This is a long post on the mostly bad effects of using the term ‘privilege’ in social and political analysis. I broke it up into three parts at Patheos. Part I dealt with Wiccan privilege. Part II with the concept of privilege in social analysis generally, focusing on its most common use as “White male privilege.” Part III analyzed how occult and spiritual issues further demonstrated the problems, and even dangers, of unconstrained usage of the term. Here I provide the entire essay.
Considering ‘Privilege’ White, Wiccan, and otherwise.
Part I: Wiccan privilege
The deepest issues underlying recent arguments over ‘Wiccan privilege’ are rooted in equality’s relation to freedom. Freedom of any sort always generates inequality of some sort. What kind of equality matters and when? What kind of freedom matters, and when? Thinking clearly about equality and freedom is tricky, and this is the most difficult paper I have written for Patheos.
The intensity and all too frequent venom I encountered in discussions over ‘Wiccan privilege’ dovetailed with other experiences I was having in very different contexts. I decided to revisit the issue of how we think about inequalities in a good society as well as in flawed ones. I think how many Americans deal with these issues today has gotten seriously off track. This is particularly true among those thinking of themselves as progressive.
This article will appear in three parts. The first concerns ‘Wiccan privilege’. Part II considers an example where the term actually has some value: ‘White male privilege’. I argue the value is small and if the term is used casually it does enormous harm to the causes its adherents favor. The third part leaves social science and philosophy behind and suggests how a Pagan outlook incorporating occult and spiritual insights deepens our understanding of these issues.
I want to make one point clear before I proceed. Nothing I write denies or excuses the enormous injustices and damage that racism and other forms of invidious discrimination inflict on people. Given the propensity of some of my critics to give the worst possible interpretation to what I write, I want to make this point explicit.
‘Privilege’ as it used to be
The term ‘privilege’ has long been used in many different ways. It could refer to the privilege of learning to drive, which requires reaching a certain age. Privileges could also be added as a child matured into an adult. These privileges required pleasing one’s parents, who could also take existing privileges away. In these uses every normal person will in time have all adult ‘privileges,’ after which they will be regarded as rights.
But there are very different meanings. Particularly in social and political analysis, people were described as having privileged legal positions over others, as was long the case for men with respect to women, and once the case with aristocratic classes. Other “privileged classes” were not so much legal creations as rooted in inherited wealth. In all these cases privileges were neither earned nor could all people ever enjoy them. They applied to some groups and not others.
People also say they were “privileged” to have had a happy childhood, or to hike in wild nature, or learn a musical instrument while growing up. Everyone wants a happy childhood but not all do. The other blessings were not earned, nor need everyone enjoy experiencing them. But for those who do, these opportunities can be life shaping. In all these cases ‘privilege’ is more a synonym for ‘good fortune’ than legal privilege or status as a youngster. The recipient did almost nothing, or nothing at all, to receive them.
‘Privilege’ can also be used as a benefit of membership. Upon becoming a member, one is said to have all the “rights and privileges” of that status. What this actually means is rarely described, but in these cases I acquire privileges by joining a group. Importantly, they are distinguished from rights.
These examples give us a sense of the word’s flexibility. But it is not endlessly flexible. In all cases privileges are distinguished from basic human rights. Ideally everyone has equal basic rights. Even children have some and will get others upon adulthood. By contrast a privilege implies, accepts, and sometimes justifies inequality, usually but not always unearned. What is shared by all equally is not a privilege.
I think this is why ‘privilege’ is a useful term for describing our relations with non-adults. In time children will become adults with equal rights, but until those rights are fully recognized they receive gradually increasing privileges compared to younger children. On the other hand, ‘privileges’ can also excuse behavior by little children that would not have been acceptable in older ones, or adults. They were be privileged by virtue of their young age.
All of these uses of ‘privilege’ apply to very different situations, carry different levels of ethical impact, and take their meaning from the context in which the word is used. All they share in common is a recognition of an inequality between people.
Privilege as used in social analysis today
As used today in social and political analysis, ‘privilege’ has expanded from its initial focus on legally defined privileges for a group to referring to advantaged socio-economic classes, to encompassing any socially recognized and approved differences one group has compared to some other group that gives them an unequal advantage.
Not every inequality qualifies as a privilege. Muggers are not privileged because the power they employ is not socially legitimate. Privilege refers to differences in socially legitimate power to achieve whatever it is one wants to achieve.
In a feminist context Laurie Penny writes approvingly “’privilege’ isn’t at all hard to understand. It just means any structural social advantage that you have by virtue of birth, or position – such as being white, being wealthy, or being a man. ‘Check your privilege’ means ‘consider how your privilege affects what you have just said or done.’”
This sounds simple, but “structural social advantage” is open-ended and so is the vague term “position.” Taken together they have no stopping point short of “any socially recognized position that gives someone an advantage over another.” As to birth, insofar as one has a more advantaged birth than another- better parents, better health, more secure home, any advantage at all, one is ‘privileged’ over those who did not have it.
A member of a group not privileged with respect to more powerful groups may still be privileged in reference to someone not enjoying the advantages they have. For example, America’s poor are wealthier than most of the world’s population. By this logic a resident of a Brazilian favela or Chinese slum could justifiably say all of America’s poor are ‘privileged’. But they are not ‘privileged’ in America.
From this perspective a person of inherited wealth or someone outstanding in their field are equally described as “privileged” compared to those who are not wealthy or not outstanding. The issues ‘privilege’ raises are not how the differences arise, only that they exist.
In describing a recent discussion of “Wiccan privilege” during this past February’s Pantheacon, Heather Greene reported “Several people stressed the importance in examining the oppressions that affect us and in staying aware of the points of privilege from which we speak. Who is given automatic authority by virtue of the established, dominant power structure – by virtue of age, position, accomplishments or religious tradition?” As Perry said above, “Check your privilege’ means ‘consider how your privilege affects what you have just said or done.’” What matters is the inequality.
