On Unearned Privilege

Something seems wrong to me about the expression “unearned privilege”, and I’ve been trying to think about what it is. I think it comes down to the following things:

Some of the privileges attached to social attributes such as maleness or whiteness are not the kind of thing anyone could earn, in principle. Nobody can deserve those privileges, no matter what they do, because they are intrinsically unjust: they only exist, and can only exist, by virtue of racial and gendered oppression. Let’s call these “zero-sum” privileges. They’re based on the redistribution of a good that exists in some fixed, limited amount away from an egalitarian norm, or one based on “to each according to their need, from each according to their ability”, and towards a biased distribution where some people have to be unfairly dispossessed in order that others might unfairly prosper.

Other such privileges are better thought of as rights that everyone should have, but that some people are unjustly denied. In principle everybody could have these rights without anybody having to be oppressed in order to secure them – they are “non-zero-sum privileges”. (I don’t like referring to them as privileges at all, but let’s leave that for now). Again, the point isn’t that some people have them without having earned them, but that everyone should have them without having to earn them.

Furthermore, there is a weak sense in which some privileges are in fact “earned”: there are things you have to do in order to obtain access to them, and it is possible to fail at doing those things. These are “non-automatic” privileges. They may still be distributed unfairly, or unfairly withheld from people who should be able to access them, but you don’t get them just by being something (e.g. white or male). A case in point: the head boy in my year at school failed to gain entrance to Oxford; I did gain entrance, through the same process. In all the ways that matter in that situation, he was more privileged than I was (he was very highly confident of success, and I’m ashamed to admit that I rather enjoyed his failure). But I “did better” (and/or “was luckier” – there is a strong random element in this) in the entrance examination and interview. While in every respect my having been in a position to take and do well in the Oxford entrance exam, to be taken seriously in an interview and offered a place, were functions of significant privilege and gave me access to greater privilege still, I could nevertheless have “failed to earn” it. In at least that sense, I did “earn” it – or at least, I did something that I could have failed to do (and others more privileged did fail to do), that because of my existing privileges was able to count as “earning it”.

Many very privileged people are in positions where being willing to work diligently and develop their talents will pay off significantly better than just coasting along: there is a positive correlation between effort and reward. The non-automatic character of such rewards is an important factor in the ideology of merit to which many of them subscribe. It’s often asserted that those who have particular privileges have them because they deserve them, because they have earned them through their own efforts or because they merit them through simply being better sorts of people. Referring to “unearned” privilege is a way of refusing this justification – of saying that superior effort or merit is not the reason why a particular group of people, such as white men, has the privileges that it does. But this refusal loses a lot of its bite when dealing with with non-automatic privileges, where unjustly-apportioned rewards are made conditional – for those who are given access to them – on demonstrations of something that counts as merit.

This is particularly true in the software industry, where I work. It would be absurd to suppose that the predominance of middle class white heterosexual men in this industry was due to that category of person’s just being innately better at making software. But it’s also true that for the middle class white heterosexual men who enjoy such an unjustly dominant position in the industry, the rewards they are privileged to be able to access are non-automatic, significantly conditional on their diligence and skill. Software developers (like, I would imagine, City traders) do a lot of “earning it”, and are likely to be very psychologically resistant to being told that they have not earned it. But the real issue, once again, is that when it comes to unjust privileges, whether zero-sum or non-zero-sum, automatic or non-automatic, whether they are “earned” or “unearned” is strictly besides the point: they are unjust.

If we want people to relinquish their attachment to the ideology of merit, we should seek to convince them that unjust privileges cannot be earned (and that rights should not have to be earned), rather than that they specifically have not “really” earned them. That is, rather than chivvying people to participate in a performative false modesty about their accomplishments (“ah, well, I suppose I’ve just been lucky really…”) – a favoured activity amongst frankly already rather privileged leftists, and incidentally quite toxic to the self-esteem of people from less privileged backgrounds who have worked extremely hard in order to get somewhere – we should focus on the injustice of the social hierarchies that mean that their diligence and skill are nurtured and rewarded, while those of others are not.

contra tyrannos

Eliminate the intrinsic, accentuate the plastic. Associate the former with rigid social discrimination, the latter with enlightened tolerance-of-choices…

I can’t bring myself to give up on Geoffrey Hill’s sense of the intrinsic as that which resists tyranny, where the latter is construed precisely as command of plasticity – both the power to mould, and the power to insist that you be (and see yourself as) limitlessly mouldable.

This can cut both ways; re debates about gender identity, for example, what’s often at stake is the question of what is to be regarded as intrinsic, and hence a locus of resistance: the body-in-person versus the performatively-gendered body, for example. The phrase “coercively assigned” implies a subject of coercion, something that is not intrinsically disposed to be what it is coerced into trying (and, often, symptomatically failing) to be.

We don’t have to pathologise the intrinsic, assign it an aetiology, treat it as correctable. Its value often lies in its incorrigibility: eppur si muove. Indeed, it is in refusing to pathologise it, in embracing and affirming it, that we may also be said to “choose” it and to proclaim that choice as a valid one.

