Privilege Doesn’t Exist: An Argument Against Compassion

It has become almost platitudinous to say that a sinner never sees sin. The subjugating conquistador never forgets to give thanks to God, nor does the capo fail to attend church on Sundays. It is not them who have labeled themselves as sinners. It is us, in posterity or in present, who have unequivocally tossed them inside a pit marked “Evil: Enter Not” for fear that a hand will rise from the depths and grab each of us deep into the cesspool of iniquity should we linger too close.

It is easy to compare ourselves to them from our perspectives gazing down from above. We are privileged, we think, to live free from sin. We shudder to imagine a situation in which our positions would be reversed, yet we will never condescend to so much as take a step down from our elevated pedestal into our psychological Tartarus.

The constant flourishing of a banner of universal love is nothing but an excuse for our unwillingness to fully understand others and enter the pit. We assume that all of humanity shares one viewpoint, one single modus operandi: our own, gazing serenely from our pedestals, all the while forgetting that each of us are never the most qualified person to make other people’s decisions or interpret their thoughts for them. That person would always be themselves.

We mentally classify groups based on overarching quality, then proceed to forget about the individuals which compose it. Evil is not uniform. Trying to understand Hernán Cortés and Al Capone in the same vein is not only ridiculous, but impossible. The belief that money, caring parents, and a strong academic background launches a person towards success does not necessitate that every unsuccessful man had none of the above.

We cannot lump Evil into one huge grouping, just as we cannot lump Everyone Else into another, and just as we cannot separate the Privileged from the Unprivileged. The point I wish to make clear is that privilege does not exist. Privilege, like Good and Evil, is something we as a society have chosen to construct in order to reconcile ourselves with our unwillingness to empathize.

The concept of privilege necessarily suggests the comparison of the value of one life to that of another. We create a world for ourselves where every one of us stands on pedestals of different heights, add a meter for wealth, subtract a yard for race. Viewing our position of the world in comparison is supposed to allow us to better understand it, to better love all of mankind. But rather, it discourages us from taking a step away from where we stand. Understanding privilege is predicated upon staying put on one’s own pedestal and observing the world from there.

We treat what we deem as less privileged with false pity, the type one would use to speak to a cripple whose condition was borne from birth. It perpetuates a system in which the “less privileged” are encouraged to shame themselves for their very existences, and in which the “more privileged” can toss some pity at the less fortunate and claim to fulfill a commitment to compassion. The recognition of privilege is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that the very consideration of privilege creates it.

This need to be compassionate is not a natural phenomenon. We must remember that our primary responsibility is not towards the betterment of the world, of which we mean little and know little. It is to the betterment of ourselves, of which we know everything. The act of shaming both others and ourselves does little to improve each of us as a person. White people should never feel the need to apologize for the color of their skin; that in itself is ridiculous.

Our self-assured need to be compassionate is juxtaposed with our inability to fully comprehend the depth of others’ lives. What results is the creation of privilege, which ingrains unfairness into our society and offers a convenient conduit for an unnatural need.

Another hackneyed truism rests at the cornerstone of the free world: that all men are created equal. We as a school are obsessed with turning the world into one of complete equality, but what if the world is always already so? The marginalized understand better than anyone else the feeling of oppression; they require neither advice nor pity from those who do not understand them. The marginalized have their own ordained roles in our greater humanity, shoes which no others will fit. Perhaps they should be proud of it.

I don’t see privilege. I see a world where everyone stands on a pedestal but does not look up at the person to his right, nor down at the person to his left. Every pedestal is raised to the same elevation, because the height of the pedestal is determined by the height to which we place ourselves. Our self-worth should never be computed in relation to that of others. Privilege is not compassion. Privilege has simply never existed.

And maybe when we discover that we are all equally privileged, that no background is more valuable than another, and that attempting to love humanity is futile, perhaps then we may no longer feel the need to rank ourselves in comparison to others. Only then can so much as attempt to observe from others’ perspectives, to stand in their places, and to begin to understand just one tiny bit more about mankind.

But never try to steal their shoes. Yours will always fit best.


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  1. 2
    Peter Eberle says:

    Privilege is not measuring worth, it never was. It is a social construct, yes. But it is constructed by the oppressors, the oppressors who “ordained” the “marginalized” to their “shoes” (bizarre word choice, by the way). Privileges are advantages, just as society’s treatments – by various oppressive means – of minorities are disadvantages. To say that these disadvantages – which, again, are apart from worth because they are externally imposed – do not exist is to deny that racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and, well, hate exist. Shame (that’s right) on you.

