Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Little More On Privilege

I think we can agree that having the ability to send your kids to private school is a symptom/reflection of economic privilege, yes? Turns out that sending your kids to public school may be so as well:

Another friend in Brooklyn, N.Y., takes the argument one step further. When I first mentioned our private-public dilemma to her, she responded by saying, "I don't see how that's a dilemma." As she saw it, "'liberal guilt' surrounding education is a privilege; it's a privilege to not want to send your kids to the best private school because it's not 'just' or 'even' or (I hate to say it), because it isn't diverse enough." She told me about how her own parents, as immigrants, moved to an affluent suburb of Long Island where they didn't fit in, so that their kids could go to the richest (and, sadly, whitest) school. "I hated it," she told me, "and tried explaining the reason to them, and they just couldn't understand what I was going on about."

What are we to make of that?

Perhaps we can say that the individual quoted above is incorrect? But her reasoning seems sound enough or, at least, not obviously wrong, so it's hard to argue against her. Absent a rebuttal, however, I think we must treat her assertion as (provisionally) true.

Here's where it gets interesting: If we treat the above assertion as true we've identified a situation where both of the options1 available to a well-off family are the result of "privilege" of some kind. This may undoubtedly be true; having any sort of choice in the matter of schooling at all may truthfully be said to be the result of their privileged position in society. But if that is indeed the case then why bring it up at all?

This goes back to Kant's observation that "ought implies can"; to attach moral significance to an action (an "ought") it needs to be logically possible for an actor to undertake that action. The (implied) ideal is that people should not act from a position of privilege, or that when they choose to act in some particular fashion they should try to do so in a way which is congruent with minimizing the effects of privilege. But if all available options have been identified as "privileged" in one way or the other then the whole notion of "privilege" becomes morally vacuous by virtue of the fact that there's no "!privileged" choice.

This is a clear example of the third definition of "privilege" that I posted about earlier. "Privilege", in this instance, becomes something akin to original sin. It adheres to a person by virtue of history and cannot be discharged by any action on eir part.

Which, again, is probably one of the reasons that there is some degree of hostility to the notion of privilege, especially within the skeptic community. The parent mentioned above is privileged, Conor Friedersdorf is privileged, but in neither case does that make their choices/positions necessarily wrong from a logical or moral standpoint. The invocation of "privilege" in these instances is more of a rhetorical bludgeoning device than an actual argument, which understandably annoys some people.


1 Excluding home-schooling and/or tutoring.

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