Interview With Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a New York-based writer whose new book, The Perils of Privilege, explores the influential and commanding role that the concept of “privilege” plays in political discourse, particularly online. She also writes for The New Republic and maintains a very good Twitter account.


Your book was fascinating and I’ve been having conversations with people about ideas from it ever since I started reading it. But, I want to start at the end - the book takes a conclusion that the idea of privilege has failed to produce a kinder society. 

This made me think, because one thing I’ve noticed is that there seems to be a lot less insulting speech out there in society than there used to be, lot of jokes and words that hurt various groups of people that were much more permissive a decade ago than they are today (I’m thinking of Seth Rogen denouncing the homophobia of his earlier films and young, gay kids who don’t have to see themselves as the punchline quite as often.) 

Do you think there’s a case to be made that all this privilege awareness might have had a bigger impact on the interpersonal level than it has on the macro, political level? 

First off, thank you for reading! These are all such great questions.

Before answering the first question I think it makes sense to distinguish between privilege awareness from what was once referred to as political correctness. By "privilege awareness" I don't mean using sensitive language, especially towards those from marginalized groups. That's just... decent, and what we all should be striving for. Nor do I mean awareness of the existence of systemic injustice. I mean an approach that encourages those with privilege of various sorts to focus on a) meticulously examining their own privilege, or b) accusing other similarly privileged people of failing to sufficiently examine theirs.

As for whether we’ve seen an increase in sensitivity in the years since “privilege” entered the discourse, I think it’s been a mix. There’s certainly less casual bigotry in some arenas (liberal milieus, mainstream entertainment) than at some other times in history. There’s also been a tremendous backlash against the inability to be casually bigoted. Trump won in part by appealing to an evidently widespread desire to reject the still quite modest gains made over the years on the sensitivity front. There's also been this great bigoted id unleashed, making it so that for every gain in interpersonal politeness, there’s this undercurrent of hate the likes of which hasn’t been seen in decades.

I’d say that the aggrieved white male Trump supporter, convinced that straight white Christian men are society’s real victims, is “privilege-aware,” as in he’s thinking in terms of identity, hierarchies, and his own status. So, too, in a different sense, is the wealthy white man who has privilege he wishes to maintain. The concept of “privilege” has caught on without any cross-ideological consensus on who falls where, or on whether unearned advantage is a problem in the first place.

One of my favorite parts of the book was when you discuss how the privilege idea ends up positioning disadvantages against each other, in hierarchy, rather than helping various forms of disadvantage form a coalition around social progress. For example, injustice faced by a white middle-class white woman challenged by injustice faced by a white man who is not able bodied challenged by injustice faced by a female person of color - where it almost feels like we have to pick a winner and write off whichever injustices are lesser. 

Obviously some injustices are worse - people of color do face much more severe issues than the more subtle, systemic sexism faced by a wealthy, white female business leader, there’s no debate about that - but to your point, privilege as a concept almost asks us to start ignoring injustice in the name of respecting even worst injustice - which seems unhelpful.

My question, though, is that social justice movements also have a long history of primarily serving the white middle and upper-middle class and ignoring more severe forms of injustice faced by more marginalized groups. Do we risk losing intersectionality - which most would say we still don’t have nearly enough of - and risk repeating those past storylines if we begin to move away from ideas like privilege?   

While I do indeed think we should move past the idea of privilege, I by no means advocate for chucking the concept of systemic disadvantage. Everyone ought to understand that racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., are real, and are really problems. I do take issue with the idea that "most" think there's not enough intersectionality, after nearly half the electorate, including 53% of white women, ticked the white-victimhood box. For most Americans to want intersectionality, most would need to identify with feminism or progressivism, to begin with. Which is not, unfortunately, where we’re at.

Where privilege enters into it is... let's stick with your "wealthy, white female business leader" example, and to the feminist-priorities context. Does it make sense to speak of such a woman as "privileged"? If what's meant is, she's rich, then that's just a synonym, and neither here nor there. But to refer to her complaints about equal pay or CEO representation as privilege is to refer to her obstacles as though they exist only relative to those of less-advantaged women, leaving equivalently-advantaged men off the hook.

And that's what "privilege" does in a case like this - rather than encouraging a shift in feminist priorities from Sheryl Sandberg to poor and marginalized women (or just to the vast majority of women, whose lives have zilch in common with Sandberg's), which is helpful, it demands all-out rejecting concerns like, say, the absence, thus far, of a female president. By speaking of relatively less pressing concerns as “privilege” – that is, as though they constitute advantages – the left winds up converging with the right.

You have a super interesting critique of how privilege awareness overlaps with education levels and becomes a classism of its own - essentially demeaning anyone without the life experiences or education levels to have been exposed to these concepts and becoming something of a signal about one’s own status rather than a meaningful rejection of it. 

You’re obviously not arguing people should tolerate racism or sexism or anti-semitism, but is there an argument that being more tolerant of offensive speech, or being more empathic to those with less opportunity to develop more nuanced world views, can eventually lead to simply harboring and tolerating hate speech overall? 