Historically, when applied to groups of adults the term privilege usually carried a negative message or implied an obligation on the part of the privileged towards those not so privileged, as with the traditional conservative view of noblesse oblige. The contemporary expansion of ‘privilege’ to encompass all socially approved differences in “structure or position” as well as birth carries with it the sense that in an ideal society such privileges would not exist. Perry’s examples of ‘privileges’ arising from being White, male, or wealthy compared to others make this point clear, but her examples only scratch the surface of what her definition can include.
Consider “Wiccan privilege.” The term refers to the fact that most people think of Wiccans when they think of modern EuroPagans. This one-sided attention to ‘one tradition’ among many others allegedly constitutes a reason other Pagans have to be resentful or angry towards Wiccans, as we saw in earlier discussions on this site.
Consider again Greene’s observation “Several people stressed the importance . . . in staying aware of the points of privilege from which we speak. Who is given automatic authority by virtue of the established, dominant power structure – by virtue of age, position, accomplishments or religious tradition?” Those who are privileged have advantages others say they experience as “oppressions.”
A longstanding criticism of legal privilege was that people did not earn their privileges, they were born into them. This was unjust. Now this sense of injustice is applied to a vastly larger playing field. If someone has achieved significant accomplishments the authority they receive from others is “automatic” rather than earned. The authority comes from a “power structure” and so reflects power relations rather than recognizing a person’s accomplishments. Any advantage potentially constitutes ‘privilege’ manifesting as ‘oppression’.
During a Pantheacon meeting and in various online discussions many commentators attacked making significant distinctions based on accomplishments or position. Any ‘privilege’ was considered an affront to the ‘less privileged’ unless the ‘privileged’ actively deferred to them. It was a passive-aggressive claim that because I am weaker/less well known/ less accomplished in the eyes of others than you are, you have to defer to me.
This is the perspective that argued Wicca enjoys an unjust institutional dominance that constitutes ‘privilege.’ But what does this mean? There is no central Pagan clearing house and most Wiccan groups are limited to 13, and rarely grow that big. A coven can refuse to initiate someone, but that does not prevent them from seeking membership elsewhere or starting a new Wiccan ‘tradition’ up on their own initiative. Every coven is independent, and their variety has grown so much “Wiccan” no longer means what it meant in the sixties, when it only described descendents of British traditional groups. Wiccans do not even control the definition of who we are.
Further, if someone creates a Druid Grove or a Heathen Kindred, no Wiccan anywhere has anything to say about it. And today many Pagans are solitaries, even if they might call themselves Wiccans. There is no “Wiccan power structure” which, if the term has any meaning at all, implies some hierarchy of authority.
The real issue is that Wicca is better known and has more people identifying with it. The reasons have nothing to do with any kind of control or authority Wiccans exercise over other Pagans. We Wiccans were the first practicing NeoPagans to become public, and so begin to attract followers. We grew in numbers because people wanted to join us. We were among the first, perhaps the first, Pagans to become active in interfaith activities and certainly the first to have a national organization, Covenant of the Goddess, actively promoting such activity.
Pagans identifying themselves as Wiccan are better known than others and have more members. But what is surprising about this? We were the first NeoPagans with a public presence and our rituals are suited to any place with four seasons. We emphasize the universal themes of the divine feminine and the sacredness of nature and de-empathize any particular ethnic connection, which is why there are so many forms of Wicca claiming to represent different ethnicities. Or none at all. If my new book is correct, Wicca in its broad sense speaks directly to the deepest spiritual needs of many modern Americans. This is why Starhawk’s workshops inspired so many women in other religious traditions to explore the sacred feminine and the sacredness of nature from within their own religious traditions. They did not become Wiccans by doing so, they remained Christian or Jews or Buddhists, but Wiccan themes powerfully spoke to them.
Some Wiccans focused on interfaith activity very early. The result was that our path became well known in interfaith communities. As a rule even now other NeoPagan and Pagan traditions take less advantage of opportunities for interfaith engagement opened up by Wiccans. Consequently non-Pagans engaged in interfaith usually meet Wiccans. They therefore naturally think of Wiccans when they think of modern Pagans, and speak about us in that way to others within their own communities. While Wiccans frequently remind them there are other Pagan traditions, words are not as memorable as the men and women they meet.
Additionally, the groups complaining today were formed years after Wicca had put down strong roots in this country. These groups benefit from years of Wiccan public out reach, benefits they did nothing to help obtain until recently, if they helped at all. Among the advantages they inherited from our work is the fact they rarely if ever worry about losing their job if they become known as Pagans. It was not always so.
Years ago many out-of-the-closet Wiccans lost jobs because of our religion. I know for I was one who did. I took the risks of being public partly because I had no family to support, and no one depended on me. Others with stronger obligations to loved ones or greater vulnerability chose to stay in the closet. Even so, through their connections with family and friends most played important roles in overcoming popular fears of Witchcraft, Pagans, and the like. Consider as evidence the success of Dar Williams’ wonderful The Christians and the Pagans.
Today there is vastly less risk to individuals proclaiming they practice a Pagan religion. The pentacle and just recently Thor’s hammer have been approved for military tombstones. Every Wiccan I know was pleased when the hammer was added. We did not think our ‘power’ was challenged.
That other Pagans benefited from Wiccans’ work no more makes them ‘parasites’ and ‘free loaders’ on those of us who did the work than Wiccans are ‘privileged’ because for decades Wiccans did most of the heavy lifting relating as Pagans to the larger society. Both outlooks represent zero-sum perspectives on human relations and both are ignorant and destructive.
Life consists of cycles of gains and losses, assets and costs, frequently interweaving inextricably and unpredictably within a generation and between generations. As many of us Wiccans say, “She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes.”
The mistake here is akin to trying to judge the vitality and value of an ecosystem by standards requiring every being, or every species, to play an equal role or be open to criticism. An ecosystem is richer because different beings play very different roles. The same is true for humanity’s “social ecosystem.” Both are complex systems creating wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts. I love the African proverb “I am because we are” and I am richer and more multifaceted if we are not all the same.
