Privilege or advantage?

Stephen W. Browne

I participated in an interesting discussion a while ago that reminded me of the vital importance of using words correctly.

The discussion was about privilege. As in 'white privilege,' 'male privilege,' etc.

One person argued that the fact of being born middle class and not obviously a minority made you 'privileged.'

Another responded that living with a felony record hardly made one feel privileged.

Another pointed out that a self-inflicted disability was not the same as being born to a class of people historically discriminated against.

Yet another pointed out that discrimination based on race, and more recently sex, is now not only socially unacceptable, it's illegal.

Someone offered the counter-argument that discrimination can be very subtle and unconscious. And that those unconscious prejudices are most often held by those who grew up with parents who bought them books, sent them to good schools, introduced them to contacts who could help them, etc.

In short, the discussion reflected the larger discussion our society is having these days, seemingly without resolution.

It went on for a while, when something occurred to me.

First of all, I loathe the term (blank)-privilege. I think it's an intellectually dishonest way to dismiss arguments out of hand rather than answer them. Because you're privileged you know.

Furthermore it's often self-serving and hypocritical. I've heard it used by people I know for a fact grew up in affluent families with every advantage.

And that's when it hit me. When people say 'privileged' what they often mean is, 'advantaged.'

According to Merriam-Webster a privilege is: 'a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others,' and comes from the Latin privilegium, 'a law affecting a specific person, or a special right.'

For sure it also means, 'the advantage that wealthy and powerful people have over other people in a society.' Which is almost the same as one definition of advantage: 'superiority of position or condition.'

But another definition of advantage is, 'a factor or circumstance of benefit to its possessor.'

Now some are probably thinking I'm nit-picking ('engaging in fussy or pedantic fault-finding') but I think there's an important point here.

Privilege is a benefit conferred by law. Advantage is a benefit conferred by circumstances.

Privilege is unjust, advantage is just life. And life isn't fair.

Growing up I had the advantage of parents who made sure I knew how to read and indulged me when I wanted to buy books. And while I might say I feel privileged for it, there was no law making them do so.

I'm well aware lots of kids didn't grow up with that " and some of them were more affluent than we were.

My parents never tire of telling the story of when we visited a relative of my father, who being in private practice liked to point out my dad's Navy salary might cover his greens fees.

While he was rubbing Dad's nose in this I whispered to my mom, 'Mother, are they very poor?'

'Why do you ask?' she said.

'They don't have any books.'

I grew up with many such advantages. Almost all disadvantages are because of my own poor choices.

I'm well aware others didn't have those advantages. But here's why I don't like to hear them called privileges. Because that implies it's not just circumstances others didn't " it means it's my fault.

A collection of Steve Browne's essays and newspaper columns, 'The View from Flyover Country: A Rural Columnist Looks at Life in the 21st Century' is available on Amazon Kindle.