Here’s the very last thing about priv­i­lege you’ll ever need to read

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - CAR­LOS LOZADA Car­los Lozada is the nonfiction book critic of The Wash­ing­ton Post. Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP

Some­one needs to book Phoebe Maltz Bovy on one of those tele­vi­sion shows fea­tur­ing peo­ple who have the most aw­ful jobs in Amer­ica, be­cause she has just com­pleted a project so soul­crush­ing that I can’t imag­ine any­one ever do­ing it again, cer­tainly not vol­un­tar­ily.

She has scoured the In­ter­net for ev­ery over­wrought think piece and self-in­dul­gent per­sonal es­say about priv­i­lege — and has read all of them, ap­par­ently. And if that were not enough masochism, she has also read the com­ments sec­tions, those swamps of vit­riol and con­de­scen­sion that no one is ever sup­posed to even con­tem­plate or speak of, let alone wade into. And she has drawn on that ex­pe­ri­ence to write a book about why so much of the cur­rent de­bate and on­line pile-on about priv­i­lege tends to be con­tra­dic­tory, em­bar­rass­ing, su­per­fi­cial and, above all, self-de­feat­ing.

The re­sult is “The Per­ils of ‘Priv­i­lege,’ ” an of­ten lively and more of­ten me­an­der­ing book that will be of in­tense in­ter­est to the sort of peo­ple who are up on the lat­est cul­tural crit­i­cism on the state of our cul­tural crit­i­cism. Un­less you are steeped in the priv­i­lege de­bates al­ready, the book will be most strik­ing for its ob­ses­sively nar­row fo­cus, and for its ex­pen­di­ture of Bovy’s an­a­lytic and writ­ing tal­ents on a work that ex­plores the vi­cious and petty ways peo­ple talk about a con­cept more than it in­ter­ro­gates the truth of the con­cept it­self. If this book con­sti­tutes as a “take­down” of the priv­i­lege or­tho­doxy, as the au­thor sug­gests, it is very much an in­side job.

Must I first de­fine “priv­i­lege” in its cur­rent use, or should I imag­ine that if you’ve reached this para­graph, you’re al­ready

among the cognoscenti? As it is known to­day and dis­cussed in pro­gres­sive cir­cles, a ju­ris­dic­tion Bovy writes about with the know­ing weari­ness that comes with long­time res­i­dence, priv­i­lege is not just about hav­ing spe­cial ad­van­tages avail­able only to the few, but it is also about those ad­van­tages that are en­tirely un­earned, and usu­ally ones of which the priv­i­leged party is bliss­fully un­aware or, even bet­ter, some­what de­fen­sive.

In the priv­i­lege hi­er­ar­chy, white priv­i­lege — the eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal, cul­tural and safety ben­e­fits ac­cru­ing to those dis­play­ing the sim­ple trait of white­ness — is first among un­equals, though priv­i­lege is also iden­ti­fied and de­cried based on gen­der, ed­u­ca­tion, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, class, wealth and able­bod­ied­ness. “Check your priv­i­lege” and “Your priv­i­lege is show­ing” are by now nearly cliched at­tacks against those deemed in­suf­fi­ciently aware of ac­ci­den­tal bless­ings. And those low­est on the priv­i­lege hi­er­ar­chy are some­how more vir­tu­ous, thanks to what Bovy calls lib­er­als’ “fetishiza­tion of pow­er­less­ness.”

The priv­i­lege crit­i­cisms, th­ese ac­cu­sa­tions of ram­pant and unchecked dis­pen­sa­tion, don’t hap­pen much in face-to-face in­ter­ac­tions with other hu­mans, but in Bovy’s telling they are an oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ard of en­gag­ing in po­lit­i­cal or cul­tural de­bates on­line. Much as God­win’s Law posits that, if they con­tinue long enough, all In­ter­net dis­cus­sions even­tu­ally de­gen­er­ate into Hitler com­par­isons, Bovy’s Law might de­cree that ev­ery on­line fight will even­tu­ally pro­duce an ac­cu­sa­tion of priv­i­lege. In the au­thor’s eyes, priv­i­lege has be­come “the word and con­cept of our age . . . our era’s num­ber one in­sult.”

Per­son­ally, I can think of a few con­cepts that mark the age more clearly, and I’ve en­dured in­sults that sting far worse. But surely Bovy, who flits be­tween New York and Toronto with her doc­tor­ate in French stud­ies in tow, who has the lux­ury of ru­mi­nat­ing on pop­u­lar cul­ture for read­ers of the At­lantic and New Repub­lic and the For­ward, has not ex­pe­ri­enced the pain that I, as a Latin Amer­i­can im­mi­grant to this coun­try, have en­dured over the —

You see how easy it is? I’ve never met Bovy and know noth­ing about her life other than what a Google search yields and what­ever ap­pears on the jacket of her new book, but here I am self-righ­teously ac­cus­ing her of priv­i­lege and parad­ing my own un­ver­i­fied cir­cum­stances as a rel­a­tive virtue. (For the record, I feel nei­ther un­duly op­pressed nor overly priv­i­leged, and if some­one who doesn’t know me wants to ar­gue oth­er­wise, God bless.) It’s an un­seemly yet ubiq­ui­tous prac­tice and, as Bovy sug­gests, one you need to be at least some­what priv­i­leged to in­dulge in. “So much of the priv­i­lege con­ver­sa­tion re­ally is fancy peo­ple con­tem­plat­ing their own fanci­ness,” she writes. “Priv­i­lege aware­ness has be­come a sta­tus sym­bol.”