Employing the language of ‘Wiccan privilege’ only adds the parts together- and does so without factoring in how the so-called ‘privileged’ also made life easier for the so-called ‘oppressed.’ At best it is a snapshot of a single dimension of equality and inequality at a narrow point in time. In other words, at best it is misleading.
It is also a moral failing.
The triumph of resentment and envy
Let us return to what Laurie Penny wrote: “’privilege’ isn’t at all hard to understand. It just means any structural social advantage that you have by virtue of birth, or position – such as being white, being wealthy, or being a man. ‘Check your privilege’ means ‘consider how your privilege affects what you have just said or done.’”
Virtually every difference within society enabling some people to have advantages others do not is rooted in birth or positions or both. As Perry presents it, all these differences pick up the moral flavor that comes with the abuses of race, gender, and wealth. That most people think of Wiccans when they think of Pagans understandably annoys some non-Wiccan Pagans. They frequently have to explain they are not us. It can be irritating but is no more “oppression” than when any of us Pagans has to explain to an uninformed person how assumptions about religion rooted in Christianity do not necessarily apply to us. I call this a “teaching moment.”
I have also heard about occasional self-described Wiccans claiming Wicca is ‘best.’ But I know of no statement to this effect by any prominent Wiccan, and a great many who say otherwise. My book Pagans and Christians went to some lengths to make that point and it has been out just under 15 years. Why ‘privilege’ the views of an unrepresentative unpublished and to most of us unknown minority over the majority of Wiccans who say otherwise?
To identify these rather trivial issues as a part of the same problem of ‘privilege’ that colors some of the worst moments in American history is offensive in both directions. It trivializes the real crimes and grotesquely exaggerates the inconveniences of not being as well-known as someone else, or encountering the occasional fool.
This is nuts, and it is a poisonous nuts because it encourages envy and resentment, and magnifies both with a large dose of confident self-righteousness. The problem is not confined to Pagans. The same style of thought plagues others as well. For example, mainstream feminists are similarly afflicted.
When any socially sanctioned inequality rooted in a person’s position or some social structure is regarded as a ‘privilege,’ clear thinking is the first victim. In the case of ‘Wiccan privilege’ almost all who complained in a denunciatory way were members of small new traditions. At Pantheacon I heard complaints they received less favorable time slots for their presentations than others did. But most workshops and presentations, including my own, received less than ideal time slots. This is what happens when there are lots and lots of workshops and time is limited. (My big one, on healing, was Friday afternoon, when almost certainly many who would otherwise attend were at work. I had another about my new book early Friday evening when many were eating.) The prime Saturday and Sunday slots went to better-known people likely to draw very large crowds. As they should have. Ironically, those complaining about ‘Wiccan privilege’ limiting their presentations made no mention of their ‘privilege’ over the many proposals that were turned down! Did they ‘oppress’ those denied any slots at all? Or is there something wrong with this entire line of thought?
The word “privilege” is too abstract to do the work that needs to be done when we are discussing the intricacies of equality and inequality and how to make life better. It works well with respect to legal privileges giving some people advantages over others in the eyes of the law. It can be useful for other cases I describe in Part II. Expanding it as has been done for ‘Wiccan privilege’ and its equivalent in feminism opens the door to serious abuses and confusions.
But if claims to “Wiccan privilege” and similar slights, real and imagined, lead to severe misunderstandings and abuse, what of uses that seem connected to genuine oppression? What about “White male privilege?” Does the term ‘privilege’ do any real work or provide any valuable insights in that context?
Part II: When the language of privilege works and when it does not
‘White Male Privilege’
All else being equal, in America it is better to be born a white male than a male of any other race or a female of any race. Despite universal formal equality under the law, the combined influences of childhood socialization, ingrained cultural habits and informal arrangements among police and others with authority and power, in most contexts White males usually enjoy greater leniency and often economic opportunity compared to other people.
This is true even when they are almost certainly stealing. The video illustrates one example of a all too common double standard. It is not unique . New York would never have applied “stop and frisk” to White males, as it did with Black men. We frequently hear of “Black-on-Black” crime, but not ‘White-on-White’ crime, yet in reality both Whites and Blacks are far more likely to be killed by someone of their own race than of another. When I go on a road trip, about the last thing I need to think about is what Black drivers have to think about a lot: driving while Black. Driving while White is a ‘privilege’ by Laurie Penny’s definition: “any structural social advantage that you have by virtue of birth, or position” and whatever we call it, it is unlikely to provoke police harassment, violence, or arrest.
Nor are the benefits of being a White male in this country only racial. Our dominant religion has a long history of justifying and even commanding the legal and social subordination of women. In many churches they are still told it is their God’s will that they be obedient and subordinate to their husbands, as their husbands are supposed to be to God. The worst of these people seek to bring back the worst of those times. Secular institutions as well long differentiated between men and women, usually, (but not always, remember the draft?) to the benefit of the man.
In addition, some white men come from economically prosperous families, inheriting more wealth, and being better situated to enter important social networks useful for gaining additional power, status, and wealth. In this country, powerful elites are mostly White males.
Sometimes too much is made of this. The longest residing American ethnic group (other than dispossessed Indians) has been Europeans. European cultures long had customs and laws enforcing male supremacy over women and the advantages of the propertied over the propertyless. European immigrants brought these customs with them. While in time the logic of equality and democracy began a slow cultural change, that change is far from complete regarding gender or race. Issues involving race and gender have been perennial issues in American society and politics.
At no point in the above description did I use the word ‘privilege’ to describe anything other than referencing Penny’s advocacy of the term. Would applying “privilege” to label these advantages some have over others done any additional work deepening our understanding of inequality?
It would not. Worse, outside a very narrow context its use muddies the understandings we do have. The term has many drawbacks and here, I will examine its intellectual, moral and political drawbacks. Part III will explore the spiritual and occult drawbacks as well as how better to think about equality and inequality.