  2. 2
    AN '16 says:

    Other commenters have made good points about privilege in general, so I’d just like to discuss the following quote:

    “We treat what we deem as less privileged with false pity, the type one would use to speak to a cripple whose condition was borne from birth.”

    Disabled people (cripple is generally considered a slur) are a marginalized group just like the others you’re discussing. As a group they are lack privilege within our society, but they are not inherently lesser as you seem to be implying with this poorly-considered metaphor. This is an open display of prejudice and strongly suggests that you need to consider your own privilege as a (presumably) able-bodied person.

  3. 1
    alum 15 says:

    tl;dr: larger mess aside, “privilege is a social construct, therefore privilege does not exist” is just a bad argument

    Gonna echo some previous commenters and suggest that you think more seriously about what *concretely* “privilege” is, in *precisely* what sense it is “socially constructed,” and what job these categories perform in social scientific research and social justice work. Take, for instance, your core claim:

    “The point I wish to make clear is that privilege does not exist. Privilege, like Good and Evil, is something we as a society have chosen to construct in order to reconcile ourselves with our unwillingness to empathize.”

    Let’s forget for a moment the bit at the end about “our unwillingness to empathize,” except to note really quickly that despite your reasonable enough critique of the tendency to “assume that all of humanity shares one viewpoint” in the third paragraph, you seem perfectly happy here and elsewhere to pinpoint and decry the many weaknesses of a universal We. Of course, it’s difficult to avoid the universal We when writing a pious Brooksian op-ed about the great anti-egalitarian folly of modern social justice discourse, but I think you’re up to the challenge. Let’s focus instead on the implicit inference: privilege is “something we as a society have chosen to construct,” therefore it “does not exist,” i.e., to make the deadly buzzword lurking in the background fully explicit, privilege is a social construct, therefore it does not exist. Somehow this fallacy appears *everywhere*. Does it have a name yet? Maybe if we give it a nice solid Latin one it’ll end up in the AP English curriculum, some far off day.

    In any case, it’s clear that this line of reasoning requires one more implicit premise: social constructs do not exist. Of course this is false on anything other than a uselessly strict interpretation of “exist”. On the contrary, gender and race, for example, persist as social categories with enormous influence on the shape of individual lives and tangible, oppressive effects for those marginalized by their delineations, whether or not we recognize the lines they draw as more socially than biologically or mentally constituted. The fact that social constructionists–by identifying categories previously thought immutable/trans-historically valid as in fact socially constructed and historically contingent–often aim to destabilize these categories and gradually undo the inequalities they perpetuate shouldn’t be misunderstood to imply that we can just immediately brush away concrete oppressive structures as soon as we identify them as in some sense socially constructed. The relevant questions become: what mechanisms work together to perpetuate fundamental inequalities? How have the power relations that unavoidably structure modern life developed over time, and how might they continue to evolve over time? How might we move beyond a vapid hyper-individualism (really, pedestals? tell me, according to what metrics do you measure your self-worth? perhaps you value a prestigious education; certainly you are getting one. was this value totally self-invented? or does it seem more accurate to say that you have absorbed this value from a culture that values it? within this culture, is access to this valued status–“educated”–equally distributed among social groups? see what happens when you bother to think through your recycled metaphors?) towards a self-conception more likely to produce sustainable social change? This whole finicky “existence” bullshit *really* isn’t the point, just like “shame” isn’t the point of “checking your privilege.” One point of examining your own privileges is precisely to begin to modify your behavior to account for the ways in which your perspective on the world is shaped by the various structural advantages that you have enjoyed, i.e. how your own perspective often does not even come close to a approximating a single comprehensive and true perspective on the world as a whole, i.e. see your own paragraph 3 on the dangers of too quickly generalizing beyond your own frame of reference. Checking your privilege involves making concrete decisions about how to behave, how to treat others, how to occupy space, how to interpret the behavior of others, how to choose the voices of authority that guide how to live your life, etc. etc. To assert as you do that “privilege does not exist” is among other things to reject the need to do any of these things. Does this seem to you like an ethical way of navigating the world? Do these decisions seem “non-existent”? Do you deny that the distribution of certain social advantages is structured along lines of systemic inequality? Not to pile the rhetorical questions on too thick but damn now I’m just frustrated I’ve wasted my evening buzz thinking about such an oblivious article.

