A Reply to Matthew - Privilege and Original Sin
Recently, on Allthink, Peter Boghossian and I published a piece that compared and contrasted the concepts of religious Original Sin with the notion of 'privilege' as conceived of under critical race and genders studies programs that occupy a certain academic fringe of sociological studies. (We say it this way because mainstream sociology, a social science, relies far less upon 'discourses' and 'critiques' than its 'critical theory' kin.) A former student (@Matthew9, of Boghossian) responded, also on Allthink, with a thoughtful reply that merits a response.
As a kind of disclaimer, we originally penned a much more thorough essay to deal with this desperately tricky topic, one comprising nearly two thousand words, but we ultimately cut it down to the present length (604 words) with the intention of submitting it as an opinion piece in newspapers. We decided to publish it here instead and left it in its succinct form.
Matthew opened his response by charging us with ironically failing our own request for increased perspective, kindness, and charity. That's unfortunate, but this assessment may stem directly from a failure to grasp the depth of the first sentence of our piece: "The concepts of Original Sin and privilege are identical except that they operate in different moral universes." (emphasis added) As the depth contained in that sentence is the crux of our piece, it bears considerable elaboration.
People often mistake morals as being something monolithic instead of something normative to the societies that recognize them. The mistake isn't surprising: not only do people typically think they are already possessed of the good luck (not privilege) to bear largely the right perspective on morals, we use the term morals to mean both the moral frameworks that define cultures and the overall judgment that we apply to those frameworks. That's why sentences like "Sharia is immoral" make conceptual sense and hold ethical meaning. Sharia is a diverse codified legal system based upon a particular understanding of Islamic moral norms, and by almost anything that could hope to be called an objective assessment of human flourishing and suffering, it's an abject moral failure.
So too are the moral underpinnings of religion in less extreme examples. Religious moral landscapes are often occupied heavily with notions of sin and redemption, and they're primarily concerned with the notion of moral pollution and crimes against self-control. Self-control and moral purity are made sacred. Original Sin, far from being "bullshit" as Matthew called it, is a mythological construct (like most religious concepts) that represents and hopes to explain that humans are born morally fallible - or abjectly depraved, if you subscribe to Calvinist thought. Religions occupied with sin use the concept quite literally to raise awareness of human moral frailty with the hope of spurring in the believer a will for exerting self-control to avoid unnecessary sin and to atone for those mistakes that will certainly be made.
In the religion of identity politics we have a different moral universe. It is one that has made sacred the hope of remedying certain notions of structural disadvantages in society. Rather than scripture and clergy, identitarians turn to critical theories of race, gender, and sexuality to understand the features of their moral parish. In that it is a moral framework, the sacred structure defined by the pronouncements of critical theory shade understanding of "good" and "bad" for those who accept them. (Nota bene: Despite the misuse of the term theory, critical theories are not actual sciences, instead they're a kind of socially occupied philosophy that lacks the epistemic rigor common to the true sciences.) Aside from the fact that not even all Westerners, or even all Western progressive liberals, share them, the moral locality of the religion of identity politics is obvious by noticing that their moral intuitions and predilections almost never arise in severely oppressive moral frameworks, like cultures equipped with Sharia. Moral sociologist Donald Black's theory of stratification goes a long way toward explaining why, but this is beside our point that the religion of identity politics is, indeed, a moral movement local to certain kinds of societies that only exist in the diverse and largely egalitarian West.
Structural disadvantages that exist along lines drawn by critical theories define a moral hierarchy in which we are to provide the natural moral currency of the victim to structural underdogs. By mere reciprocation, and the shortsightedness of critical theorists, those lacking structural disadvantages receive the opposite of that gift of moral currency. They're given "privilege" (in scare quotes to highlight that it isn't the kind of economic privilege associated with aristocracy upon which it has been unfortunately and intentionally modeled). Privilege in this sense, though, seems little more than a specter sent to haunt them into perpetual and uncomfortable awareness of their lack of certain potential social disadvantages, or, often, to shut them up when they offer commentary that runs against the moral current of the religion of identity politics. In the moral universe of the religion of identity politics, privilege is bad. Many identitarians insist, contrariwise, that it isn't privilege that's bad but rather the blithe lack of awareness of privilege that so many of the privileged maintain.
So here we come to the point. If only someone is more aware of the surety of moral failure into which they are born, then they can feel better about their inevitable unintentional lapses into its reprehensible manifestations. Moreover, we, the morally righteous rest of us, can be better able to discern that their atonements are legitimate, thereby absolving them of the stain of their dereliction so that they can be welcomed back into the group, flawed but made again unblemished. Our question, though, is did we just mean to talk about sin or privilege when we wrote this paragraph? It isn't possible to tell because sin and privilege are the same concepts operating in two different moral universes. Being born with it is what makes it "Original."