The word ‘privilege’ lumps different kinds of advantages arising from different causes into a single term, in the process confusing our ability to understand equality and inequality in human life. For example, the advantages of inheritance are lumped with the advantages of hard work, racism, and luck. All four unequally empower some and not others, thereby constituting ‘privilege’. (Even the likelihood and form luck takes reflects our social positions, and so is influenced by our ‘privilege’.) But their impact on the quality of life varies a lot as does their moral weight.
Failing I: a blanket term for multiple causes with multiple effects
Let’s take one important example. White men are said to be ‘privileged’ when they bring in better incomes than Blacks.
Years ago when reading Thomas Sowell’s Ethnic America I learned that most American Blacks are members of one of three communities: those liberated from slavery in the north shortly after the American Revolution, the vast majority liberated in the South after the Civil War, and immigrants from the Caribbean. I had never thought to make such a distinction, nor I imagine have most White people reading this piece. My best Black friend, who has no use for Sowell’s politics, assures me this fact is well known in the Black community.
According to Sowell, Caribbean immigrants’ descendents have educations and incomes close to the level of the White community and are disproportionately represented among the leaders of the Black community. The differences between Caribbean and non-immigrant Blacks are certainly not racial, nor are they the outcome of White society discriminating less against Caribbean immigrants because Whites generally are unaware of this distinction. Sowell argued the basic differences between these groups are cultural.
Sowell is wrong. The differences exist because Caribbean immigrants tended to be skilled and literate, in fact even more so than most European immigrants or America’s Black residents.
The explanation needs no talk of ‘privilege.’ Caribbean immigrants disproportionately came from the best educated and most prosperous classes of Blacks in the West Indies. Today we would call their coming here a “brain drain” from the West Indies to the US. They arrived with skills and attitudes that empowered them in their new country, enabling them on the whole to do better than the less educated American Black population. But in time White immigrants’ incomes surpassed those better trained, more literate, and fluent English speaking Caribbean Blacks. The reason was White racism. Their skills did not enable them to over come the invidious racism of dominant American culture.
Were White immigrants ‘privileged’ with respect to Caribbean Blacks? Were Caribbean Blacks ‘privileged’ compared to American Blacks? Were American Whites more privileged with respect to American Blacks than they were to Caribbean Blacks? All these uses of the term fit Penny’s definition of privilege. But does this line of questioning shed any light on anything of interest? Not that I can see.
Failing II: analytical incoherence
The video I linked to showing people’s very different reactions to a young white man and a young Black man apparently stealing a bicycle is about as clear an example of “White male privilege” as one could find. In these examples the ‘privilege’ is to be given the benefit of the doubt. If ‘privilege’ meant getting more benefit of the doubt than others in ambiguous situations it gives a useful name to phenomena too little acknowledged by its beneficiaries. Here the term does useful work expanding our understanding.
Even so, if viewed to the end, the video shows White women get even more privilege in this case than do White men. Yet White women are universally regarded as less ‘privileged’ than White men.
This example demonstrates ‘privilege’s’ inadequacy as a general term for describing, let alone understanding, differences in advantages and disadvantages between groups. The advantage women have in this case is rooted in sexual dynamics: straight men want to come to the favorable notice of women they find attractive. White male privilege with regard to stealing bicycles is rooted in considering Blacks as more dishonest than Whites.
‘Privilege’ usefully describes advantages largely invisible to the advantaged but visible to others, advantages that when absent encourage fear, distrust, and hostility. What I put into italics is crucial. In contexts like that the term “White male privilege” or equivalent uses identify something real. If there had been no White male advantage of this sort Trayvon Martin would be alive today.
But when applied more broadly, as Penny’s definition does, ‘privilege’ leads to the problems I discussed regarding ‘Wiccan privilege’. For example, evolutionary theory is ‘privileged’ compared to ‘creation science’ or ‘intelligent design’ and for reasonable people science is ‘privileged’ compared to the Bible. But unreasonable Christians ‘privilege’ a ‘literal’ reading of the Bible over science. Indeed, success in just about any context no matter how achieved is ‘privileged.’
The term is too broad, too all encompassing, and too abstract to do much serious work. It needs to be kept on a tight leash. Broad applications of the term “White male privilege” should be abandoned when more specific terminology does justice to the complexities involved, such as prejudice, racism, and sexism.
In discussing ‘Wiccan privilege’ I covered the moral failing of not appreciating how significant differences between people help create and sustain a better world for all. The zero-sum logic underlying the widespread use of privilege is anti-human. We are not mostly interchangeable ants or termites. But there are two additional moral failings to the widespread use of this term.
First, the language and logic of ‘privilege’ is weakening and often replacing the language of rights. Second, terms like “White male privilege” are applied to a group rather than an individual and yet individual members of the group may have done nothing to create or strengthen their privilege nor could they do anything to diminish it. In fact, the term is often applied to individuals who in fact are victims of the very processes and actions associated with creating and maintaining ‘White male privilege.’
Failing I: ‘Privilege’ is almost always an inferior standard to ‘rights’
All White males benefit from some of the phenomena labeled ‘White male privilege,’ such as more considerate treatment by police officers, special preferences in hiring, or more trust in ambiguous situations, but other advantages accrue to only a very few, such as good economic opportunities. Most White males are neither particularly powerful nor particularly privileged. There are many millions more poor White males than poor Black males, and the benefits they receive from being White are usually overridden by the price they pay for being powerless with respect to powerful White males. The alternative argument is to argue poor White males would be even more poor in the absence of White male privilege. These poor White men are not in a position to make or enforce the laws that generate an oligarchic class greatly benefiting some Whites and in less central ways benefiting most. Nor did they have any role in establishing that situation.
Nearly all the ‘privileges’ that apply to all White males are better described as rights that should apply to everyone by virtue of their being a person. For example, everyone should be treated courteously by police officers and everyone should be evaluated for a position by virtue of their qualifications alone unless close personal relationships are important, as in renting a room in your house. Here ‘privilege’ simply means someone’s rights are not violated.