  4. 1
    Student '15 says:

    Translated: “I don’t understand what privilege is, I think that privilege is a direct comparison rather than the understanding of systems that afford a majority an avoidance of oppression from the multitude of systems that disparately affect minorities; I think that comparing ourselves to others is stupid, and I’m either purposefully not addressing, or ignoring the underlying reason privilege exists, which is to describe the disparate treatment of minority groups by society. I’m struggling to understand that privilege doesn’t actually require me to apologize for my privilege, but to understand what it is, and why I am privileged compared to others who suffer from a multitude of unjust systems. Wouldn’t it be nice if we just couldn’t say privilege? I don’t like that word because it makes me feel icky, I’ve never felt different before…”
    I recently graduated, never took a single social science or gender studies class and clearly understand that the author of this article has no idea what he is talking about in a real way, from the idea that privilege is a comparison of ‘pedestals’ to the absurd statement that “White people should never feel the need to apologize for the color of
    their skin; that in itself is ridiculous”, which honestly after that, I do not think anyone would listen, since it demonstrates such a lack of understanding about what privilege is all of this can be immediately dismissed as a strange apologism for ignoring factually legitimate social issues. I think your ‘ordained role’ should be to think about it for a couple more years, because clearly you haven’t come to any real understanding of what privilege is and seem to base your understanding on extremely shallow and unsupportable platitudes which have no bearing in any real discussion. I am white. You need to start learning about why certain unjust systems exist, not ignore them and then write an apologist piece complaining about privilege when you cannot even demonstrate a basic understanding of its discussion.

  5. 1
    SN says:

    There’s a lot of authoritative-sounding stuff in here (mostly thanks to your decent, if overwrought, prose style), but absolutely nothing to back it up. Let’s take a quote like the the following as a first example,
    “This need to be compassionate is not a natural phenomenon. We must remember that our primary responsibility is not towards the betterment of the world, of which we mean little and know little. It is to the betterment of ourselves, of which we know everything.”

    This statement (which has genuine empirical consequences) is not only seriously ignorant of the scientific literature on the subject, but obviously represents a position only a profoundly privileged person could rationally hold. I’m sorry you find a need to be compassionate unnatural. I don’t feel that way, at all, and neither do most oppressed people. Or scientists, for that matter. But I guess because you’ve made yourself sound as authoritative as possible, you know more than all of them combined, huh?

    Of course we know little of the world (relatively speaking), but do we really know “everything” about ourselves? Or even anything close to it? The notion of internal mental transparency has been dead and buried for at least a hundred years, as anyone who’s taken even a high school level psychology course will tell you. I would likely agree with some parts of what you’re attempting to say in this piece, but the sheer ineptitude with which you’ve articulated it is pretty shocking. Even someone arguing in favor of the grotesque strawman you’ve decided to alternately call “privilege” and “compassion” would easily refute the above statements. This article really isn’t fit to be printed. I’ll offer below a brief criticism of a few of the numerous absurdities to be found in your piece.

    First of all, if anyone’s claiming that “evil is uniform”, that’s news to me. I’m not sure where you would have gotten this idea, as even the most trite of contemporary think-pieces makes an attempt at acknowledging the varied articulations of ill will. However, particularly in the cases of Cortes and Capone, but also more generally, there are instructive parallels to be drawn (especially regarding their individual rationales), and dismissing the two forms of evil as irreducibly unique is just plain foolish. You follow this statement with a logical fallacy, though one that isn’t immediately apparent. You contrast a statement (simplified here as if money, then success) with its contrapositive, saying that though the former may be true (it obviously isn’t in all cases), its contrapositive isn’t. This would make sense if the “compassionate” argument you present wasn’t a childish perversion of what privilege-hawkers actually believe. Your quantifiers are off. You assume this (if money, then success) statement and its contrapositive are easily and universally truth-evaluable, when really they’re rough (as rough as any hypothesis in the social sciences) approximations of empirical phenomena, which can never be known with absolute certainty the same way theorems of first-order logic can. The exploitation of this hard positivistic structure is a well-known tool of the sophist, but thankfully feels suspect enough on first inspection that anyone who isn’t brain-damaged can see through it pretty easily.

    As to your thesis statement, that “privilege does not exist”, sure, maybe it doesn’t in the sense you mean it. “Exist” is used as an honorific term more than anything else, in these contexts, and it probably doesn’t make sense to posit it as an entity in the same way someone posits the existence of pi. But as far as I know, outside of the scope of this bizarre essay, nobody really thinks it exists that way. When people talk about privilege, they tend to mean something along the lines of “Inherited or otherwise accidentally acquired material and social advantages of which one tends not to be immediately consciously aware”. Now, if you’re saying *that* doesn’t exist, then I think you need to pay a visit to the shrink.

    Another ridiculous quote:
    “[The construct of privilege] perpetuates a system in which the ‘less privileged’ are encouraged to shame themselves for their very existences.”

