Friday, June 16, 2017

Privilege and Idiocy

My sister recently posted a link to a test (How Privileged Are You) on her FaceBook page. She’d taken the test and posted her score. A number of her friends commented with their scores as well. Sadly (at least in my opinion) none of them posted a critique of the test itself, only scores that it had produced, seemingly taking it for granted that those scores were meaningful.

I was curious, so I looked at the test. It struck me as one of the most idiotic things I’d seen in quite a while (not sure if that means I'm picky or just lucky). A lot of online tests are pretty awful, but at least among those I’ve seen, this truly does take the prize for the worst of them all.

The directions for the test tell you to “Check off all the statements that apply to you.”

The first few statements

1. I am white.

This at least tells us the nature of the test—the more items you check, the more “privileged” it’s going to claim you are. Other than that, it’s pretty close to pure idiocy. Just for example, if a child is (roughly) half Caucasian and half Filipino, do they count as “white” or not? The simple reality is that trying to draw clear lines between races is difficult and error prone at best. Yes, if you’re careful enough to define what “white” means, you can find people who do and don’t qualify—but by the time you decided on a clear-cut definition to which people can give an accurate and meaningful answer, you’re going to lose the ability for it to do what’s really intended: create division and discrimination.

2. I have never been discriminated against because of my skin color.

This is essentially impossible for anybody to truly answer. There are clear-cut cases where somebody can state with certainty that they were discriminated against because of their skin color (the US in the 1950s or earlier, South Africa under Apartheid, etc.)

It's impossible, however, for anybody to know that they were *not* discriminated against because of skin color. That time in third grade when nobody wanted to choose me for their team at recess? Probably because I was skinny and nerdy--but I can't say with certainty that nobody ever thought "let's skip the pasty white guy".

3. I have never been the only person of my race in a room.

This reaches a level of excrescence I’d never previously experienced. Allow me a bit of a digression to attempt to explain why that’s true1.

I grew up in Aberdeen, South Dakota. I don’t have any official statistics on its demographics at that time, but my guess would be that its population was at least 90% western Europeans (and over 95% wouldn’t surprise me even a tiny bit). I was something like 14 years old before the first time I actually traveled outside South Dakota at all—and that was to a small town in Minnesota, where the population was about equally white (maybe even more so, though I don’t really know).
So, in the view of the people who wrote this test, at that time I was apparently almost supremely privileged. Essentially any and every time I’d been in a room full of people, not only had there been at least one other Caucasian, but in most cases, the vast majority (or all) of them were Caucasian.
Much more recently, I’ve traveled to (for one example) the Philippines. While I was there, it was quite common that I was the only Caucasian in the room, and in some cases probably the only Caucasian within a few miles.
So if we treat this test as meaningful, we believe that I’m actually less privileged now than I was as a child.

In reality, exactly the opposite is true. Going to the Philippines was a huge privilege, and having members of my wife’s family to lead me around, show me the sights, and expose me their viewpoints on life was an even greater one. At least for a child like me who was curious about the world, growing up in a white ghetto was far from a privilege, and getting to see other parts of the world far from repressive.

4. I have never been mocked for my accent.

When I was a kid in South Dakota, we were often visited by our cousins from Minnesota. Each of us thought the other had a funny accent, and yes, each group mocked the others’ accents.
Apparently in the minds of the people who wrote this test, I’d have been more privileged if my cousins had never visited. I’m left wondering what sort of lunacy would lead somebody to this conclusion. Does anybody honestly think that a little good-natured mocking actually hurt me? Would I have been better off in any way if my cousins hadn’t visited?

5. I have never been told I am attractive “for my race.”

Like pretty nearly everybody in the US close to my age, there was a period of about six months (or so) when I’d have had to live by myself under a rock in the mountains to avoid hearing that I was “Pretty Fly for a White Guy”, usually several times in fairly quick succession.

Does somebody honestly think that hearing that silly song somehow made me “less privileged”? Seriously?

More selections

I guess I’ll stop with the point by point critique here, but not without pointing out one more detail: no, I did not go through the list and cherry-pick these particular statements out of a long list that actually made more sense.