Yes. It’s definitely possible for the privilege critique of “privilege” – that is, for the argument that privilege-talk excludes those without proper initiation in highbrow manners – to overshoot the mark, and lead to that sinkhole where it’s too problematic to suggest that a Trump supporter is at the very least OK with racism and xenophobia, which, no. And here’s how I’d address that danger:

I think there should be greater tolerance of inadvertently offensive speech, and less generosity towards the overt, unapologetic variety. While intent is tough to gauge, the most reliable way of doing so is by looking at how someone acts once corrected – especially by someone who belongs to the relevant demographic. What too often happens, especially online, and especially when the word “privilege” is used in the pile-on (as vs. “racism,” “sexism,” etc., which refer to specific phenomena) is, you have someone who knows they screwed up but not why. That dynamic risks driving otherwise useful (for lack of a better term) allies in the other direction, if not towards full-on reactionary politics, then towards apathy. And it’s a dynamic with a disproportionately negative impact on those who haven’t, say, graduated from Oberlin within the last five years. (That is, there’s a risk not just of classism, but also ageism.)

There’s then a separate question, which is that “privilege awareness” is not, as I use the expression, synonymous with anti-oppression. It’s a specific (ostensibly) anti-bigotry approach that focuses on making sure every privileged person is maximally attuned to their own privilege. Anti-oppression ideally puts the focus on making life easier for the oppressed; privilege-awareness all too often just offers the not-oppressed further opportunities to contemplate themselves.

I really like the distinction you draw between more empathy for inadvertent offensive speech and less for intended offensive speech. I think this is something a lot of people - including myself - struggle with… basically, should I let this slide? Am I bad if I let this slide? Should I correct my friend here when I know he didn’t mean it the way it might be taken? 

Operating on the assumption that saying hey, you’re being privileged is a dead end in terms of helping address that issue in a less hostile way, how do you think we can go about helping to course-correct inadvertently offensive speech in a way that doesn’t draw battle lines or create the hierarchical positioning of privilege awareness?

If we’re talking just about inadvertently offensive speech, and just between friends, I don’t think it matters a tremendous amount which language you use. Ideally friends will want to be told that they’ve said something troubling!

The issue is more when we’re talking about situations where people don’t know one another, and can’t be assumed to wish one another well. Twitter pile-ons come to mind. Friends will generally know who’s privileged in which way, which avoids the pitfall of making wildly incorrect assumptions re: who fits where. (As in, you’re unlikely to accuse your Korean-American friend of white privilege.) Among strangers, privilege-checking isn’t necessarily well-intended. It can be about, say, one man digging up or magnifying another man’s slightly sexist remarks and calling those out so as to inoculate himself from the same charge.

But let’s stick with cases where a call-out is intended as educational. My point re: use of privilege isn’t that it’s excessively hostile. It’s that it’s insufficiently precise. If someone’s been sexist, use the word “sexist” to describe this! “Privilege” is a “dead end” not because the recipient will get defensive – that’s common to all call-outs. It fails because it abruptly turns a conversation about a particular interaction into a referendum on one individual’s self-awareness.

Are there any impactful storylines or issues from the last several months or years that you see as having gone under the radar or as being more quietly important than has been widely acknowledged?

Gun control. The topic comes up, but not productively. The left has bought into the idea that it’s somehow snobbish and culturally insensitive to point out that Americans are needlessly killing one another and themselves with firearms. That much more so since the election, with the ongoing conversation about “bubbles” and the irritating consensus that it’s the gun-skeptical, not gun enthusiasts, who live in them. So we’re now at a place we’re hearing about the non-existent danger of theoretical attacks by theoretically radicalized refugees. 

Thank you for mentioning gun control. This may be a convoluted question, so feel free to call me dumb and dismiss it. I’m from Texas, and growing up my family knew a lot of people who hunted. There was a respect and a culture around guns then that feels to have simply been lost. The people I knew in Texas growing up who had guns would have been first in line to deny gun permits to the mentally ill or those with criminal issues, as guns were a symbol of maturity and trust rather than the modern, right-wing take that feels like guns are essentially a proxy for human freedom.

You made some good points in your other answers about white victimhood, the Trump voters and generally how discourse has evolved recently- do you think, to a degree, these things all chart together? Is there an argument to be made that the extremity of gun rights positions correlates to the extremity of liberal militancy against privilege and against politically incorrect speech? Essentially, do you think there is a larger tug of war between these issues than we tend to acknowledge? 

My position on guns is on the extreme end of things, which is exactly why I don't think it's emblematic of political polarization, or else there'd be ban-guns articles all over the place, which, much to my dismay, there are not. Most who favor gun control will, in my experience, lead with their respect for gun culture and hunting and traditions and responsible gun ownership. My thinking is, let’s begin by declaring gun violence and accidents, and the sheer number of guns circulating, unacceptable, and only then discuss exceptions for hunting, say, or for (some; ideally not all) police officers.

I'm as absolutist as I am about guns precisely because this isn't, in my view, an issue in need of more nuance from the pro-gun-control side. Americans are dying. They're killing their neighbors. They're killing the people they're employed to protect. Americans are severely injuring one another and themselves. If I were to hedge on this, to question whether I, a native New Yorker who’s lived in cities for most of her life, have any place having opinions on this topic, it would be out of what Arwa Mahdawi called “populist correctness.”

Do you have any rituals associated with your work?

Coffee, non-writing work (teaching and editing), walking my dog, and – why pretend otherwise? – Twitter.

You should follow Phoebe on Twitter, go do that now.