Why “privilege” has become a bad word

Yesterday Mmusi Maimane tweeted about the degree of “privilege” that he enjoys.

Now a lot of people responded to this by saying he should just confront Helen Zille over her idiotic tweets over this past week, but I want to do something different.

I think this post demonstrates the problem with “privilege” as a term. I’m not holding what Maimane said against him, I don’t think he’d even disagree with what I’m saying here, but I’m using it to illustrate a point on language use.

Section 29 of the South African Bill of rights lays it out thus:

  • (1) Everyone has the right—
    (a) to a basic education, including adult basic education; and
    (b) to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must
    make progressively available and accessible.
    (2) Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably
    practicable. In order to ensure the effective access to, and implementation of, this
    right, the state must consider all reasonable educational alternatives, including
    single medium institutions, taking into account—
    (a) equity;
    (b) practicability; and
    (c) the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and
    (3) Everyone has the right to establish and maintain, at their own expense,
    independent educational institutions that—
    (a) do not discriminate on the basis of race;
    (b) are registered with the state; and
    (c) maintain standards that are not inferior to standards at comparable public
    educational institutions.
    (4) Subsection (3) does not preclude state subsidies for independent educational

So, when Mmusi talks about his child going to a school that has facilities, and provides a great education – that isn’t really a privilege afforded to the few, it is a right denied to the many.

And phrasing something as privilege makes opening it up to everyone else a matter of choice.

That is the difference between a right and a privilege – privileges can be suspended or just outright taken away, that shouldn’t happen with rights.

It is a big chunk of why David Mabuza’s post as Cyril Ramaphosa’s deputy disgusts me so deeply, the New York Times‘ report on his management of Mpumalanga and how funding for schools was diverted to buying favours within the ANC, that was a fundamental violation of those kids’ rights.

And I suspect Maimane would agree with me on this,  but I think it matters how we talk about these issues.

When you hear about “white privilege” with regards to better treatment by police – that’s not privilege, that’s how it should be for everyone.

One of the things I noticed around the Black Lives Matter arguments a while back was that one of the responses was to point out that a lot of white people had been gunned down by cops.

This was to argue that the expectation that cops wouldn’t gun you down was not “white privilege” because everybody was getting gunned down – and this was supposed to make it okay somehow?

I’m supposed to feel better about, “Hey I might get gunned down by the cops, but at least they’re not discriminating about it!”

It is a form of thinking that makes the Thanos snap A okay, because at least he wasn’t discriminating about it, he snapped those fingers there were 50/50 odds of him taking himself out too.

The police behaving in a professional and calm manner is not a matter of privilege it is a matter of right.

The same thing goes for issues around violence against women. Arguing that men get hit too, and that men also suffer domestic abuse – doesn’t make the issue better because to be treated like a human being by your partner isn’t a privilege, it is a right that is sadly denied to far too many people, with women bearing the brunt of it.

And it is part of how we are being trained to accept failure over the years – because we no longer see the things where government or business are failing us as being rights, but privileges that those who complain about this are just whinging about losing.

Rather than social justice becoming about lifting us all up, it becomes about dragging us all down to progressively worse levels of treatment.

Person A gets better treatment than person B. Privilege ends up demanding that person A gets the same treatment as person B, so you end up with a situation where both get treated badly because that’s easier than treating both well.

Which is massively to the advantage of those in charge, because every person having to be treated decently and fairly is effort and money they would much rather spend on themselves.

This is why identity politics has always been so useful to corporations and politicians, rather than demanding more of them, it tends to end up demanding less, and everybody is fighting about what everybody else has got, rather than the fact that not everyone is getting what they are due.

This builds resentment which stalls action rather than plans to enact action. Rather than making things better for all, it makes them worse for some.



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