As illustrated in the bicycle example, the case of advantages in ambiguous situations involves stereotyping. Stereotyping is probably unavoidable. The best we can do is be aware of our tendency to give the benefit of the doubt when it is not justified to some groups and not to others, and the converse, and so not to act on our inclination. ‘Privilege’ describes those who automatically benefit from a stereotype that advantages them beyond their merits just as its opposite penalizes those falling into a negative stereotype for actions and attitudes of which they are innocent. “White male privilege’ is also a stereotype, and this injunction should apply to those holding it as much as to those distrusting young Black men because they are Black.
Stereotypes are tricky. In the bicycle example one could argue passers by acted appropriately in questioning the Black man sawing through the bicycle lock and inappropriately in not questioning the White man and woman. The language of rights does not work. Here is why ‘privilege’ works better in this case. But it always has to be applied to a specific context because, as we saw when we included the woman in the bicycle caper, applied abstractly, ‘privilege’ implies women are more privileged than men. In some contexts they are. Consider again the military draft during the Vietnam War. In many other cases men have the advantage.
When applied to adults ‘privilege’ normally implies those possessing it possess an unearned advantage over others denied the ‘privilege.’ ‘Privilege’ and ‘rights,’ as we saw in Part I, are usually mutually exclusive. When ‘White male privilege’ describes both the freedom to travel unhindered by police and preference in hiring, a right is blurred with actions undermining others’ rights.
Rights recognize and legitimize some important differences arising from their use whereas using ‘privilege’ in their place shifts our focus towards legitimating only identity. Every difference has to be justified against this standard. Our focus turns from identifying guilty parties to focusing on the beneficiaries of others’ bad (or even not bad) acts, who may themselves be entirely innocent and powerless.
Basic rights apply to individuals by virtue of our common humanity or our common membership in a community of political equals. Reference to rights focuses on whether a person has them or is unjustly denied them. It has proven a powerful term for social transformation, from the inalienable rights (not privileges) enumerated in our Declaration of Independence to the civil right movement (not Black access to White civil privileges), voting rights for women (not women’s access to men’s voting privileges), and gay rights movement (not gay people’s access to straight people’s privileges).
Shifting from demanding rights due to all to attacking privileges enjoyed by a few, weakens the moral foundations of a free society because those foundations are not simple equality of influence but rather equality of rights. Equal rights always lead to unequal influence.
Failing II: promoting collectivist ‘morality’
I believe we are predisposed to identify with those with whom we have the most concrete relationships, and who are the most like us. This predisposition is the first step in the progressive opening of our hearts from narcissism towards the wider world of other individuals. Unfortunately at some point this process often comes to a halt. Some people are considered morally significant, others not.
Much of human history can be viewed as the slow expansion of the ethically relevant community to encompass ever more of us. Viewed in this way nationalism is a step beyond tribalism because it includes a larger and more diverse group as morally worthy, but it still maintains a tribal distrust of others and willingness to demonize them when conflicts arise, as demonstrated by many Americans’ indifference to Iraqi deaths at our hands, despite their having done us no harm.
The morality of individual rights pushes against this tendency, and has proven more successful at doing so than anything else in history. As we incorporate others increasingly different from ourselves into our moral universe as right holders our capacity to cooperate and live peacefully with others increases.
Collectivism pushes in the opposite direction, taking to an extreme our all-too-human tendency to over identify with an in-group at others’ expense. The well-being of the group transcends both those outside the group, and even the individuals within it, who acquire their worth only by serving the group. People’s identities are subordinated to the group of which they are a member. To refer again to Iraq, when the Dixie Chicks criticized President Bush they were vilified, their recordings destroyed, and right wing corporate radio no longer played them. They were no longer worthy of respect because they disagreed with America’s collectivists.
From this perspective young women killed for having brought ‘dishonor’ to their families or Whites killed by Southerners for supporting civil rights are the victims of collectivist morality as are the 300 Black American killed in White attacks on their neighborhoods in Tulsa, Oklahoma often murdered while supporting Black civil rights. Thousands of men and women, Black but also White, were lynched in the South. Collectivist attitudes ultimately encompass the greatest crimes in human history, from the terror and murder in Dixie to the millions of “class enemies” killed in Maoist China. The difference between an honor killing and genocide or class annihilation is the size of the victimized group, not the nature of the thinking that led to the murders.
‘White male privilege’ is a collectivist concept. To see why, compare it to Jewish banker privilege. More male Jews do better in terms of economic wealth, education, and cultural impact within American society than a simple description of their population would indicate. Banking is a profession Jewish professionals are well represented in. The logic behind using these labels for Jewish bankers and White males is the same. But most of us would probably feel considerable unease using the term ‘Jewish banker privilege’ and for good reason.
Long ago Jews were prevented from joining many professions, but were permitted to engage in banking. Christians were not supposed to charge interest but kings wanted to borrow money for their wars. Jews were going to Hell anyway and kings wanted money. Jews got into finance early and, once in, stayed in. In addition, bankers are a profession and Jews are disproportionately represented in American professions. It would be strange if Jews were not disproportionately represented in banking. Current Jewish banker ‘privilege,’ arose in large part out of their being a oppressed minority allowed to enter a profession from which others were barred, a profession that became increasingly important.
Does any new insight came from using the term ‘privilege’ with respect to understanding the greater presence of Jews in banking? None at all. In fact it masks the historical reality that their current ‘over-representation’ arose out of prolonged discrimination combined with a changing economy.
The depredations against American society by Jewish bankers and money men like Lloyd Blankfein have nothing to do with their being Jewish and everything to do with their being people of a certain amoral stripe. That amoral group includes many non-Jews and excludes most Jews. WASP bankers acting similarly are as guilty. Of course, the WASPs could have been said to have ‘White male privilege.’ But again, what does the term ‘privilege’ tell us? Again it focuses attention on a group most of whose members had no role at all in the problem.
