that it is a good thing therefore to ‘liberate’ “non-Jews from the yoke of ‘Jewish oppression.’” This is, and has long been, you argue, a feature of anti-Semitism, though “there are Jews who—out of social-justice zeal—[also] refer to Jews as a privileged group” and thus refuse to speak out against the “casual anti-Semitism” that is now quite common in certain precincts of the left, in the US and elsewhere. That casual anti-Semitism can of course take many different forms, and of course it would never occur to many of those who participate in it to think of the special and peculiar species of privilege that permits them to express it without fear of contradiction. But perhaps you would speak further, and more specifically, about this aspect of the privilege turn, and perhaps even consider the tendency to suppose that Jews, including secular Jews, must inevitably, whatever their protestations to the contrary, always speak from the perspective of their “identity,” and thus cannot be trusted to think disinterestedly about, say, Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territories.

PMB : I do address the question of Jews, whiteness, privilege, and the anti-Semitic concept of “Jewish privilege” in my book. There have been a lot of developments since I finished writing it. Specifically: there’s now a mainstream anti-Semitic movement in the US, with the tacit support of the president. That was not the case when I was writing.

All of this has put liberal and progressive Jews in a bind. We’re in this odd situation where we see the Charlottesville reporting of white supremacists mixing Confederate and Nazi nostalgia, wielding swastikas and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” but the conversation hasn’t quite caught up. There were these think-pieces about what white people need to realize, which sort of made sense, given that this was about mobilizing opposition to white supremacy, but also didn’t quite make sense, given that most American Jews are – except to white supremacists – white. A progressive framework that says that no one white can be a victim of racism only holds here if Jews are declared people of color. Which doesn’t work, either, because so many of us have experienced life thus far as white people. The only answer, I think, is to speak of anti-Semitism as its own specific bigotry, rather than as a form of racism.

RB : Fair enough. And yet hard not to think that this is but the beginning of a much longer conversation.

Notes 1. Phoebe Maltz Bovy, The Perils of ‘Privilege’: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)