The forbidden fruit taken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden certainly seems like it had a sour taste. For indulging in a little knowledge, the two brought sin and death into the world, got kicked out of paradise, and were each assigned their own specially frustrating labor projects. Bible commentators down through history have noted an obvious lesson here: sometimes what we learn through experience is pretty bitter. Thanks to the actions of Adam and Eve, we all have been corrupted and stand in need of salvation… or so the story goes.
Some right-leaning academics and activists have likened the concept of privilege to that of Original Sin. Both are things we are born into, that we cannot escape, and they are best dealt with by a confessional or penitent approach. James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian draw this comparison in their article, “Privilege: The Left’s Original Sin,” published at AllThink.com. There is no greater sin in the eyes of the left, they claim, than “having been born an able-bodied, straight, white male who identifies as a man but isn’t deeply sorry for this utterly unintentional state of affairs.”1
Interesting similarities do exist between privilege and Original Sin, as noted. Yet concepts like apostasy, faith, and religion are frequently associated with secular ideas in ways that are more tenuous than they are convincing. The more the sacred retreats from the latter half of that equation, the weaker the analogy seems. If the mere association with religion is meant to be an indictment on talk of privilege, then Boghossian’s unabashed borrowing from the evangelizing pages of Christian ministry in A Manual for Creating Atheists is no less guilty. Presumably, though, the main complaint is not the religious connection, but how privilege and Original Sin have both been used as shaming devices.
Certainly, privilege talk can be used to try and control or stop conversation. In that sense it is quite like Original Sin as it has been employed by brazen preachers spreading a message of hellfire and brimstone. But where many on the right have interpreted privilege in terms of personal attacks, many on the left have been endorsing it with the aim of calling attention to broader social issues. Mychal Denzel Smith, writing for The Nation, observes that when “people with privilege hear that they have privilege, what they hear is not, ‘Our society is structured so that your life is more valued than others.’ They hear, ‘Everything, no matter what, will be handed to you. You have done nothing to achieve what you have.'”2 Apology and repentance are not the goals for those who partake of the language of privilege – social reform is the goal.
Discrimination is offered in the article as a better alternative to privilege. This may be splitting hairs, but it may also underscore a valuable point. Discrimination has a history behind it, especially a legal one, and it has often been addressed on an isolated, individual-case basis. To suggest that there are more systemic problems in our courts, in our neighborhoods, and in our society, a bigger word seems necessary. Privilege stings. It evokes an air of elitism, of undeserved benefit, and it plays off the anti-magisterial sentiments that have long been a part of American culture. Privilege is less visible than we imagine discrimination to be. It saturates and it structures, as Maggie Nelson has written.
Granted, privilege has its conceptual flaws, too. It’s been argued that it associates the advantages of privilege with luxuries rather than with rights. Others have suggested that it’s not very conducive to understanding differences among various minority groups. Of course, these are conversations worth having civilly, and they have been ongoing in many areas of social justice for some time now. Boghossian and Lindsay are also willing to give a modest bit of credit to the term, conceding that it does describe something real and problematic. What they object to is how privilege helps to “glorify” the struggles of certain identities lucky enough to be born into the right group, while serving as a club to beat on those born into the wrong group. If social reform is what privilege talk is about, then these concerns are actually some of the focus for change.
What if these common problems with Original Sin and privilege are actually due to a confrontational attitude rather than to any conceptual similarity? There are Christians for whom Original Sin is not a weapon with which to persecute unbelievers, but a reminder to be humble and forgiving towards others. In Romans 3, Paul considers the standing Jews and Gentiles have before God. “Do we have any advantage?” he asks. “Not at all!” No one is righteous, not even one, as he goes on to declare in verse ten. Could privilege not serve as a similar reminder to humility?
Oddly, after explaining that “everybody is privileged,” and that Original Sin and privilege are identical except in that they inhabit different moral universes, Lindsay and Boghossian contend that a distinguishing difference between the two is that the label of privilege is even more contemptible because it’s seen to be a hindrance to the less fortunate among us. But everybody is privileged, so who can rightly take the moral high ground? Some might still claim the moral high ground, though there’s no real explanation for why this would be tolerated more in the case of privilege than in that of Original Sin. Fighting privilege doesn’t mean forcing repentance.
Now, it’s true that no analogy is perfect, but Boghossian and Lindsay are ambiguous enough in their use of the term privilege that it presents a problem for their argument. Let’s take a definition of privilege by Sian Ferguson at Everyday Feminism. Ferguson says, “We can define privilege as a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.”3 This doesn’t tell us anything about most of what Lindsay and Boghossian attribute to privilege, such as its being an accident of birth, being inescapable, applying to everyone, or demanding atonement. That’s because these are ancillary ideas about the function of privilege in society. Just as the concept of sin differs from the doctrine of Original Sin, the concept of privilege differs from the political and philosophical theorizing that has surrounded it.