The crimes against the Jewish people have many causes, but a major one is viewing them from a collectivist perspective, as a disliked group of crooked bankers and money-men or Christ killers or aliens within the Völk. Those thinking in this way are focused on the group they have defined, not the individuals.
Morality concerns relations between individuals. Any effort to subordinate individuals to collective criteria separated from their actions weakens morality and if the group is weak enough increases the likelihood of their oppression. Unlike Jews in Hitler’s Germany White males are too strong to be directly threatened. In fact, they dominate our society. But the error is the same, only the power of different groups leads to different outcomes.
Failing I: assisting the oppressor
When powerless white men are lumped with those who are powerful because both are White and so have advantages over Blacks, and are then attacked as a class, their similarities with those who dis-empower them are emphasized and their similarities with the victimized, who are not White males, is de-emphasized. Yet it is the common victimization that is important. It is people’s ability to identify with others that leads the oppressed to ally with one another and also leads some who are not oppressed to ally themselves with those who are.
Blurring the differences between powerful and powerless White men while emphasizing the differences between powerless Whites and powerless Blacks has long been the successful strategy of Southern elites. Many poor Whites identify more with being White than being poor. At least, they think, they aren’t Black. Both poor Whites and poor Blacks are the worse for it and oligarchic racist elites are the big winners.
The same strategy seems to be being pursued today by those leading the political right. Starting with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority through Pat Buchanan’s “culture wars” to the endless wars we hear about today on Christmas, on religion, on Easter, and other simple minded appeals, they endlessly stir up resentments and ultimately hatreds over differences between people in lifestyles and gender. As the targeted weak or foolish focus angrily or defensively on where they differ from one another the powerful are assisted mightily in securing and increasing their domination over us all.
A focus on the ‘privileges’ of members of one’s own weak community or their allies is deeply destructive. When Black nationalists attacked those considered too ‘moderate’ despite their gains, as well as their White allies, and drove them out of the Civil Rights movement, that cause withered. The same stuff has repeatedly afflicted feminism. and now we see this cancer, and it is a cancer, growing in the Pagan community. When ‘privilege’ is misused in communities of the weak, those who use it are doing the work of the strong, whatever their rhetoric to the contrary might claim.
My heart expands when I can put myself in the place of another, and it expands most when I put myself in the place of someone unlike me. Emphasizing what the oppressed share in common helps them build networks of understanding, identification, and ultimately resistance. When divisive differences are emphasized within a community, it falls apart.
There is another important way this kind of analysis gets in the way of understanding society.
Failing II: Undermining freedom
When differences are perceived in zero sum terms, they become problems to be overcome. But any time people are free to act, society generates differences benefiting some unequally. Those differences reflect historical, cultural, biographical and purely fortuitous events as well as our own more personal qualities. They are the outcome of people acting freely within a historical and cultural context they did not create and do not control.
Differences that matter to us are intrinsic to who we are and are often increased when we are free to make our own choices. To call the successful outcome of these choices “privileges” is to do violence to what the term has traditionally meant and denigrate the results of living with freedom of choice.
Because our choices are influenced by our environment, and all environments reflect their past, including past injustices that leave their ripples across millennia, there will always be cases where “privilege” sort of fits to describe differences we do not like. Any advantage anyone has today will to some degree reflect some unjust action committed by someone in the past. I would not exist if Hitler had not come to power and WWII had not happened, and most of you would not either.
In addition, virtually any significant advantage someone acquired peacefully will in fact benefit many who might consider them ‘privileged.’ I earlier gave the example of the Pagans whining about ‘Wiccan privilege’ who benefited enormously from the work many Wiccans have done over many decades educating the broader society that Pagan does not equal Satanist or monster of some sort. This is the normal pattern of relationships within a vital and creative society. A society where on balance the inequalities emerging out of cooperation benefit many more than those immediately involved. Outside the realm of legal privileges and fortunate upbringings, the term’s utility rapidly degenerates and the distortions it introduces into understanding what is happening rapidly increase.
A free society is an complex network of relations many of which are unequal. It is a social ecosystem. As in biological ecosystems, these networks shape individual lives, the institutions within which we live, and ultimately society as a whole. It is not a hierarchy of privilege such that if privilege is eliminated, all would become equally free and influential in the same way. That ideal might fit a Hutterite community in Montana, but it will not fit anything much larger or ideologically less homogenous.
The word ‘privilege’ should be used very carefully and exactly, or not at all. When there are legal privileges such as those of the 1% as compared with the rest of us, the term is accurate because it harkens back to aristocracy. It refers to the privileges of class. It can also be legitimately used when focused on specific contexts like our bicycle example. But as we saw, it is easy to expand that context to where the term causes far more confusion than understanding.
Beyond this the word “privilege” is too abstract to do the work that needs to be done when we discuss the intricacies of equality and inequality and how to make life better.
To this point I have written as a social scientist who could be 100% secular in his outlook. But I am not secular and there are important occult and spiritual issues at work here as well. Part III will deal with them.
Part III: Occult and Spiritual Dimensions of the issue
So far I have written as a social scientist, one who has spent much of my life studying human societies, seeking reliable patterns and clear concepts better to understand our world. But I am also a Pagan, and my outlook is decisively shaped not only by what I have learned as a traditional scholar, but also what I learned as a Wiccan, one who also worked for many years in an African Diasporic healing tradition, as well as shamanic work rooted in Indian traditions. What I learned here takes my discussion several levels beyond what secular science recognizes. That is why I saved it for a third post. I think my first two establish the inappropriateness of using “privilege” to describe most inequities. But if I am right, these additional insights strengthen the case.
Most Pagan traditions differ from most monotheisms as well as dominant secular views in rejecting modernity’s sharp distinctions between mind and matter. Each influences the other. Sometimes profoundly.
At a mundane level scientists recently discovered using botox to prevent frowning assists many deeply depressed people. At the same time smiling has significant effects for the better on seemingly unrelated physiological functions such as blood pressure . Causality works in both directions.
