On Privilege and Original Sin

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The forbidden fruit taken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden certainly seems like it must have had a sour taste. For indulging their appetites a little, the two brought sin and death into the world, got kicked out of paradise, and were each assigned their own specially frustrating labor projects. Bible commentators down through history have noted an obvious lesson here: sometimes what we learn through experience is pretty bitter. Thanks to the actions of Adam and Eve, we all have been corrupted and stand in need of salvation… or so the story goes.

Some thinkers on the right and the left have likened the concept of privilege to that of Original Sin. Both are things we are born into, that we cannot escape, and are meant to be dealt with through a confessional or penitent approach. Authors James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian draw this comparison in their article, Privilege: The Left’s Original Sin. There is no greater sin in the eyes of the left, they claim, than “having been born an able-bodied, straight, white male who identifies as a man but isn’t deeply sorry for this utterly unintentional state of affairs.”

Part of what makes this analogy compelling is that some similarities do exist between privilege and Original Sin. Yet there are also plenty of concepts like apostasy, faith, and even religion itself that routinely get tossed around with secular ideas in ways that are more often tenuous than they are convincing. There have been many contrived arguments comparing a belief in science to faith or labeling atheism as another religion. The more the sacred retreats from this picture, the weaker these comparisons start to seem.

In many cases, these types of arguments function as little more than an accusation of hypocrisy designed to stymie conversation. But in other instances, they may be an exercise in guilt by association. Presumably, though, the main complaint here is not the religious connection, but how privilege and Original Sin have both been used as shaming devices.

Certainly, privilege talk can be used to try and control or stop conversation. In that sense it is comparable to Original Sin as employed by brazen preachers spreading a message of hellfire and brimstone. However, where many on the right have seen privilege as a personal attack, many on the left have been endorsing it with the aim of calling attention to broader social issues. Mychal Denzel Smith, writing for The Nation, observes that when

people with privilege hear that they have privilege, what they hear is not, ‘Our society is structured so that your life is more valued than others.’ They hear, ‘Everything, no matter what, will be handed to you. You have done nothing to achieve what you have.’

Apology and repentance are not the goals for those who call attention to privilege — social reform is the goal.

In their article, Boghossian and Lindsay offer discrimination as a better alternative to privilege. This may be splitting hairs, but it may also underscore a valuable point. Discrimination has a history behind it, especially a legal one, and it has often been addressed on an isolated, individual-case basis. To suggest that there are more systemic problems in our courts, in our neighborhoods, and in our society, a bigger word seems necessary. Privilege stings. It evokes an air of elitism, of undeserved benefit, and it plays off the anti-magisterial sentiments that have long been a part of American culture. Privilege is less visible than we imagine discrimination to be. It saturates and it structures, as Maggie Nelson has written.

Granted, privilege has its conceptual flaws, too. It’s been argued that it associates the advantages of privilege with luxuries rather than with rights. Others have suggested that it’s not very conducive to understanding differences among various minority groups. Of course, these are conversations worth having, and they have been ongoing in many areas of social justice for some time now, but they are not the basis of this critique.

Boghossian and Lindsay are willing to give a modest bit of credit to the term, conceding that it does describe something real and problematic. What they object to is how privilege helps to “glorify” the struggles of certain identities lucky enough to be born into the right group, while serving as a club to beat on those born into the wrong group. True, there is a problem with how often so-called identity politics centers on privileged groups like Hollywood or university campuses rather than groups that have historically been far more marginalized. But privilege talk also enables us to identify this problem as one of privilege, and if social reform is the impetus behind such talk, then these concerns are some of the focus for change.

Oddly, after explaining that “everybody is privileged,” and that Original Sin and privilege are identical except in that they inhabit different moral universes, Lindsay and Boghossian contend that a distinguishing difference between the two is that the label of privilege is even more contemptible because it’s seen to be a hindrance to the less fortunate among us. But everybody is privileged, so who can rightly take the moral high ground? Some might still claim the moral high ground, though there’s no real explanation for why this would be tolerated more in the case of privilege than in that of Original Sin. Putting privilege into context doesn’t mean forcing repentance.