Near the end of his response Matthew reveals that only his lack of understanding of moral psychology and its application to religious thinking stand between him and our point, where he writes,
"They admit that these circumstances are indeed unjust - these barriers and undeserved advantages - but not everyone does. The role privilege occupies in these contexts is to bring attention to the unjust nature of the world we live in - something Original Sin definitely does not do." (emphasis original)
This is exactly what the myth of Original Sin does, though. It is a mythological construction for explaining the origins of human moral fallibility, most often in failures of self-control, especially regarding temperance in consumption, disposition, and sexual behavior.
The notion of sin is concerned with moral failures in a moral universe obsessed with self-control, and the notion of privilege is concerned with the moral failure of persisting in a socioeconomic system in which unfair systemic disadvantages still occur. Sin is for bad behavior and thought, and privilege is for unfairness and a concomitant lack of both recognition and gratitude. Their operation at the level of moral psychology is the same, however, and casting privilege in terms of "undeserved advantages" instead of unjust disadvantages renders it exactly like sin: the kind of moral failing you might wish you didn't have but can't really do anything about except feel bad. In that, it's clear that Matthew is incorrect where he writes, "when Lindsay and Boghossian say that privilege is the wrong way to conceptualize the problem, I think they have fundamentally misunderstood which problem the concept of privilege is meant to address." The problem is discrimination, as we noted, and rebranding its awareness campaign in terms of privilege is just an attempt to make it personal.
That stated, given the constraints of a brief piece, we fully comprehend the critical-theory notion of privilege and, pace Matthew's claim, think that we defined it sufficiently. There is also little need to identify our target explicitly. Those who subscribe to the critical-theory understanding of privilege as an inflated reciprocal notion to discrimination are our targets and, by their reactions, they should immediately realize it.
Matthew raises a few other points worth commenting upon. For instance, he also notes,
It is part of the concept of being sorry that one is sorry for something they actually did, not some state of affairs they are born into. If privilege demands that one be sorry for something they have no control over, then it is blatantly absurd. I find the previous usage of 'ashamed' in the Original Sin definition far more apt. It is a common usage of 'ashamed' to communicate that the negative emotion is something beyond their control, or for being apart [sic] of some damaging group. (emphasis original)
We completely agree (and note likewise that one cannot therefore be proud of being born a certain way, like being born gay, although being unashamed of it is absolutely something everyone deserves). Still, we also wonder what is to be gained merely by bearing shame for something "beyond one's control" or, more mysteriously, "being a part of some damaging group," where he must mean a group defined by immutable characteristics (else, one could just leave the group). Further, we wonder what the appropriate response to that shame should be. If feeling sorry and then acting upon that sorrow isn't it, it's not quite clear what more can be done. We cannot, however, endorse the idea of asking entire groups of people to bear a sense of shame for being born a certain way. That's a religious trick, and the religions we're most familiar with in the West call it Original Sin.
Matthew goes on to say, though, that the focus shouldn't be on shame, it should be on awareness (just as with Original Sin marking a propensity to fall repeatedly into sin), not just of the privilege, but also of the injustice. The best that can be said for privilege, then, is that it attempts to attach a burden of personal guilt to those who, by luck, have avoided structural prejudices in the hope that guilt will motivate them to become activists for greater social justice. Well, Prayer Warriors unite! "...lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil." We're starting a ministry!
As a last comment, a curious point Matthew raises regards the painfully popular phrase "check your privilege," which he brings up to make the case that the "most common popular usage of the term 'privilege'" is to raise "awareness of injustice." It's a bit unfortunate, maybe for everyone, then, that the word "check" has two salient meanings in that phrase. One is to examine, and one is to restrain. We would ask Matthew to consider, given the contexts in which that phrase has truck, which of those meanings is intended. Our experience and contention is "both, with a heavy hint of the latter." Given the varieties of slang, it's hard to say, but it's worth noting that the colloquium isn't, "check out your privilege," after all.
Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, elegantly argues the thesis that "morality binds and blinds". So it is in any moral universe, including the religion of identity politics. The notion of privilege has some utility as an awareness-raising device on structural injustices in society, but it is not a problem-solver. Likewise, though, the notion of sin has some utility as an awareness-raising device regarding the frailty of self-control against temptations deemed immoral, but it isn't a problem-solver either. Both, however, are readily available for browbeating the insufficiently devout, at least until they angrily reject your moral universe entirely.
Postscript: To mirror Matthew's postscript, we'll leave one of our own. His seems to suggest that we do not understand systemic injustices in our society and that further reading upon them will enable us to better see his perspective. We think that this is a misunderstanding. It isn't that we don't grasp the existence and significance of these problems, it is that we see the proffered solution as having limited utility and significant social cost. Social shaming effects more than just the change it hopes for; it also breeds resentment and leads to backlash in its targets and righteous superiority in those who call for it. Hence, we repeat, more perspective, kindness, and charity are needed.
Peter Boghossian is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University and an affiliated faculty member at Oregon Health Science University in the Division of General Internal Medicine. He is the author of A Manual for Creating Atheists. Connect with him on Twitter at @peterboghossian.