Against the “Privilege” Frame
Posted on May 23, 2017
Like a lot of progressives I once had an aha! moment when it sunk in somewhat painfully that the obverse side of oppression of one group is privilege for the non-oppressed group. That experience leaves many progressives with the impression that the “privilege” frame is politically effective.
I think it is actually counterproductive. That which works on well-meaning elite liberals is very far from being that which works on a mass electorate.
Here’s the problem: nearly every white or male or heterosexual voter we want to reach is also subject to some degree of oppression in their everyday life. I assume we have no hope of reaching well-off white heterosexual temporarily-able-bodied native-born Christian males, but that’s under 5% of the voting population. Everyone else (and many of the 5% as well) suffers from one or another of the kinds of oppression that progressives are supposed to be aware of and oppose. Now undoubtedly some oppressions are worse than others, but as soon as we get involved in comparative oppression Olympics, we have broken up the progressive coalition we need to win. Oppression is wrong, period.
So when we tell them they are “privileged” we lose their votes so fast in so many ways that it almost seems like a right-wing provocateur’s plot.
1. We are telling them they are not oppressed and don’t deserve our sympathy.
2. We are telling them that if they don’t admit to a guilt they don’t feel, then we will disrespect them.
3. We are cluing them in that we belong to the elite educated group that does in quite actual fact often look down on them in private or even put them down openly, using language like “privileged.”
4. We are telling them that we will not listen to their troubles, and wouldn’t care if we did listen, and wouldn’t do anything about it if we did care.
And they will believe it. Because in point of fact, for about four decades, our representatives in congress, in either party, haven’t been doing nearly enough to protect working people from adverse changes in the economy–even while upper middle class liberal elites were making out like bandits.