THE PERILS OF ‘PRIVILEGE’: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

St. Martin’s Press. 324 pp. $26.99

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 soul-crushing 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 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 able-bodiedness. “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 self-flagellation 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.

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