Having done that, now I really am going to cherry pick a few that I think are particularly egregious, for various reasons.

  • I have never been raped.
First, I’m utterly horrified that anybody would imply that living without being raped is a privilege. This is not a privilege—it’s a right! Anybody who even hints at the possibility that living without being raped is a privilege really needs to get a clue.

Second, looking at the definition some people use of “rape”, my initial reaction of “of course I’ve never been raped” was apparently wrong.
When I went into the military (US Air Force,
in 1984) part of the medical examination involved a doctor pushing a finger in your sphincter. To my thinking, this was simply a normal part of a medical examination, to which tens of thousands of people are subjected every year.

Looking through the post-modern definition of rape, however, it was actually rape, as some people define the term.
Was there penetration? Yeah, pretty definitely.
Was this something I really wanted to have happen? Definitely not.
Was there “coercion or economic inducement” applied to get me to consent? Well, yeah—if I hadn’t consented, I couldn’t get the job or the pay that went with it.

At least in my opinion, calling this rape is utterly idiotic. The reality is that yes, there was a level of “coercion” involved—but if I’d decided to, I could still have refused, and it wouldn’t have happened. I’m reasonably certain that many of the people who consider themselves to have been raped were in roughly similar situations. They gave consent to something with which they were at least mildly uncomfortable, but could have refused—and if they had, what they’re terming as “rape” wouldn’t have happened.
Of course, there are people who define rape even more broadly than that—in some cases, that the “inherent differences in power” between men and women are so great that even when a woman thinks she’s consenting (or even wildly enthusiastically initiating the sexual encounter) that it’s still rape.

  • I’ve never been told that I’m overweight or “too skinny.”

I’ve actually been told both of these things—and in both cases, it was clearly true. As a teenager I was underweight. I’m now rather overweight. This isn’t a result of “privilege”; it’s a result of having been too skinny at one time, and now being overweight.
Regardless of people talking about “body types” and such, the simple fact of the matter is that I’m overweight for a couple pretty simple reasons. First, I eat too much—especially snacks. Second, I don’t get enough exercise. If there’s any blame to be laid here, it’s certainly not on anybody else for having the nerve to point out the simple fact that I’m overweight—quite the contrary; instead of writing this, I should probably be going for a healthy walk right now.

I have a little more sympathy for people who are severely underweight. This can be much more difficult to deal with. If you're honestly anorexic, seek help if you aren't already getting it.

If your weight is actually reasonably normal and you're healthy, somebody saying otherwise--well, now you know at least some people to avoid. Seriously, in schools (for example) people being nasty and mean to each other has been happening for a long time. You may feel that you lack "privilege" because people pick on you--but I can pretty much guarantee that the people you think of as "privileged" are being picked on as well. Even the head cheerleader, homecoming queen, center of the basketball team, quarterback of the football team, etc., are getting picked on by somebody. There may be somebody, somewhere, sometime who honestly went through school without anybody every picking on them, and if so I guess they really are privileged--but personally, I doubt it's ever happened, even once.

  • I have never been cyber-bullied for any of my identities.

I find this egregious for a number of reasons. First of all, when I was a child, cyber bullying didn’t exist. Apparently, these people think that made everybody “privileged”. Again, the reality is quite the opposite. Having an immense treasure of knowledge like the Internet easily available is a truly massive privilege. If you choose to waste your time on some social media site where cyber-bullying happens...well, don’t do that! Seriously, I don’t mean to say people should be excused for cyber-bullying, but the simple fact is that in a case like this, self defense is utterly trivial, and you'll be better off for it anyway.

Second, the people who wrote this idiocy have (like with many other things) taken “identity”, which used to have a clear definition, and abused it horribly, to the point that it doesn’t really mean anything any more. What’s worse, they’re apparently proud of having done so—they refer to a single person as having multiple “identities” in at least a half dozen of their statements.

Now, it may be open to argument that in the specific case of dissociative identity disorder (previously known as multiple personality disorder), that a single body could be “home” to multiple personalities, each of which should be treated as having its own identity.