    How exactly are the less privileged expected to shame themselves if they’ve, as you’ve stated, come to that position through no fault of their own? The purpose of “privilege” in the usage in which you mean, isn’t to shame people, but to provide a coherent structure by which the privileged and non-privileged can successively and incrementally increase their awareness of the material conditions which constrain their lives and **use the critique of these conditions enabled by the clarity the construct provides to affect material change**. This isn’t a complicated concept, just one you’ve apparently worked very hard not to understand.

    Your claim that the construct of privilege is what “ingrains unfairness into our society” is just plain crazy. Its latter-day prevalence has actually had very limited material consequences, especially when (to bathetic effect) compared to, say, the slave trade, or the economic program of the IMF, or the Marshall Plan. You’ve created one hell of a bugaboo, dude.

    Again, as any sane person knows, the “height of the pedestal” of privilege (confused and inconsistent as this metaphor is) is NOT determined by the height to which we place ourselves. The suffering should NOT “perhaps” be proud of their “ordained” roles in our “greater (in)humanity” (ordained by whom or what, it might be worth asking). Try suggesting this to a factory worker in Bangladesh, or a homeless man in Philadelphia, and see where it gets you. These comments are particularly vile and shameful.

    Certainly, it makes sense that our self-worth not be determined in relation to one another’s, but you erroneously (and I think intentionally) conflate and confuse one’s level of material wealth and social prestige with their self-worth. There are moments in your article where the outlines of the point I hope you’re trying to make, that people should not underestimate their capacities for empathy in their attempts to use “privilege” to understand the perspectives and experiences of others, can be vaguely glimpsed, but these moments are fleeting. You appear to be as confused about this subject as you sound certain about its consequences. I would urge you to do some reading in the social sciences, and reflect on the consequences of what you propose for the majority of those on Earth, who toil and suffer in horrifying conditions for years without end just for their bare subsistence.

  6. 0
    wisewoman says:

    I think you are trying to get at a very important idea here and perhaps the image of the pedestal is not quite right and is misleading some of your readers. Keep at it. Here is a poem that speaks to the ideas your essay is working toward.

    Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
    are not starving someplace, they are starving
    somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
    But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
    Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
    be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
    be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
    at the fountain are laughing together between
    the suffering they have known and the awfulness
    in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
    in the village is very sick. There is laughter
    every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
    and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
    If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
    we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
    We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
    but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
    the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
    furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
    measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
    If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
    we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
    We must admit there will be music despite everything.
    We stand at the prow again of a small ship
    anchored late at night in the tiny port
    looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
    is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
    To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
    comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
    all the years of sorrow that are to come.

    Jack Gilbert

  7. 0
    Jacob Demree ( User Karma: 1 ) says:

    Thank you for a very interesting article! I am intrigued by your notion that privilege is a social construct–which I believe to be true absolutely. I am troubled, however, by your claim that you “don’t see privilege.” I feel that, as false and as harmful as perceptions of privilege are–just as misguided perceptions of identities certainly are–refusing to “see” them accomplishes two conflicting goals: first, it refuses to grant validity to the system; second, it names it. Naming has power, and is necessary; yet, by initially acknowledging the irrationality of the system and then naming it, its presence is, in a way, perpetuated, just as a problem which is beyond one’s control to change, which I do not believe to be your standpoint, and which I know is not my own.

    You write, though, that everyone is, in fact equal and, in a sense, we are. Still, equality is nullified in practice when the proverbial playing field is slanted towards an individual or group. I refuse to believe that we cannot change this, and I accordingly struggle to recognize the unjustly-planted privileges and lacks of privilege granted me so as to not only name them in their absurdity, but also to knowingly embrace my identities–racial, religious, socioeconomic, gender, etc—and move on as an individual and not a typecast member of any of them.

    Finally, I want to conclude personally. You mention that “White people should never feel the need to apologize for the color of their skin; that in itself is ridiculous.” I agree. I also struggle, as a white male, with shame for the actions of others who came before me–maybe even my ancestors–and who still act today. That is what must be overcome, as you imply, and that is, I believe, a main takeaway from this piece. In some respect, we are all on pedestals or expected to worship at the base of one by unjust societal norms, but, as changemakers, we must not step down or climb up–that does imply their validity–but instead shatter them. The truth is, pedestals do exist in this world, and we must recognize that. The goal, then, is to demonstrate their inability to dominate the individual. Especially in today’s world, where we are taught that terrorism brings to mind religion, and violence, race–and we blatantly and disgustingly say the Civil Rights Movement is a historical act which concluded long ago–it is necessary to recall the words “we shall overcome,” as moving to overcome must be, truly, the quality which defines us.

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