More radically still, considerable research indicates our minds can perceive psychically and even have a measureable impact at a distance. Those wanting to know more can consult work by Dean Radin and Russell Targ.
These two points can account for most of the phenomena involved in magick. Much of what we call “magick” uses disciplined mental processes to influence the physical world “at a distance.” With this insight we turn to the dark side of understanding inequalities in terms of ‘privilege’.
Words have power. They express ideas and and when guided by focused will combined with strong emotional energy, ideas have magickal power. The context within which we address an issue shapes how we think about it, how we deal with it, and how we impact others.
The degree of emotional force and venom many people complaining about ‘Wiccan privilege’ brought to discussing the issue was striking. Significantly, the same pattern occurs within the feminist community, where it has operated longer than in ours, and resulted in some feminist writers ceasing to publish because of the abuse from other feminists.
During the first online discussions of ‘Wiccan privilege’ I could sometimes ‘feel’ the sharp stabs of anger and hostility accompanying some posts directed my way. Other people who had devoted their lives to serving our religion were told they were unfit. Ultimately I removed two individuals from participating because I decided they were dragging the discussion down into irrationality and venomous negativity. Left unchecked, this would drive many readers away and discourage rational Pagans from contributing. Better they go. And so they went.
More recent rounds of discussion have been better, perhaps because those individuals did not participate, perhaps because I drew attention to the venom, perhaps both. Only one needed ousting.
In my previous essay I mentioned how in the 70s self-described “Black nationalists” attacked and drove away their white supporters within the Civil Rights movement. The issue of “White privilege” was central to their attacks. Soon afterwards the decline of the movement began.
This happened in the feminist movement as well. In 1976, when feminists were first attacked in this way, an article in Ms Magazine described “trashing” other feminists as “accomplished by making you feel that your very existence is inimical to the Movement and that nothing can change that short of ceasing to exist.” Trashing went beyond simple disagreement, for as Jo Freeman, the article’s author, wrote “There’s a difference between trashing someone and challenging them. You can challenge someone’s idea. When you’re trashing someone. You’re essentially saying they’re a bad person.”
The same phenomena has reappeared today in contemporary feminism. Katherine Cross, a Puerto Rican trans woman and feminist, writes being targeted “leaves you threatened in the sense that you’re getting turned out of your own home. . . . The one place that you are able to look for safety, where you were valued, where there is a lot less structural prejudice that makes you feel so outcast in the rest of the world – that has now been closed to you.” To my mind the language and tone Cross describes are identical to what we have been experiencing in our own community. Significantly, this is happening as women’s improved status in society has come under sustained attack.
Domination is the active subordination of others by keeping them powerless and divided. The civil rights and feminist movements both challenged domination in American society. Most NeoPagan religious alternatives challenge it as well. We focus on the feminine and the sacredness of the world, both of which run counter to domination as values. We and other religions sharing this focus offer attractive alternatives to the fear filled religions and their tyrannical deity so long dominant in America. We are a threat to religious domination beyond our numbers. My case for this claim is developed in my new book. Here I will only assert it.
Again the language of denunciation, anger, and contempt is growing within movements challenging the power of domination in American society. Thinking about our differences in terms of ‘privilege’ encourages and legitimates feelings of resentment and anger, turning them inwards towards the community, and further empowering them with aggressive self-righteousness. In occult terms, through their intense anger and the force of their will, without intending it the most intense denouncers are practicing the equivalent black magic. The recipients of their anger often feel mentally and emotionally assaulted, and not simply disagreed with. To the degree the attacks succeed, people feel assaulted and leave the community or grow quiet.
Very significantly, the outrage is far out of proportion to whatever slights are named as complaints. Further the attackers claim to be the true supporters of the movement. In the Pagan case many announced they are the ‘real’ polytheists and the rest of us using the term are fakes or confused. (I am not describing theological differences. There have always been radical polytheists among us and they have gotten along well with those of us who view our polytheism differently. One of our strengths as a community is that we do not emphasize doctrinal and theological issues, but rather issues of practice which people with many views can do together, each of us grasping its meaning in our own way. Instead I am describing the tone and disrespect by which those differences are stated.
An additional clue is that the attackers apparently have a zero-sum view of human relations. Prominence by one results in the ‘subordination’ or ‘marginalization’ of another. Consequently they argue in terms of power. Those who they attack have a “power structure” and against power structures the response is to demand more power for oneself.
So we have three clues as to what is happening on a deeper level. First, these assaults happen to groups challenging domination in society. Second, the responses are way out of proportion to claimed slights, real or imagined. Third, human relations are treated as zero-sum and in terms of who has the most power. Power is a connecting thread.
Given the sincerity of most involved in these movements what is happening to send some at others’ throats? I think African writer Maildoma Somé captured an important dimension. I often repeat this quote because I think it is so important.
When power comes out of its hiddenness, it shrinks the person who brought it into the open and turns that person into a servant. The only way that overt power can remain visible is by being fed, and he who knows how to make power visible ends up trapped into keeping that power visible. . . .
When we think in zero sum terms we believe we need enough power to be on the positive side of the ledger. We start thinking in terms of having the power to prevail, and how to get more.
The metaphysical side of Domination
I think at a very deep level humanity has generated and now must grapple with a powerful thought form: Domination. It is probably one entirely of our own creation.
For thousands of years civilizations have been dominated by those wielding power over others. Entire cultures have been torn apart by people seeking to gain or expand their power to dominate. If there is anything to the existence of thought forms, and I think there is, Domination is one of the most powerful, and is fed by the exaltation that comes from triumphing over others, dominating them, and also by their victim’s desire for more power themselves, to reverse the relationship.
Thought forms have access to all the knowledge of those connected to them, as was illustrated on a small scale in the Darth Vader and Grimjack investigations I wrote about.
Movements seeking to weaken domination’s role in human life threaten this force. For it to flourish they must fail. Because their message is an attractive one, they are best destroyed from within, which also discredits the message. Like a parasite, Domination’s energies might take on a superficial resemblance to its target, seducing some, in order to weaken and undermine all.