(Late, again) Monday Poem: After Slumber xi

UNDERSTAND LESS almost a Dadaist
slogan, anarchist oppugnancy
voicing the truth of power. Some are left
as ghosts in their own lives, materialising
under assumed names, ventriloquised by grief.
Destruction is safer to contemplate than healing,
I find, although my appetites are strange
even to me: I cling to gallows-humour
as others cleave to the cross. Cast CRUCIATUS
and see vengeance realised, bowels frothing
with boiling lead. You understand / condemn
and either way are caught in an imposture,
scrying closed-circuit footage, hearsay’s undead
certainties; the imagined reek of blood.

Weekend Gloss: “For amusement, re-run the delectable nude scene”

The Spirit Zone was a sequence of 14-line poems that were not sonnets, which I wrote in the run up to the Millennium celebrations and the opening of what was then known as the Millennium Dome. (The Dome itself is now called the O2 Arena, and is within walking distance of where I currently live). The Dome’s original exhibition was divided into different “zones”, of which the “spirit zone” was one. I never visited it, but I was interested in running the different senses of the word “spirit” through a poem sequence and seeing how they did and didn’t link up.

This poem is constructed around something one of my cousins told me when we were both around 11 or 12, which was that there was a moment in the 1984 film The Woman In Red when Kelly LeBrock sprang naked out of bed, and if you paused it and whacked up the brightness and contrast you could – in spite of the director’s best efforts at tasteful concealment – see her bush. It’s funny what stays with you.

(He wasn’t the only one, apparently, who found this detail of the film particularly arresting:

Review of The Woman In Red, from Rotten Tomatoes
Review from Rotten Tomatoes

I don’t think I’ve ever seen it – or them – myself, although Kelly LeBrock was good fun in Weird Science).

“Troubles march in long lines” is indeed the epigraph to Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography, where I think it’s credited as a Russian proverb. The last few lines of the poem wonder a little about Dworkin’s systematising overview of the ubiquitous phenomena of male sexual violence and predation. Things that look like accidents – like road accidents, of which there are staggeringly many every year – start to fall into line when you take the perspective of an emancipatory global-historical movement. We’re a long way, still, from the realisation of that projected emancipation, which I ended up imagining here as a kind of cataclysmic moment of historical self-awareness, “a trailing shriek of feedback”. Once again, turning up the brightness and contrast until things blur and saturate, and the hidden is abruptly brought to light.

(Why “farcically”, by the way? Because farce comes from forcemeat, stuffing meat – forcing, stuffing, overfilling having here an obviously sexual sense. I owe a lecture of Valentine Cunningham’s, circa 1994, for this bit of etymological insight.)

I’m not sure now that the implicit charge of messianism can be made to stick. Dworkin’s public oratory certainly had a fire-and-brimstone resonance to it (Susan Brownmiller nicknamed her “Rolling thunder”), but I don’t think she thought women’s liberation depended on an apocalyptic moment of all-out sex war. (Well, sometimes she sort of did: “harden your hearts, and learn how to kill” was her advice to young feminists at one point. But then someone like Elliot Rodger or Marc Lépine crawls out of the woodwork, and you’re reminded of what it’s like to feel that way). Dworkin wanted things to happen in the here-and-now; some of them seemingly-impossible things, like “a 24-hour truce in which there is no rape” (who would declare such a truce, on whose behalf? Who would enforce it?). The claim in this poem that “oppression is contingent” is nevertheless too easy an evasion, I think, of the moral force of that demand. Everything’s contingent, including veritable systems of oppression; that’s why it’s possible for them to end.


An Extractor<S, T> may be seen as a partial function from S to T: it can only “extract” a value of type T from a value of type S if such a value (or the material from which one can be created) is present. In Octarine, an Extractor<T, V> is a cross between a Function<T, Optional<V>> and a Predicate<T> . It has three methods:

  • V extract(T source) – extracts a value of type V directly from the source (or fails with an exception).
  • Optional<V> apply(T source) – returns either a value of type V extracted from the source and wrapped in an Optional, or Optional.empty if no such value is available.
  • boolean test(T source) – returns true if the source contains the kind of value that we want, and false otherwise.

The obvious example is a Record , which might or might not contain a value for a given Key<T> . We have:

We can enhance extractors with predicates to look for values matching additional criteria besides existence – for example:

This makes them useful when composing tests on a record:

Which in turn makes them useful when filtering a collection of records:

Any OptionalLens<T, V> in Octarine is also an Extractor<T, V> , and any plain old Lens<T, V> can be turned into an Extractor<T, V> by calling Lens::asOptional on it.

Apology For The Inevitable Flounce

You know that thing where once there’s a certain amount of carbon in the air the trees stop being a carbon sink and start being a carbon source – that thing where you haven’t enough space left on your hard drive to defragment it – that thing where the general level of ambient stupidity is such that no amount of thought or argument can do anything to reduce it but instead gets instantly translated into further stupidity and dumped on top of an ever-enlarging pile?

That’s why I don’t have a twitter account any more.

I couldn’t think of a good answer to the question “Why am I participating in something that is making me and everyone else who participates in it stupider?”

There might be more writing here as a result; or there might not.