The problem is that if we’re going to bring in these ancillary ideas about privilege in drawing a connection to Original Sin, why stop there? Boghossian and Lindsay try to conceal the breakdown of their analogy with the line of qualification stating that Original Sin and privilege inhabit different moral universes. It allows them a little leeway to conveniently gloss over major incongruities like the importance of power systems for understanding privilege, or the supernatural nature of sin. Privilege functions between oppressors and the oppressed, whereas Original Sin doesn’t really recognize anyone as being “in power,” oppressing us sinners. Lindsay and Boghossian almost note this difference when remarking on how the labeling of another person as privileged is sometimes taken as a personal hindrance to us. Sin, on the other hand, isn’t just a moral or interpersonal affliction, it’s a spiritual one, and the “mechanism” by which it’s passed down is frankly mysterious – not at all like the way that privilege persists through oppressive social structures. There is also the fact that, unlike sin, privilege actually represents a goal to aspire to. Sin can be viewed as a disease in need of healing, but the point of social justice is not to eliminate the privileges some people enjoy, it’s to extend them to more people.
I’m not sure why we should feel persuaded by the criteria of similarity raised by Boghossian and Lindsay. They seem somewhat cherry picked, but their significance can be questioned, too. Death is something we have no say over, it cannot be escaped, and it’s been said that all of us are dying from the moment we’re born. Yet we might question the purpose of comparing death to Original Sin, or to privilege, on such grounds. It could be claimed that death isn’t as comparable for some reason or other, but we have just seen a few ways in which privilege isn’t as comparable, either.
It’s admittedly somewhat amusing that privilege is denounced primarily when it’s treated as a tool for shaming. Boghossian and Lindsay have both written in defense of ridicule when it suits their purposes, and they inhabit their own universe with other champions of ridicule like John Loftus and Jerry Coyne. They’ve advocated for shutting down academic studies like philosophy of religion and biblical scholarship when they dare to defend Christian beliefs, and they’re quite fond of conceptualizing faith as a virus, not to mention defining it so as to be basically synonymous with irrationality. So why does privilege shaming catch their ire? One would think they’d be chomping at the bit for the chance to attack Christian privilege in such terms, which they more or less do in other language.
When it comes to our own privilege, we typically aren’t exactly eager to own up to things. I can honestly admit that I still struggle with this. As Parul Sehgal eloquently observes: “It’s easier to find a word wanting, rather than ourselves. It’s easy to point out how a word buckles and breaks; it’s harder to notice how we do.”4 The first sin wasn’t being born into a certain class or identity. It wasn’t being part of a majority group that benefits from the marginalization of others. The first sin was arrogance. It was selfish pride that motivated disobedience, as Thomas Aquinas said in his Summa Theologica.
I agree wholeheartedly with Boghossian and Lindsay that more perspective, kindness, and charity are needed. However, it seems to me that their critique of privilege has missed the mark in a number of ways. There is room for improvement, especially in how we talk to and treat the disadvantaged, but the encouragement given to “focus more on the positive qualities” you want to instill in others rings a bit hollow. It makes it sound once again like everyone else is the problem. Perhaps this is where the critic has more in common with religion than he likes to think. It would be an understatement to say that monotheistic religions haven’t had very good track records of protesting privilege. On the contrary, they’ve often put in a great amount of effort defending their own privilege against so-called heretics and apostates.
Perspective, kindness, and charity seem mismatched to the disdain for what Lindsay and Boghossian call the religion of identity politics. It’s telling where all the faith-based imagery is located in the picture painted by the two authors, and their contempt for religion is more than evident from their own writings, one of which bears the charitable title of Everybody is Wrong About God. “You don’t get to denounce identity politics,” as Sincere Kirabo points out, “when your monomaniacal depreciation of all things religious is literally grounded in homage to the politics of your most treasured identity: atheism.”5 Not everything religion has taught is worthy of derision – especially when it comes to the idea that change must begin with ourselves. There is likewise nothing patently religious about seeing ourselves as benefiting from certain social structures that disadvantage others. We should reject this claim just as we reject similar claims declaring morality to belong to the special domain of religion. Privilege talk that fails to recognize the need for humility and compassion is talk that is rightly criticized. At the same time, a critique of privilege that cloaks its main argument in anti-religious and politically conservative rhetoric is not doing anyone the favors its writers think it’s doing.
1. James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian, Privilege: The Left’s Original Sin, AllThink.com (May 24, 2016).
2. Mychal Denzel Smith, No One Cares If You Never Apologize for Your White Male Privilege, The Nation (May 5, 2014).
3. Sian Ferguson, Privilege 101: A Quick and Dirty Guide, Everyday Feminism (Sept. 29, 2014).
4. Parul Sehgal, How ‘Privilege’ Became a Provocation, The New York Times (July 14, 2015).
5. Sincere Kirabo, Navigating Critical Thinking, Intersectionality, and Identity Politics in the Secular Movement, TheHumanist.com (July 6, 2016).