The problem of “privilege” is a favorite topic of discussion among the social-justice crowd. Anyone whose views are out of step with progressive sentiments or critical of someone considered higher on the identity politics totem pole will be told to “check your privilege.” White privilege, male privilege, cis-privilege, class privilege—even “ability privilege” is now considered an unfair advantage in the game of life.
As one social justice guide defines it: “Privilege is the benefits and advantages held by a group in power, or in a majority, that arise because of the oppression and suppression of minority groups.” As well, the guide suggests, “privilege is, by the social justice definition, the advantages people have that they don’t think about because they don’t often think about because they never have to experience the oppressive side. Understanding it requires an active effort to see things from the perspective of other, underprivileged people.”
And yet, some expressions of privilege are not subject to such strict scrutiny, notably the privilege of the media and political elect to attack those with less power than they enjoy.
This week, two strikingly similar expressions of such privilege emerged from two very different sets of circumstances.
The first was the reaction to an opinion piece written by University of Virginia undergraduate Emma Camp in the New York Times. In it, she identified herself as a liberal student who was concerned about the regularity with which she felt compelled to censor her own speech on campus. She was clear that her worries about self-censorship were not about disagreement, but about the inability to foster healthy debate on campus when students fear retaliation. “Being criticized—even strongly—during a difficult discussion does not trouble me,” she wrote. “We need more classrooms full of energetic debate, not fewer. But when criticism transforms into a public shaming, it stifles learning.”
The reaction from the elect at the New York Times proved Camp’s point for her. Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie and 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones began trading barbs about Camp on Twitter. “I have to wonder what world a person lives in where everyone is interested in debating everything,” Bouie tweeted. “It’s worse,” Hannah-Jones replied, “it’s that they didn’t buy her arguments when she debated and, apparently, debate for her means everyone agrees with me or I’ve been censored.”
Hannah-Jones also questioned Camp’s self-identification as a liberal. “A liberal white writes for Reason and FIRE. Ok.” (FIRE—the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—is non-partisan and, ironically, has defended Hannah-Jones on free expression grounds). Left Twitter quickly piled on, asking why “stupid seniors in college” were being published by the Times and speculating that Camp might be a Russian propagandist. No one engaged the substance of her claims; instead, they dismissed her as a conservative or a complainer.
As Pamela Paresky outlined, Hannah-Jones and Bouie are high-value individuals in what might be called the “prestige economy.” They enjoy comfortable positions at an elite institution and have large social media followings, while Camp has neither. Their cavalier disregard of their own privileged position vis a vis Ms. Camp at best suggests a lack of awareness; at worst it is an example of elite hypocrisy. They are, by definition, punching down.
As well, as Samuel J. Abrams observed, Camp’s case demonstrates how the progressive devotion to privileging “lived experience” disappears when the conclusions drawn from that experience contradict the progressive narrative. “Ms. Camp has been attacked and maligned for sharing her experiences which are as legitimate as any other student’s,” Abrams notes. “But her personal story does not perfectly fit into the progressive mold and thus, her lived experience is not legitimate or valid in the minds of the progressives who have attacked her.”
By contrast, when a lived experience embraced by progressives proves to be a lie, it can be difficult for them to relinquish the narrative. Consider the treatment of race hoaxer Jussie Smollett. Convicted of faking an attack and repeatedly lying to law enforcement, Smollett was sentenced this week to 150 days in jail, 30 months of probation, and a restitution payment. Smollett has nonetheless retained powerful allies, in large part because, as a black, gay actor, he is considered a member of a group deemed perpetually victimized.
Ever since he faked a hate crime against himself, Smollett has been lionized by the left for his victimization; worse, he was given preferential treatment by people in the criminal justice system, such as Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx, whose job it was to prosecute, not protect him.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, running for president and vice president at the time, both tweeted support for Smollett. Biden said, “What happened to @JussieSmollett must never be tolerated in this country. We must stand up and demand that we no longer given this hate safe harbor; that homophobia and racism have no place on our streets or in our hearts. We are with you, Jussie.” Harris called Smollett “one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know” and declared, “This was an attempted modern day lynching. No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin. We must confront this hate.”
Also offering her support was Kristen Clarke, whom Biden later appointed to be head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. She castigated the Chicago Police Department for “demonizing survivors” of hate crimes like Smollett simply because they did their jobs and investigated his claims (ultimately finding them spurious).
There have been plenty of opportunities for these political leaders to acknowledge they were wrong about Smollett, such as when the jury rendered a guilty verdict on his case. Yet, despite frequent claims that they are concerned with the spread of misinformation, and despite the wide reach of their social media following, neither Biden nor Harris (nor Clarke) have deleted or corrected their erroneous claims about Smollett.
On the contrary, his supporters have doubled down. At Smollett’s sentencing hearing yesterday, activist organizations like Black Lives Matter offered statements of support. Kim Foxx said the justice system, whose rules she unethically flouted in Smollett’s case, had “failed” by punishing Smollett for his crimes. Smollett continued to proclaim his own innocence and raised a black power fist while being led out of the courtroom after sentencing.
Only the judge in the case spoke the truth, calling Smollett “profoundly arrogant and selfish and narcissistic,” and saying he had done “real damage” to actual victims of hate crimes. “You wanted to make yourself more famous, and for a while, it worked.” “You were actually throwing a national pity party for yourself,” Linn continued.
And why not, when so many prominent and privileged people were happy to attend that pity party?
That is the essence of this new form of privilege: it allows those within its bubble to make abstract claims about identity when the specifics of behavior can’t be justified, as in Smollett’s case. And it undermines the legitimacy of alternative points of view by belittling the identity and lack of status of less privileged people who express them, as in the case of Emma Camp.
But there are costs to the embrace of this form of privilege. Mean-girl tweets from high-status Times journalists send a clear message to anyone less comfortably situated that there is a cost to challenging the progressive narrative. Far worse, excusing crimes, as Smollett’s supporters have done, undermines real victims and makes a mockery of our justice system. Hannah-Jones and Bouie and Smollett and his supporters probably genuinely believe that they are the truth-telling good guys on the right side of history and thus see no need to offer good-faith responses when criticized. Which is precisely what makes them the embodiment of privilege.