(noun) a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.
To Millennials, privilege is a bad word. It is something to be ashamed of and only acknowledged in repentance, much like alcoholism or a continued adult infatuation for Magic the Gathering. An accusation of privilege—as is commonplace on liberal arts colleges around the country—is one of only a handful of insulting attacks that can be done in public without drawing rebuke. In fact, it is expected that the accused defend themselves, by admitting to their privilege and then providing an anecdote of when they were made aware of this terrible burden they have always carried.
I do not mean to disparage those privilege hating finger pointers; they are right, it is indeed a problem. Privileged people unaware of their position are unable to empathize with others and are at the root of many great social injustices. They attack social welfare and make harsh assumptions about entire groups of people they know nothing about. They are snobs and elitists and other such despicable members of our society. Even those less extreme cases of privilege—the everyday occurrences when someone speaks or acts without acknowledging the distinct situation of others—is still malignant, because it allows people to feel deserving of accomplishments that they were fortunate to be able to make, and it spreads false conjectures about the ethic of those who are less fortunate.
However, there is one great flaw with hating on privilege: it is entirely relative. Everyone is privileged in some sense.
You’re so privileged to not have to pay student loans, most people are up to their ears in debt after school.
Oh, you’re so privileged to have a car, don’t forget that is a luxury for most people.
Man, you’re so privileged to have parents that went to college.
Don’t you ever realize how privileged you are to live in a country with free speech?
Do you know how many people are born blind or deaf—having all your faculties is a privilege you need to stop taking for granted.
These are all reasonable statements and justifiable uses of the word privilege. The important point to remember, though, is there is always going to be someone worse off than you. No matter how bad your problems are there is certainly someone out there who is suffering a lot more than you. And there are many others in a worse situation, who are taking it a whole lot better, usually because it is hard to clearly imagine anything besides the life you are living and how could they be expected to know that it could be a whole lot better?! Anyone (EVERYONE) can stop and acknowledge their privilege. The Ivy League grad with the trust fund? Of course. But what about the uneducated kid getting by with stunning good looks? The poor kid who with loving parents who has never experienced a death in the family? Anyone who has a healthy body and healthy mind? We all have an aspect of our lives that we can feel fortunate to admit; it is just a matter of perspective.
Of course it goes the other way as well, although bringing this up in a dorm room debate of social consciousness is not going to make you any friends. But privileged as you may be, there are people out there that have more than you, that are doing better, that are much happier. If privilege was quantifiable (it would have to be some high level function that combines economic value with emotional health, psychological stability, physical attributes, and that magic coefficient that is either luck or fate or God depending on which mathematician you ask) then there would be one person who had no one to look up to, but only one. It would also mean that exactly one person would be the most disadvantaged in the world (the proverbial ‘one without sin’ who would be justified in casting any number of stones at the hypocritical ingrates of the world). To view privilege in this way is not helpful, not just because it would be impossible to quantify, but because it would allow people to disregard their privilege as puny in comparison to the phonies with more.
Which leads to the other problem with attacking privilege: how do you define it? Some ways are easy, such as your social class (yes, that is a thing, even in America), or the amount of money you have, or your education. But as mentioned earlier, what about the privilege of your physical body? What about your mental wellbeing? Or even just your mentality? You can come from a poor and unsupportive family but still be happier than an opposite individual if you simply have a different mindset—that of contentedness with what you have rather than a pessimistic or worrying view of what you do not. And what the hell is a mindset?? Is it innate or contrived (is it nature or nurture; do you owe it to privilege or can you congratulate yourself?)? In a case like that, who is more privileged—the one with the more privileged background or the more privileged biology? I consider myself more fortunate than someone with chronic depression no matter how great their upbringing was or how easy their life has been.
Important note: clearly some forms of privilege are stronger and more importantly, have greater effect, than others. The most common type of privilege discussed today is that of sex, race, and socioeconomic background, namely being male, White, and rich (or middle class). Those characteristics undeniably connote more greater privilege than most other conditions. That is important.
Not long ago, privilege was something to be proud of and sought after because being better than everyone else was the driving motivation of humans since the invention of ego (and you better believe that was long before the invention of gunpowder, paper, or even stone tools). It is a good thing that this is no longer the case. It is a good thing that acknowledging your privilege is as common in groups of young college students as keg stands—and just as influenced by peer pressure. Millennials pride themselves on being socially conscious and culturally empathetic, and being aware of the concept of privilege is intrinsic to this. It is a cause and consequence of the liberalization of humanity, which is a hopeful sign to anyone who prays for the enlightenment of our species. But hypocrisy comes to even the most well-intentioned saints, and unfettered open-mindedness can be done so poorly that it actually makes the doer more intolerant rather than less. Acknowledging privilege is healthy, but only when it is understood fully in the context of relativity, and only when it is limited to practical ends. To dwell on the relative good fortune of your position (and to brood over the misfortune of others) is only beneficial if you act upon those musings. If you are not willing to do that, then the only consequence of that line of thinking is to depress yourself and embarrass those around you.
Millennials abhor ignorance above all else and scrabble after nuggets of empathy like a hungry hyena digging up a few bones. The concept of privilege is one of those nuggets—one of the bigger ones. To fully comprehend and appreciate it is certainly a big step towards enlightenment, but simply to toss it around to be played with and thrown at people is a great waste of an important point. Ignorance is dangerous, but hypocrisy is its twin.