And that sta­tus is af­firmed via crit­i­cisms of those not demon­strat­ing enough aware­ness of their priv­i­lege — a pop­u­lar tar­get is HBO’s “Girls” cre­ator Lena Dun­ham, whom Bovy la­bels “the think piece face of mil­len­nial en­ti­tle­ment” — as well as con­stant self­flag­el­la­tion over one’s ad­van­tages, whether through priv­i­lege-re­veal­ing es­says or in­ser­tion of the du­ti­ful “aware­ness dis­claimer” in un­re­lated works. “That’s the place,” Bovy ex­plains, “where the writer (prob­a­bly a cis white lady, prob­a­bly straight or bi­sex­ual, prob­a­bly liv­ing in Brook­lyn, def­i­nitely well ed­u­cated, but not nec­es­sar­ily well-off ) in­ter­rupts the usu­ally sched­uled pro­gram­ming to duly note that the is­sues she’s de­scrib­ing may not ap­ply to a transwoman in Pa­pua New Guinea; to a black or work­ing-class wo­man.”

Get a good gaze at those navels, folks? Bovy spends much time — too much, re­ally — dis­sect­ing generic per­sonal es­says and pon­der­ing ran­dom re­ac­tions on the In­ter­net, at­trib­uted to “one Sa­lon com­menter” or “a New York Times Mag­a­zine reader” or “a guy I rec­og­nized from col­lege (at least, I think it’s him) on an Oc­cupy Wall Street-lean­ing Tum­blr.” This book be­comes more ur­gent when Bovy stops an­thro­pol­o­giz­ing the dig­i­tal priv­i­lege pa­trol long enough to ex­plore how the fights over priv­i­lege un­der­mine Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ences in are­nas such as higher ed­u­ca­tion and cul­tural pro­duc­tion.

For ad­mis­sion to top U.S uni­ver­si­ties, “priv­i­lege aware­ness has be­come an es­sen­tial com­pe­tence,” Bovy ar­gues. “An oth­er­wise qual­i­fied ap­pli­cant who demon­strates unchecked priv­i­lege is sud­denly out of the run­ning.” The trou­ble is that stu­dents who are truly dis­ad­van­taged are pre­cisely those less in­clined to de­clare their vul­ner­a­bil­ity. “Mean­while, the stu­dents so­cial­ized to view them­selves as de­serv­ing of spe­cial help tend to be . . . priv­i­leged.” This is an ex­am­ple of Bovy’s true beef with the priv­i­lege cri­tique — that it ex­ac­er­bates ex­ist­ing in­equal­i­ties while of­fer­ing the pow­er­ful the means to as­suage their guilt. “I’ve never quite sorted out by what mech­a­nism aware­ness of priv­i­lege is meant to in­spire a de­sire to shed one­self of it,” she writes.

Bovy also de­votes much at­ten­tion to how film, mu­sic and tele­vi­sion crit­ics have so in­ter­nal­ized the priv­i­lege cri­tique that it now con­sti­tutes an oblig­a­tory lens through which to peer at cul­tural prod­ucts. “The ques­tion ceases to be whether a work is good, new, in­ter­est­ing, en­light­en­ing, or even — as with old-school po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness — whether the work of­fends out­right,” she writes. “It be­comes in­stead one of how it falls ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous pre­or­dained priv­i­lege cat­e­gories.” And she evis­cer­ates tele­vi­sion shows that, in her view, are con­structed pri­mar­ily to an­tic­i­pate priv­i­lege- or rep­re­sen­ta­tion-spe­cific crit­i­cisms. (Aziz An­sari’s com­edy se­ries “Mas­ter of None” comes in for par­tic­u­lar grief.) “I fear the ‘priv­i­lege’ ap­proach has now be­come in­grained in how we con­sume art and en­ter­tain­ment,” Bovy writes. “It may have sim­ply got­ten to the point that all other pos­si­ble re­sponses to a work have been ren­dered in­com­pre­hen­si­ble.”

The priv­i­lege cri­tique helps to re­mind that white, up­per-mid­dle-class sta­tus in Amer­ica should not pro­vide a de­fault stand-in for nor­mal­ity, leav­ing ev­ery­one else vy­ing for best sup­port­ing ac­tor. Even so, the con­struct is more harm­ful than ben­e­fi­cial, Bovy con­cludes, in part be­cause “its role as an aide in on­line bul­ly­ing ex­ceeds its util­ity as a the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work.” And she wor­ries that, in the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, it is the wrong bat­tle­field on which lib­er­als should make a des­per­ate stand. “Ad­dress­ing un­con­scious big­otry — never the most ef­fec­tive strat­egy — is al­to­gether hope­less against the con­scious va­ri­ety,” she con­cludes. “And it’s the con­scious one we’re now up against.”

As she worked on her book, Bovy con­fesses, she oc­ca­sion­ally wor­ried that she was cre­at­ing a “mi­cro­his­tory” of a mo­ment, one that we’d look back on with be­muse­ment, an in­tel­lec­tual Macarena. But she thinks there is more to it than that; the priv­i­lege cri­tique “isn’t a blip,” she de­cides. To counter it, she calls for a greater fo­cus on dif­fer­ences in fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal rather than cul­tural cap­i­tal, and more aware­ness of lin­ger­ing macro prob­lems over mi­croag­gres­sions. Bovy also yearns for more so­cioe­co­nomic di­ver­sity in me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions and a re­turn to tra­di­tional re­port­ing over all those click­bait per­sonal es­says and knee-jerk anti-priv­i­lege screeds. “Let’s start writ­ing and as­sign­ing some­thing else,” she urges ed­i­tors.

We could, of course, just start read­ing some­thing else, too. Not all the wa­ters out there are so swampy.

Car­los Lozada

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