Do high school seniors need their own restrooms? Does the president need all green lights? Let’s talk to Fred about privilege. (More)

Double Standards, Part III – Fred Whispering on Privilege (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature continues last week’s discussion of the conservative moral equation, focusing on double standards and privilege. Thursday we saw how that  moral equation not only excuses but requires privilege. Yesterday we explored how double standards and privilege are taught from childhood and thus often invisible. Today we share ideas for discussing privilege with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

Privilege identifies and rewards Ingroup or Authority status.

We’ve discussed several examples of privilege this week, in the articles and reader comments. We could have discussed countless others, because privilege permeates our society. Why does Mr. Rich have steak and lobster in a fancy restaurant, while Mrs. Fred makes chicken and rice at home? The Fred family may prefer chicken and rice. Mrs. Fred may be a wonderful cook and the Fred family would rather eat at home than at any restaurant. Or maybe Fred can’t afford to take the family out to eat except on special occasions, and can’t afford steak and lobster even then. Like most products and services, a steak and lobster dinner at a fancy restaurant is a privilege of wealth. If you can afford it, you get it. If you can’t, you don’t.

When a professional chef donated his time and used donated food to prepare gourmet cuisine at a homeless shelter, he drew criticism from conservatives who said he was “pampering” the poor. (I can’t find the original story because so many other chefs have since begun doing this.) A privilege of wealth – gourmet food – was being given away to people outside the Ingroup of wealth. To paraphrase my complaint at the warehouse store: What’s the point of being wealthy if the homeless get the same cuisine I get?

Ingroup and Authority status is relative.

This also answers the common progressive question: How many houses do rich people need? The sociologists’ answer is the term positional spending. If someone else has a Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park, a weekend cottage in the Hamptons, a winter condo in Florida, a ski chalet in Aspen, and a little getaway on that Arizona golf course, then you do ‘need’ that little island off the Dubai coast … to identify and reward your superior rank in the Ingroup of wealth.

It’s not “hypocrisy” when such a person wants the homeless out of town, but doesn’t offer one of his extra homes to house them. It would be hypocrisy if he said everyone should have a place to live, but denied shelter to people he didn’t like. But if he says a home – or health care – is “a privilege,” he’s not being hypocritical. He thinks he and his Ingroup deserve that privilege, and that his Ingroup status will be diminished if that privilege is made available to Others. To preserve that status, he must have privileges that Others cannot have.

We see this pattern throughout conservative dialogue: resentment of a non-white president, of women choosing not to get or stay pregnant, of non-Christian houses of worship, of LGBT marriage, of non-white immigration, and of health care being made affordable to all. Each of those has been a privilege for an Ingroup, and members of that Ingroup feel their status is diminished if that privilege is made available to Others.

All privileges are not created equal.

Yet as we’ve noted all week, some privileges are “earned,” and others make sense even if they’re not “earned.” President Obama did not “earn” the privilege of Air Force One or of never getting stuck in traffic. Yes, he won the presidential election, but the presidency did not always include those perks. But do we really want our president sitting at an airport gate waiting for a coach seat, or stuck in a D.C. traffic jam?

We progressives also value Harm/Care as a First Principle, and we recognize that our nation’s leader sitting in an airport or stuck in traffic creates a risk of harm, not just for him but for all of us. In those cases, our First Principle of Harm/Care outweighs our First Principle of Fairness/Reciprocity. Those two presidential privileges make sense … even in our progressive moral equation.

In contrast, high school seniors having their own restrooms – especially the restrooms nearest the cafeteria, as they were in my high school – makes no sense at all. Yes, they had stayed in school and were almost ready to graduate. And that should earn first dibs on classes that are nearly full (another common senior privilege). Maybe it should earn them some other privileges as well. But their own restrooms? What’s the point of that, except to identify and reward Ingroup status … and that’s not enough to legitimize a privilege in our progressive moral equation.

When we talk with Fred about conservatives’ double standards, we should talk about privilege. And that means asking whether a privilege is legitimate: Does that privilege make sense in our progressive moral equation, where Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity are First Principles?

Talking about privilege that way immediately shifts the debate. We no longer follow the conservative default of assuming privileges are legitimate. Instead, we challenge those privileges … on moral grounds that highlight the difference between progressive and conservative worldviews and moral equations. We don’t take it for granted that Fred already agrees with our moral equation, though often he will. And by discussing the issue that way, we show Fred that progressives care about morality too.

It’s not as easy as shouting “Hypocrites!” But it’s more likely to convince Fred, and help build our progressive movement. It also elevates our political dialogue about trading accusations … and given what happened last week in Tuscon, we need to do that.


Happy Saturday!