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A privilege (from Latin prīvilēgium, a law for or against an individual) is a right or advantage gained by birth, social position, effort, or concession. It can have either legal or personal sanction. A privilege is often a pleasure and honour as opposed to an obligation. One can enjoy a privilege, grant a privilege, revoke a privilege, waive a privilege, but also have legal privilege, a rare privilege as well as rights and privileges.

Privilege is often, as it should be, accompanied by responsibility and an ethical sense of duty (in the name of political equality and human dignity), but also with tenacity and discipline. Others, on the contrary, use a form of selfish privilege, divorced from virtue (the capacity to act selflessly for the good of one’s household as well as for that of the community at large), in order to absent themselves from discussions about responsibilities.

It works as invisibly and as pervasively as gravity, or a magnetic field: it requires no act, no deliberation, not even awareness on the part of the people who ratify and reproduce it in countless ways, large and small, every day of their lives. Privilege is not necessarily the same thing as subordination, but privilege is to subordination as water is to fish; it is a kind of ether that pervades society and culture, outside of which there exists no frame of reference from which to talk about it, much less to exert leverage against it. One can avoid privilege, then, neither by wishing it away, nor by pretending that it doesn’t exist, nor, indeed, by analyzing it in classrooms and academic journals. Renouncing society by, for example, joining a monastic order or taking up life on the street, would leave the interwoven gradients of one’s privilege undiminished: individuals are powerless to nullify whatever privilege they enjoy because it is the culture, not the individual, that identifies and ranks whatever characteristics one has or does not have. If anything, dropouts reinforce the network of privilege to the extent that they also renounce whatever power they might have to fight oppression. One can’t avoid the privilege that comes with being white or wealthy or male or attractive or, for that matter, an American citizen. One can only exercise whatever privilege one has, responsibly or not. Responsibility, then, is what distinguishes the political fact of subordination from the ether of privilege in which it propogates.[1]

Privilege is sometimes described politically correct as an unfair, even racial advantage for a particular person or group, an integrated, multi-layered, and largely invisible system of social hierarchy that sustains inequality and subordination in our culture and works in mysterious ways to confound whatever efforts people might make to ameliorate them.

See also


  1. Arthur F. McEvoy: Privilege and Responsibility, Washington University Journal of Law & Policy, 2013 (Archive)