Dissociative identity disorder, however, is a serious and fairly rare psychiatric condition. Exactly how rare is open to some debate—the highest estimate I’ve heard is that it might be as great as 1% of the population; most estimates are substantially lower.

In any case, taking for granted that everybody who takes the test (or even most of them) have multiple identities is abusing the word to mean essentially the opposite of what it really does. What they’re apparently getting at is something like "characteristics", rather than actual identity (of which, by nature, I have exactly one—and there’s a solid case to be made that even in a case of DID, there’s still really only one identity, albeit of a personality that’s been badly damaged by abuse).

The Verdict on the Test

Worse than the individual items in this list is the basic attitude it shows in general. Essentially all of the questions really seem to revolve around one point: a belief that if people act as if they like or admire me, that’s “privilege”. It seems to me that it does a fair job of testing one thing. I’m not a psychiatrist, but I see little choice but to conclude that regardless of the actual score you get in this test, if you consider the test or score as having even the slightest bearing on reality, you should probably seek professional help immediately (no, I’m not being sarcastic at all—I’m 100% serious).

Real Privileges

I believe I am extremely privileged. Let me list a few of the factors in my life that I think have been real privileges:
1. I learned to read at an early age.
2. I had a large supply of books available at an early age (for people less ancient than myself, feel free to substitute Internet access—it not only provides much more information, but makes it dramatically easier to access as well).
I’ve lumped these together because they largely go hand in hand. They are also absolutely immense privileges—if you checked off every one of the items in the test under discussion, it still means far less than having learned to read.
Most learning comes from reading. Somebody who’s been taught to read can learn nearly anything and everything else s/he desires.
3. Other early education
I lump all the other early education together. Don’t get me wrong: learning about history, geography, mathematics, etc., is all important—but somebody who knows how to read can learn them independently, so all the other education is still minor compared to learning to read and having reading material available.
4. Having children
I think having children is the single greatest privilege of my adult life. I don’t know of a way to describe what a huge privilege this really is, at least for me. The test at hand would undoubtedly (correctly) conclude that I’m highly privileged—but everything it attempts to measure, combined, is still utterly trivial compared to the privilege of having children.
5. Being intelligent
Years ago (from 1988 to 1991) I spent three years helping teach/train developmentally disabled people to help them live as independently as possible. Just to give an example that’s obvious to me, seeing the immense difference between how quickly my children have learned and how much slower and more difficult it is for people who are even mildly handicapped has given me a tremendous appreciation for the degree to which intelligence smooths the way through modern life, and makes nearly everything easier.
6. Living in modern times
For the vast majority of human history, large parts of the population were in danger of starving to death, or being a casualty of war (or both)--often many times in their lives. Although I’ve never actually been in danger of starving to death, I’ve gone for two or three weeks at a time without an actual meal. Even that degree of hunger dwarfs the trivial nonsense discussed in this test.
Even for people whose lives weren’t directly endangered, anything approaching “fulfillment” from life was far beyond most peoples’ dreams throughout most of human history. Slaves and serfs frequently had no choice at all in their lives, and even nominally “free” people frequently had little real choice, and essentially no chance at “upward mobility’ at all.
Even compared to when I was a child growing up, the amount of information people have easily accessible is absolutely astounding. Being able to type a paper for school on a computer and correct spelling errors easily instead of writing it by hand and starting over if you made too many spelling mistakes--there's no way to meaningfully compare these.
7. Living in the western world
Even today, many people are raised in enforced ignorance. There are still people in danger of dying from starvation or diseases to which cures and/or effective vaccinations are well known. A great deal has been done relatively recently (much thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among many others), but there’s seriously a lot left to do, and areas where such assistance is routinely refused as well.


1. The test is utter nonsense
2. There are real privileges—and they’re huge compared to the trivial nonsense covered by the test questions. They’re also very close to universal among essentially everybody with access to the test though. We, the people with easy access to the Internet are much more alike than different—and all of us are almost supremely privileged.

1 I’m trying to ignore the obvious logical problem here: anybody who’s ever been alone in a room has clearly been the only person of their race in the room, so it's nearly inevitable that at some time or other, *everybody* has been the only person of their race in a particular room.

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