Privilege: The Left's Original Sin
The concepts of Original Sin and privilege are identical except that they operate in different moral universes. In familiar religions, Original Sin is something you're born with. It's something you can't escape. It's something you can't really do anything about - except be ashamed. It's something you should confess and try to cleanse yourself of. It's something that requires forgiveness, atonement, penitence, and work. It's something, if you take it to heart, for which you will browbeat others.
For many contemporary left-situated activists, privilege occupies the same role in a religion of contemporary identity politics. There is no greater sin 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.
Everybody is a sinner; everybody is privileged; and both are the fall of Man. Both are the stain upon everyone who, by virtue of existing, falls short of moral perfection. Both are a kind of disease that threatens society. Neither can be escaped. Both must be abhorred and demand redemption from the guilty.
The concept of privilege, like sin, possesses the virtue that it actually does describe something - something its obsessives rightly describe as "problematic." Whether it's perceived worthiness for a bank loan, being treated a certain way by legal authorities, or demarcating a child's academic potential, accidents of birth can prove a dishearteningly unjust barrier or an unsurprisingly undeserved advantage. Framing these issues in terms of privilege, however, is the wrong way to conceptualize the problem. The real and appalling issue, of course, is discrimination - both outright and subtler, more insidious forms.
Rather than combat discrimination head-on, many left-leaning activists glorify the challenges associated with the misfortunes of individual identity, particularly those related to immutable accidents of birth like race, gender, and sexual orientation. Where the traditionally religious elevate God, then angels, then the saints, and then the rest of us, these identitarians hold sacred a hierarchical order of intrinsic societal advantages and disadvantages - not as they are, but as they are spelled out in the academic language of critical theories of race and gender.
There is, however, one troubling difference between privilege and sin. While we can love the sinner but hate the sin, we seem poorly equipped to love the privileged, unless merely as mascots and objects of envy. Sinners have been born into a struggle against a fatal flaw; the privileged are just born flawed - unwholesomely lucky and blithely ungrateful. The sinner is born flawed and thus writes his own undoing. The sinner, then, in being unable to help it, is a wretch, and behind all contempt for him there is pity. Not so with the privileged. The very word privileged almost makes you find its target contemptible. The privileged don't hinder themselves; they hinder you. A sinner can be redeemed; the privileged must be taken down a notch.
More perspective, kindness, and charity are needed. Sin and privilege aren't empty concepts, and they're not exactly useless. They generate a particular kind of awareness and empathy that motivates certain kinds of behaviors seeking to avoid, minimize, and atone for them, but they're effectively useless for solving any real problems. Wiser people focus more on the positive qualities they'd like to instill in others - temperance, self-control, generosity, fairness, even purity - rather than wallowing in the failures of miscreants and leaving it at that. Those adhering to the religion of identity politics (many of whom already reject the concept of religious sin) should learn from example and turn their attention to what matters, campaigning to create social, political, and economic systems that raise the underdog to genuine equality.
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.