Why are Americans so fixated on "privilege" and "entitlement?"

There’s one odd thing that many American liberals and conservatives share in common, and that’s this fixation with making sure that people don’t get good things that they don’t deserve.

Scarcely a day goes by without a liberal ranting about “white privilege”, or “thin privilege,” or “male privilege,” etc…but at the same time, scarcely a day goes by without some conservative fuming about how people are milking the welfare system for “free handouts” or how illegal immigrants are “freeloaders” or how so many people have an unjustified attitude of “entitlement” nowadays or how programs like Medicare, Medicaid and so forth are growing at a rate that they feel is far too fast.

To be sure, people of every country probably complain along such lines (it’s human nature to focus on things that seem unfair,) but this attitude seems especially prevalent in America. Why this intense, shrill political/societal fixation with making sure people don’t get good things they don’t deserve?

I can’t speak for conservatives, but the complaints about white/male/whatever privilege aren’t about “people getting good things they don’t deserve.” The complaint is that everyone should have those good things, not that everyone should have nothing.

Yes: To me, the word “privilege” has connotations of some people having things that others don’t have, without having done anything to earn or deserve them. America has always pretended to believe that “all men are created equal” and to reject a formal class system (with royalty and nobility) like the ones in England and other European countries at the time the USA was formed.

Conservatives seem especially sensitive to the free rider problem. As for why that’s a conservative thing, there’s a passage I’ve quoted before from William Poundstone in which he describes liberals and conservatives in game theory terms, as “cooperators” and “defectors” respectively.

I should think that you need to prove that to be true before expecting people to debate WHY it’s true.

Maybe not prove, but I’d be interested in knowing why the OP thinks so, and whether he’s coming at the issue from an insider’s or outsider’s perspective (I don’t remember whether Velocity is American or not).

Because they’re fat and bored. I’m pretty sure a starving Kurd or refugee Serb has never pondered Cisprivilege.

I think from the Republican side, there’s one main thought against the idea of people getting more than they deserve, etc…

Mind you, I’m not advocating these positions or thougts, so don’t pillory me for them. I’m just stating what seems to be the main objections as I hear them from right-wing family and friends.

The first and most common one is sort of centered around the idea of responsible tax spending. There’s a concept among a lot of Republicans that a person’s first responsibility is to pull their own weight and provide for their families. People who don’t do so are considered contemptible and deserving of opprobrium. The notion of income taxes are considered odious to begin with, and the idea of that income tax money being used to prop up or support people who don’t pull their own weight is doubly odious. That’s the main argument against the Welfare system that I’ve heard. It’s essentially seen as a government-run Robin Hood system and people are perceiving that their money is being taken from them and given to someone else who’s misusing it. Hence the periodic outcries against welfare queens and the like.

The second outcry is more centered around attitudes toward government programs. Again, it’s more centered around the notion that you should take care of your own and not expect someone else to do it for you. The idea of entitlements that people are owed by the government are odious for this reason- the idea that they’re not expecting to provide for themselves or their families and that the government owes it to them is horrible to many Republican types, and the idea that they’re being taxed to make this happen just makes it worse.

So ultimately it’s Thudlow’s quote expanded, I suppose.

On the liberal end, I think the use of the word “privilege” is asinine. It’s inherently divisive in this usage, and it tends to set one group up as being oppressive or undeservedly enriched at someone else’s expense.

In fact, in most of the cases, it’s more an absence of something negative rather than the presence of some sort of exclusive positive. But if you frame it that way, it makes it harder to rail against the group for inequality. The problem as I see it is that it makes it more likely to tear the “privileged” group down rather than bring the rest up.

Currently, talk about “privilege” almost always comes from the Left, and it’s a way of trying to make conservatives shut up.

If a white male opposes affirmative action, he’s told “Check your privilege.” Translation: “You’re white, and that gives you special status and privilege in our society, so your opinion doesn’t count.”

