On Privilege

I often see discourse about things happening on Twitter before I see the “offending” tweet. This weekend one thread of the discourse centered on a professor who has books in his office that he gives to students who express interest.

The lines were drawn.

On the one side: people who praised the practice as an act of intellectual generosity.

On the other: those who consider it a mark of extreme privilege.

To be honest, I was confused about the whole thing until I saw the original tweet. My campus office is lined with shelves that I am progressively filling with research and teaching materials, some from the library, some from my personal collection. I have given away a number of books over the years as a process of curating my library, but it struck me as a bit extreme to give away books that I might want to use.

However, my confusion dissipated when I saw the original tweet. The professor had a large, well-lit office with a few chairs in front of a wooden desk. Around the outside of the office were shelves that he had curated to look more like an inviting bookstore display designed to invite students into his research speciality. In other words, the office looked like a space for engaging students and not primarily the place where he was conducting his research—whether or not he is also using it for that.

To the charge of privilege, I think the answer has to be “yes, and?” That office, those shelves, and the students are all marks of privilege, but so what? What is the alternative?

There are basically three options when it comes to privilege:

  1. Reap the benefits while remaining oblivious to, and/or silent about, where those benefits come from and thus tacitly endorse the status quo.
  2. Reap the benefits while seeking to further entrench systems that will benefit you to the maximal extent.
  3. Reap the benefits, but also use the privilege to help others.

That is, performative self-flagellation won’t offset the existence of privilege. The question is not whether someone has privilege, but what they are choosing to do with their privilege. I am of course jealous of this professor’s office and I wish I had the resources to give away books more freely, but it also seems patently absurd to become outraged online at someone sharing an act of intellectual and financial generosity.

I suspect that this outrage, to the extent that it is sincere, stems from a couple of places.

First, the nature of academia plants a toxic combination of entitlement, bitterness, and competition in some people who become disillusioned with their lot in it. These people often believe that they ought to be somewhere more prestigious and they treat every interaction as a zero-sum game in the service of advancing themselves. This is a reaction to systemic factors made worse in our current age of austerity, social media, burnout that has accompanied pandemic teaching. Thus the hostile reaction to seeing acts of generosity.

The second, I think, is a function of the way society approaches philanthropy and personal branding. In his 2018 book, Winners Take All, Anand Giriharadas made an argument that modern philanthropy is a charade (according to the subtitle) wherein elites make a big hullaballoo about their efforts to improve the world, but then structure their programs to maximize both tax breaks and profits and thus further entrench their own position in elite society. This theme also emerges in Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain about the Sackler dynasty. At the same time, contemporary viral economic advice seems to fetishize entrepreneurship and personal branding. Taken together, it is possible view every every act of generosity or kindness expressed on social media cynically as an attempt at personal branding that clearly must have an ulterior motive. The charge of “privilege,” in this context, is levied as a way to somehow delegitimize that generosity.

There are reasons to be suspicious of elite philanthropy, many of our economic systems are structured around pitting people against one another, and social media is a cancer eating away at our brains, but neither of these explanations hold water at the end of the day. This professor is operating from a place of privilege, so what? Privilege is, but when given an opportunity this person also gives away books to his students. While not every act of generosity is going to be the gift of books, is this general idea of giving back not something that we all ought to aspire to?