What if, on the other hand, these commonalities between Original Sin and privilege are actually due to the perception of a confrontational attitude rather than to any conceptual similarity? There are Christians for whom Original Sin is not a weapon with which to persecute unbelievers, but a reminder to themselves to be humble and forgiving of others. In Romans 3, Paul considers the standing Jews and Gentiles have before God. “Do we have any advantage?” he asks. “Not at all!” No one is righteous, not even one, as he goes on to declare in verse ten. Could privilege not serve as a similar reminder to humility?

It’s true that no analogy is perfect, but Boghossian and Lindsay are ambiguous enough in their use of the term privilege that it presents a problem for their argument. Let’s take a definition of privilege by Sian Ferguson at Everyday Feminism. Ferguson says, “We can define privilege as a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.”

This doesn’t tell us anything about most of what Lindsay and Boghossian attribute to privilege, such as it being an accident of birth, inescapable, applicable to everyone, or demanding atonement. I would argue that this is because these are ancillary ideas about the function of privilege in society. Just as the concept of sin differs from the doctrine of Original Sin, the concept of privilege differs from the political, social, and philosophical theorizing that has surrounded it.

The problem is that if we’re going to bring in these ancillary ideas about privilege in drawing a connection to Original Sin, why stop here? Boghossian and Lindsay try to conceal the breakdown of their analogy with the line of qualification stating that Original Sin and privilege inhabit different moral universes. It allows them a little leeway to conveniently gloss over major incongruities like the importance of power systems for understanding privilege, or the ancestral nature of Original Sin that has it inherited from generation to generation.

The doctrine of Original Sin assigns responsibility or sinfulness based on the sins of the parents. Because Adam and Eve sinned, all human beings are said to be sinful. Privilege doesn’t actually function in this way, although it’s notable that there is a common misconception tied up with it about what exactly people are being “accused” of. The familiar example of this misconception might be when a white person complains that ‘just because’ their ancestors benefited from slavery doesn’t mean they should have to feel guilt over it. Usually, what’s being asked for isn’t a simple confession of guilt, as noted. More to the point, privilege is meant to be about socially situating certain narratives, actors, and actions. These social and cultural relations exist in the here and now, even if they have been inherited in one form or another from the actions and institutions of previous generations. They are not like one couple’s mistake committed centuries ago, for which we are still paying. Often times, dismissing privilege as a new form of Original Sin has the effect of whitewashing the past and the way it has shaped and influenced the environments we inhabit in the present.

Original Sin has long been recognized by Christian thinkers for having somewhat of a mysterious mechanism behind it. Scripture doesn’t say how sin is transmitted from one generation to the next — it’s long been debated whether Original Sin as a concept even shows up in the Bible at all. How Adam’s sin affected humanity as a whole is something of a supernatural mystery in its own right. By contrast, it can reasonably be said that social institutions and social relations sometimes or often operate in ways that are unclear or confusing. But is it ever really that mysterious? There are competing theories and explanations at play, but these are subject to empirical evaluation and there is frequently a good deal of overlap and consensus in these areas. So it’s hard to seriously argue that there is a true mystery here. We have so many strong historical examples of how dominant groups and those in positions of power have discriminated against others and established their own systems of advantage for themselves that I think playing the mystery card (which is partly what this analogy does, wittingly or unwittingly) borders on willful ignorance.

The emphasis on guilt is also greatly overstated when it comes to privilege. Consider that we have one particular political party in the U.S. that seems to collectively react to just about any push for greater civil rights on behalf of certain marginalized groups as if it’s demanding that they wear a large millstone of guilt around their neck at all times, and I think this becomes easier to appreciate.