If a white male thinks new rape prevention measures on a college campus are dangerous and unfair, he’ll be told, “Check your privilege.” Males are the dominat bad guys, females are the oppressed victim class, so anything a male says should be ignored.

Your translations are incorrect. Really what you’re being told is, “Everyone is coming at this with opinions based on their background, made up of a lot of different factors. Your background might lead to your not thinking carefully about some of these factors, since you’ve been able to make it through life perfectly well without thinking about them. But in this conversation, you need to be thinking about all the factors, including ones you’ve probably not spent much time thinking about before, which means that it might be a good idea for you to spend a lot of time listening in this conversation.” Except that takes a lot longer to say than, “Check your privilege.”

Way to take down those straw men! Those straw men will think twice before talking about privilege in a way that very few real liberals actually do!

One common factor in the things the OP mentions is envy, but I’m not sure why there would be more of this in America than elsewhere—maybe because of America’s high degree of individualism and/or consumerism?

Scoff if you want, but it’s true.

The point of saying “Check your privilege” is most emphatically NOT to get anyone to think. It’s a way of saying, “If you disagree with me, it’s obviously because you come from a privileged class and just can’t see the truth. So either agree with me or shut up.”

That might be what you hear when someone says “check your privilege”, but both the intention and the way it is received by the target is “shut up”.

“Privilege” has got to be one of the least understood (perhaps on purpose…?) concepts in the liberal repetoir.

The narrative isn’t really about dismantling privilege, at least not outside of the very-long term ideal of a more fair and just society on all levels. Nobody is trying to stop white privilege directly.

It’s about recognizing how your experiences, and ultimately your perception of the world, are colored by how people treat you, and that how people treat you is often influenced by external factors.

That’s it. It’s not sinister. It’s not envious. It’s not even really about privledge. It’s unfortunate that someone way back when gave it such an easy-to-pretend-to-misunderstand name, but it is what it is.

Also, I’ve spent most of my life in an massively liberal bubble. I grew up in a raging liberal family. I went to the most lefty-left-lefty undergrad school on the west coast, spent an enormous amount of time hobnobbing with do-gooders as a Peace Corps volunteer, and then entered into a profession that is all global social justice. I’ve barely ever met a living Republican.

In all my drum circles, women’s center rap sessions, sit-ins, walk-outs, rallies, globetrots, and dialogue groups, I have never once-- not even once-- heard “check your privilege” used in real life.

I’m about as socially liberal as they come, and I’ve never heard that phrase until this thread.

If you have never seen someone challenge the liberal ethos, it is hardly surprising that you have never heard any attempts to silence that kind of a challenge.

The Joker and the Thief and astorian are correct. “Check your privilege” means “shut up”. “Given your background, you probably haven’t thought about these things so you should just listen” means “shut up until you agree with me”.


ISTM the attitude in both cases as the terms have become commonly interpreted, is not so much about “undeserved” as it is about “unearned”.

You do realize, with that background, you’d expose yourself to a call to check your privilege when talking about conservatives :smiley: () Of course, you are right, it’s not privilege as in rank or power but privilege as in “privileged frame of reference”, the assumption that the way things look from where I sit is the self-evidently right one. And the person talking about checking your privilege had better be checking hers…
(* on preview I see **Shodan **has ninjaed me on that)

But yes it’s an unfortunate choice of word as it puts the other person on the defensive right from the start. “What do you mean, privilege? I gotta work for my living!”. And a bunch of people out there ARE using it in the sense of rank or power.
Some could say something very similar about “entitlement” - it’s used both to refer to some legislated mandate of benefit (which is NOT necessarily “unearned”) and to an attitude that can be held just as much by any segment of society that feels the colective “owes” them, e.g. **upper **classes who may feel “entitled” to favorable tax treatment because they are the “wealth creators”.

It’s a way for college educated white women to grab some of that oppressed racial minority cred.

parachutes out of thread

Nor resented welfare cheats, neither.