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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Power, Privilege, & Justice: Privilege as Social, Political Power that is Illiberal, Undemocratic, Unjust

The Politics of Public Health, and the Public Health of American Politics
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

Privilege in one form or another has been a problem that has haunted human society for as long as there has been social structures or hierarchies at all. Some forms of privilege can be perfectly legitimate because they come with forms of authority which are themselves legitimate. In a liberal democracy, authority is legitimate when it is transparent, democratic, and accepted by those over who authority is exercised. Authority, and thus any associated privilege, is something which doesn't just have to be earned, but which must be continually justified to those who do not have it.

So many other examples of privilege, though, are form of political and social power which are not earned, not transparent, and do not occur as part of any legitimate authority. This makes them illiberal, undemocratic, and ultimately unjust. We can all easily point to some of the most prominent examples of unjust privilege which have plagued human society for millennia: male privilege, religious privilege, aristocratic privilege, heterosexual privilege, racial privilege, ethnic privilege, etc. All of these continue to play a role in contemporary America, though they have been reduced in scope to varying degrees.

Many other forms of privilege have developed, however, almost as if "privilege" were itself a fundamental social force which will always appear in one form or another — no matter how hard we work to beat down one manifestation, another begins to grow behind us. Newspaper reporters who write error-filled bromides assert privilege over bloggers who dare to catalog all the mistakes. The Paris Hiltons are privileged over the Genarlow Wilsons in the courts, and over deaths in Iraq in the news. Corporations which don't cause too much trouble for the government can be privileged over those who do challenge current power structures. Churches which align themselves with the politically powerful get privileged over those which dare to align themselves with those who question the politically powerful.

These sorts of privilege are illiberal (and authoritarian) because they lack mechanisms to prevent their abuse to the detriment of people's basic civil liberties and rights. They are undemocratic because they exist without the consent and participation of the public upon whom the privileges are built. They are unjust because they exist without reference to any sort of merit or dessert. All of this is easy to see when it comes to privileging whites over blacks or men over women, but the same basic problems exist even in the sorts of privileges I describe above.

Privileges create an alternative, unjust set of social relationships which inhibit genuine liberal democracy. In a system where everyone is not only supposed to be equal, but equally sovereign, placing some at the head of the line because of race, gender, wealth, etc., says that everyone isn't really equal after all. If that's the case, though, then people won't believe that they are all equally sovereign, which means people won't accept the idea that they really have a role to play in deciding who will govern. Is it any wonder that America has such a low rate of voter turnout?

Of course people will believe that their votes don't matter when they are continually faced with others benefiting from undemocratic, unearned privileges which put them in positions of unjust power and authority. What so many don't realize is that it is precisely through their not participating in the democratic process that then unjustly privileged are able to more easily hold on to their power. If enough people started to participate, and in an organized manner with the intent of bringing down such unjust privileges, they could make a difference...and we might have the revolution needed to cause real changes in society.

We're faced, though, with a difficult chicken-or-egg problem: if people are not inclined to vote in part because they see so much undemocratic privilege walking around, how do we get them to vote to end undemocratic privileges? The privileged themselves have little incentive to simply give up their advantages, and ultimately they're the ones who benefit from people not voting in large numbers. Simple "get out the vote" efforts don't seem to accomplish much, either. At the very least, I think some old-fashioned rabble-rousing might be in order.

I think that more extensive and effective use can be made of flyers, newsletters, and posters to communicate hard-hitting, bare-knuckle, and definitely impolite messages about what's going on and the need to do something. We need to make people upset and angry about what's happening in order to help get them to care enough to begin acting. Yes, I know the importance of being able to communicate and defend a position on the basis of calm, reasoned arguments, but most people just don't know what a good reasoned argument is in the first place. If you have such arguments, then there is nothing wrong with also using propaganda and polemic if those tactics are what's most effective at attracting attention, interest, and engagement.

Perhaps something truly revolutionary is needed in order to change public consciousness and perception about voting — like perhaps making voting a legal requirement. I know what you're going to say, and I don't much like the idea either. Aside from questions about civil liberties, there's a real problem with whether this would make voting a hollow legal requirement rather than civil, democratic participation. The imposition of external motivations typically eliminates any internal motivations people have and that would be a serious price to pay. So, if you don't like this suggestion, what do you offer instead? Like I said, I don't much like this idea either so I'm definitely receptive to any good ideas. Even half-baked ideas might be an improvement at this point!

This was originally a World War II propaganda poster instructing people to keep quiet about whatever military secrets they might know.

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We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.