A few weeks ago, I was driving along the northern tier of Ohio when that blasted engine light started blinking. When my van shook as I brought it to a stop, I knew it wasn’t a false alarm. I ended up pulling into a gas station outside of Sandusky, Ohio, and called AAA to arrange a tow.

Alan, the gruff and grizzled tow truck man, arrived nearly an hour later. As we pleasantly chatted during our ride to the nearest Honda dealer, it suddenly occurred to me that I might feel differently about this situation if I were a different person. Even though Alan turned out to be very kind, if I were a woman, a person of color, or a man with stereotypically “gay” mannerisms, I realized that I might not feel so comfortable—so sure that I was safe and would be treated fairly—being alone with a broken-down car in semi-rural Ohio.

This is, I think, a tiny example of what is commonly called “privilege.” I have never had to experience the world the way a woman or a person of color does, nor will I ever be able to do so. Therefore, I should take seriously the claims these others make about their experiences of our society—especially claims about hardships I will never be able fully to understand.

Is Privilege Real, or Just a PC Invention?

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I suppose it’s not a coincidence that I noticed a minor instance of privilege in my life at this moment when talking about privilege—and policing discourse using privilege—is de rigeur. Whether it’s street harassment of women, the public display of the Confederate battle flag, or the onward march of the LGBT movement, “privilege” is on everyone’s lips. The tone with which we speak of privilege, though, ranges from mocking to exasperation to reverence.

The mocking tone mostly comes from conservatives who see “privilege” as a politically correct progressive invention. Conservatives see the concept being deployed in ways that always seem to militate in favor of progressive political preferences, and so we reject it outright.

But it doesn’t take much reflection or observation to realize that “privilege” describes a real phenomenon. In fact, I’d go far enough along with the privilege-whisperers to agree that the ability to go through life without noticing privilege is an instance of privilege. Taken narrowly, the idea that we cannot fully understand the life experiences of others, especially others with radically different backgrounds, is obviously correct. Taken more broadly, the idea that some groups are, on average, objectively disadvantaged in our society, whether due to historical oppression, enduring prejudice, or cultural marginalization, cannot simply be waved away—least of all by conservatives, who believe we are all embedded in a tapestry of traditions that inform our personal and communal identities.

What does it mean, though, to say that privilege is real? It means that we should take seriously the claims of others about their experiences—especially those experiences we find most difficult to comprehend. This is respect. And it means that we need to discern how to address those experiences in our personal interactions and in our politics. This is justice. To ignore those experiences is, on the other hand, to indulge a competing conservative identity politics.

False Neutrality

Properly considering privilege, or “checking” one’s privilege, however, does not neatly solve political questions, as progressives like to imagine. When the concept shifts from description of our social condition to prescription of norms of discourse, it becomes yet another attempt to hijack politics with a false neutrality.

In the wake of the Obergefell ruling, a friend took to social media to praise the decision, but also to urge same-sex marriage supporters to respect their opponents’ good will and reasonableness. He was promptly savaged from his left flank. Most notable was the admonition that his ability to see both sides of the marriage question was a manifestation of his privilege as a heterosexual cis-male, and thus must be relinquished (“checked”) out of deference for the truly unprivileged: LGBT folks whose lives will be changed by Obergefell. The fact of privilege means that only unprivileged opinions count on matters of importance to them.

This standard of discourse is supposed by its adherents to be neutral. All we have to do is perform objective, if complex, privilege arithmetic and we can discern whose opinions are controlling on any given issue. In reality, privilege arithmetic is never neutral. Preexisting moral commitments are smuggled into the equation, and “privilege” becomes a faux-neutral veneer for substantive moral claims: every hierarchy of oppressions and prejudices depends upon a hierarchy of values. “Privilege” becomes just another example of the problem of neutral rhetoric.

Consider how religious persons are treated in privilege arithmetic. In theory, every “other” gets to tell her own story—to express her own lived experience and hardship—and to have that story taken at face value. This is the respect accorded to persons of color, persons who identify with the LGBT community, and so on. But when a Barronelle Stutzman or a Melissa Klein brings her story to the table—a story of government coercion against the living out of her beliefs, and therefore of violence being done to those beliefs—is she accorded the same respect? Of course not. Her motives are questioned, her beliefs impugned, and her livelihood threatened.

It might be claimed that a privilege arithmetic that favors the same-sex couple over the florist or the baker is the objective arithmetic. But that is a value judgment. And when you consider the relative harms—religious coercion and financial ruin versus going to a new vendor—and the relative power—small businesswomen versus attorneys general—it seems to be a thin value judgment indeed.

When Is Privilege-Talk Productive?

We can acknowledge the reality of privilege but avoid using it as an intellectual façade by recognizing the conceptual weight it can bear. Specifically, taking privilege seriously allows us more perfectly to understand what is right and just in particular situations, but it cannot bear the weight of rightness and justice by itself. Consider the examples of privilege-talk I mentioned before: street harassment, Confederate flags, and LGBT issues.

Street harassment is an easy one. I hardly see it because it’s not directed at me; this is my privilege as a man. Women I know say they’re regularly made uncomfortable and frightened by street harassment. Clearly, there is no social value to cat-calling. Conservatives should recognize a symptom of destructive sexuality when they see it—and have no problem condemning it. This is not a case where we must weigh the claim of the less-privileged against a competing value; it is one where taking the “other” seriously awakens us to something harmful occurring in our midst.

Confederate flags, on the other hand, have an argument from history and heritage—at least that’s easy for me to say as a white Yankee. But white people need to trust our black neighbors when they say that they find the flags to be a reminder of oppression—especially when flown on public grounds. We ask ourselves: Is this feeling of our fellow citizens reasonable? In this instance, it is. We balance that against a heritage that is inseparable from racial oppression, we understand, and we say “take it down.”

In some respects, thinking about privilege and LGBT issues is similar to these first two. We cannot simply ignore those who claim to feel endangered or to have been harmed based on their real or perceived identification with the LGBT community. We shouldn’t abandon our critical faculties—some claims are more reasonable than others—but we should grant the benefit of the doubt. This is treating others as people, rather than as exemplars of a type or as culture war combatants.

But this approach doesn’t mean the uncritical acceptance of particular policies; privilege is morally relevant, not morally dispositive. The disturbing fact of bullying, for instance, cries out for social change that conservatives should be advocating for, but it does not necessitate a speech policy that will be used against religious students. That one group has been historically dominant over another does not justify flipping the tables; that’s not justice but vindictiveness.

The advocacy of the less privileged can awaken us to hidden wrongs and even move us to support policies we hadn’t previously considered, but it cannot justify something that is otherwise unjustifiable; then it becomes a thin cover for an opposing moral system. Thinking about privilege can help us discern among policies offering competing goods, but it cannot change what is good.

Taking privilege seriously is part of living together in a diverse society. It’s part of justice. It’s part of the truth. But it’s not dispositive—and it’s never a substitute for clear-eyed moral reasoning.