As already acknowledged, there are sometimes those who choose to focus on shaming others for their privilege. But an intersectional approach seems a far better response to this than one based in anger or resentment. Especially if the aim of drawing attention to privilege is not to ‘convict people of their sins,’ but to raise awareness and work towards social change. That will be a hard goal to achieve if most of what we’re doing is shaming and putting down one another, though arguably much less difficult if we’re working from a position of intersectionality that recognizes privilege comes in a variety of different forms. Ironically, then, there’s one characteristic that people talk about as a similarity between privilege and Original Sin — that everyone is privileged — that seems to undermine another aspect of that analogy: that blame or guilt is its purpose.

I’m not sure why we should feel persuaded by the criteria of similarity raised by Boghossian and Lindsay. They seem as if they’ve been cherry picked, but their significance can be questioned, too. Death is something we have no say over, it cannot be escaped, and it’s been said that all of us are dying from the moment we’re born. Yet we might question the utility of comparing death to Original Sin, or to privilege, on such grounds. It could be claimed that death isn’t as comparable for some reason or other, but we have just seen a few ways in which privilege isn’t as comparable, either.

Some analogies are not made on the basis of strong similarities, but are put forward and propagated with other motivations in mind. Given how much criticism Original Sin has attracted both for implying a sense of undeserved guilt and for frequently appearing in the intrusive evangelizing practices of many Christian ministers and missionaries, it really isn’t much of a stretch to suppose that making use of it in an analogy may serve primarily as a means of disparaging and dismissing someone’s legitimate resistance to injustice and criticisms of oppression.

When it comes to our own privilege, we usually aren’t exactly eager to own up to things. I can honestly admit that I still struggle with this. Parul Sehgal writes about this in article on How ‘Privilege’ Became a Provocation:

It’s easier to find a word wanting, rather than ourselves. It’s easy to point out how a word buckles and breaks; it’s harder to notice how we do.

The first sin wasn’t being born into a certain class or identity. It wasn’t being part of a majority group that benefits from the marginalization of others. The first sin was arrogance. It was selfish pride that motivated disobedience, as Thomas Aquinas says in his Summa Theologica.

I agree wholeheartedly with Boghossian and Lindsay that more perspective, kindness, and charity are needed. However, it seems to me that their critique of privilege has missed the mark in a number of ways. There is room for improvement, especially in how we talk to and treat the disadvantaged, but the encouragement given to “focus more on the positive qualities” you want to instill in others rings quite hollow. This advice makes sense on an account of injustice that centers on individuals and individual acts of discrimination, but it is ill-equipped to address broader social and systemic forms of injustice.

Perhaps this is where the critic has more in common with religion than he likes to think. It would be an understatement to say that monotheistic religions haven’t had very good track records of protesting privilege. On the contrary, they’ve often put in a great amount of effort defending their own privilege against so-called heretics, apostates, the ‘morally wayward,’ and even sometimes members of their own flock, despite the social justice efforts of many churches and denominations.

Perspective, kindness, and charity seem mismatched to the disdain for what Lindsay and Boghossian call the religion of identity politics. It’s telling where all the faith-based imagery is located in the picture painted by the two authors, and their contempt for religion is more than evident from their own writings, one of which bears the charitable title of Everybody is Wrong About God (presumably the author is the exception to the title, but apparently that goes without saying).

“You don’t get to denounce identity politics,” as Sincere Kirabo points out, “when your monomaniacal depreciation of all things religious is literally grounded in homage to the politics of your most treasured identity: atheism.” Not everything religion has taught is worthy of derision — especially when it comes to the idea that change must begin with ourselves. There is likewise nothing patently religious about seeing ourselves as benefiting from certain social structures that disadvantage others. Privilege talk that fails to recognize the need for humility and compassion in striving for justice is talk that is rightly criticized. At the same time, a critique of privilege that cloaks its main argument in anti-religious and politically loaded rhetoric is not doing anyone the favors its writers think it’s doing.

Writer, reader, musician, and graduate in philosophy and religious studies.

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