I am describing what government police agencies have done world-wide against dissidents, using agent provocateurs and sowing dissension and conflict among them. But the psychic equivalent works more deeply. We know that the FBI employed dirty tricks against Martin Luther King. But they did not seek to tear the movement apart through Black nationalists. They were afraid of them. Here is where alternative explanations make sense to me once we grant the reality of the phenomena I am describing. Those Black Nationalists were sincere activists who allowed their anger to override their judgment and became focused on power.
In the case of the Civil Rights movement, the end result was it’s decline and the rise to greater influence of its most dedicated opponents. In my last essay I also described how this tactic of dividing a dominated group perpetuated the forces of domination over poor Blacks and poor Whites in the American South. Here the role of Domination is clear, for it empowers the appeal of racism to poor Whites. Under its influence for nearly 100 years after the Civil War over 5000 Black men and women were lynched, along with White supporters, and de facto slavery was re-established.
I believe all religions or other movements seeking to enlarge the heart in human life must deal with this kind of attack. Domination’s most successful tactic is appearing to be what it seeks to destroy, dividing its opponents and confusing their ability to think clearly about these issues. In my previous post I described how talk of rights, perhaps the most effective way people have found to reduce domination in their lives, has become so confused that clear thinking about them is increasingly difficult.
None of this argument addresses the intellectual or moral case against viewing the world through categories of ‘privilege.’ Parts I and II did that. This analysis uses our knowledge of occult phenomena to understand the vehemence and vitriol and internally destructive actions that accompanies this way of thinking, and why it seems to particularly affect groups offering alternatives to domination and focusing on power.
Equality is an important value, but how we make sense of it reflects the spiritual context within which we live our lives.
Concern for absolute equality, and therefore suspicion and even hostility towards significant inequalities, is particularly compatible with a purely secular outlook. When this life is all any of us have, and there is no ultimate meaning to anything, significant inequalities reflect the world’s fundamental amorality and the tragedy of individual existence. There can be no second chance for the oppressed nor a setting to rights or ultimate redemption of the oppressor. As a saying popular a few years back stated, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”
If this is all we have, and a person cares about individuals, significant inequalities become morally intolerable. The Koch brothers’ wealth along with most of the rest of the .01% have more to do with their having been lucky zygotes than with any personal qualities. When we consider the countless millions living in poverty through no fault of their own, this discrepancy becomes intolerable. The same holds for other significant differences that make some people’s lives easier than others. Alternatively, like Ayn Rand, one decides some are intrinsically superior to their inferiors.
I think of spirituality as our largest context of more-than-human existence. When our lives are considered in larger contexts of meaning the situation is transformed. There are many possible spiritual contexts, and all imply different ways of making sense of inequality. But all make it less central.
• Perhaps inequality reflects karma. Previous lives led to our current one.
• Perhaps we enter our existence with specific purposes or goals to fulfill, and the circumstances we encounter are geared to achieving those purposes.
• Perhaps the world gives birth to or is a nursery or school for souls, and what really matters is our individuation and how far our hearts open in this life.
• Perhaps we incarnate to bring the world a step closer to its ultimate potential. Equality or inequality is not as important as what we do to help others with whatever we have.
• Perhaps physical existence is to enrich us at another level, and so requires our having unpleasant experiences as well as pleasant ones.
• Perhaps what we carry over to the ‘other side’ is what is compatible with love, the rest being left behind. As such focusing on inequalities can be an error if it weakens our hearts.
• Perhaps we incarnate to share our lives with loved ones and what matters are our relationships with those close to us, and not our overall standing in society.
• Perhaps we are characters in a spiritual or multidimensional role playing game, and inequalities are needed to make the game more interesting.
I have no idea what the ultimate Big Picture might be, or whether one, several, all of the above, or none constitute a part of it. I doubt anyone else does either.
I have no doubt Spirit exists, both in individual and unitary dimensions, as I have experienced them myself. I also believe many people when they report experiences different from mine. But this is a process of addition, not subtraction. That I have not had an experience is no reason to believe someone else has not. Amid all this there is a pattern most religious traditions report: the ultimate goodness of love, kindness, compassion, generosity, and peace. My own experiences indicate the same.
This teaches us that attitudes, beliefs, and emotions incompatible with these values are more removed from the most central dimensions of Spirit available to humans. Whatever the Big Picture might be, opening our hearts whenever we can is a good idea. Experiences and practices facilitating our doing so are among the most valuable we can have, and experiences and practices pushing in the opposite direction are among the most destructive.
Resentment, envy, and self-righteousness push away from the heart, narrowing it or shutting it down. In my opinion this is the ultimate spiritual poison in having the logic of ‘privilege’ come to dominate, or even play a large role, in our spiritual and religious lives. It weakens the heart, both in oneself and often in those attacked, and so further separate us from Spirit.
I think I have previously shown the language of privilege is often deeply destructive in secular contexts. How much more destructive it is when used aggressively in religious ones.
Things are not what they seem
From a spiritual perspective there is another problem.
I have found that sometimes what seemed utter disasters were ultimately blessings. I know a great many other people who have arrived at similar insights. There is a great deal of ignorance in the view that every socially recognized disadvantage I have with respect to someone else is a assault on my well-being. Evaluating life in terms of how equal we are at any given time is to misunderstand it.
My point is not to say that the misuse of power does not matter because someone’s suffering will ultimately be to their good. That is not for me or anyone else to say. Perhaps they suffer to give us a chance to act with greater kindness? But I do say that in my own case and that of others I know, a simple-minded view that misfortunes and defeats in the short run are bad in the long is just wrong.
Of course we should treat others well. Of course we should open our hearts to them as best we are able, and seek to become increasingly able. Of course we should seek to make the world a better place for others. Of course we should appreciate our advantages and use them kindly. But the logic of fighting privilege, once it has expanded to mean differences that matter, will not get us there and obscures our ability to really improve things for others.