The tale of the princess who replied “Let them eat cake” upon hearing of a shortage of bread for the poor might illustrate fallacies that privileged classes in-general use to remain unaware of their privilege.
Popular legend, as many people know, attribute this dreadful quote to none other than Marie Antoinette, the wife of King Louis XVI of France. However, in fact, there is no historical basis whatsoever for attributing the quote to her. Another claim by biographer Antonia Fraser attributes the quote a century earlier to Marie Therese of Spain, who was the first wife of King Louis XIV – but this claim is just as lacking in historical basis as the more commonly-believed one. In truth, though, the earliest known source of this quote is from the writings of Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the origin of the story is probably fictional. Nonetheless, it is still a tale we should not forget due to it’s ability to illustrate a significant aspect of the dynamics of societal privilege known as “privilege blindness”.
Privilege blindness is, simply put, the tendency of those who have certain privileges in society to be unaware of their privilege – and therefore dismissive of the concerns of those from less-privileged groups. Scour the net – and you might find (as I found) much that is written on the existence of privilege blindness, commentaries on it’s harmful effects, and even scores upon scores of privilege checklists. However, what you will not find (or at least I have been unable to find) is a serious discussion on what is behind privilege blindness. Not much material seems to be out there on the erroneous thought-patterns behind this phenomenon – or on how people can adjust their way of thinking to inoculate themselves against it.
I suggest that it is high-time that we address the issue – that we find out what causes so many people to be blind to their privilege beyond just the cop-out response of “oh, that’s because they themselves don’t face these adversities”. Not experiencing an adversity yourself may indeed make it a bit of a conscious effort to notice that there are hurdles which other people face in life that you don’t – but it does not make it an inevitability that you will be resistant to acknowledging your advantages when someone else points them out to you — and it doesn’t even always have to necessarily prevent you from noticing such advantages you have (or at least some of them) on your own.
Let us make no mistake – there clearly are logical fallacies at work behind the scenes of privilege blindness — and these fallacies need to be addressed, lest we condemn ourselves as a society to an eternal game of Whac-A-Mole with the issue. Inevitably, every time another ubiquitous oppression in society is identified, there will be the task of compiling a new checklist of privileges (and maybe updating it from time to time thereafter) to describe the oppression – and the task of getting society as a whole to take the issue seriously. Nothing can change the fact that these steps will be necessary at every stage of our society’s moral advancement. However, will doing this be simply a matter of documenting, verifying, and properly publishing the reality of the situation in the case of each oppression — or will it continue to require (as it unfortunately has so far) massive rallies and demonstrations with a high price-tag in the areas of life, liberty and property – just to get society at-large to pay attention? The answer to that question may very well be affected by whether or not we at long-last address the cognitive causes of privilege blindness.
One fallacy I believe is very much at-play in privilege blindness is the Appeal to Consequences Fallacy. The Appeal To Consequences Fallacy is a corollary of the Wishful Thinking subset of what I call the Wild Assertion fallacy. I call it the “Wild Assertion fallacy” when someone inserts into an argument a premise that never was properly established among the argument’s premises. Wishful Thinking is when the motive of the Wild Assertion is the fact that you want and/or wish for the assertion to be true. The Appeal to Consequences fallacy is when you assert that a proposition must be true because if it isn’t true, then an assertion that you made by Wishful Thinking can’t be true either – and that it’s inverse must be true instead. It is structurally the same as the Inverse Proof cogency – except that it uses a premise inserted via Wishful Thinking rather than a properly established premise.
When the Appeal to Consequences fallacy is at play in privilege blindness, very commonly the Wishful Thinking assertion that is guarded is the privileged person’s perception of inherently deserving everything that he or she has. Such a viewpoint boosts our self-esteem – and therefore, we don’t want to let go of it. You don’t want to attribute your high-paying job with paid vacations to the fact that you were born to a well-off family that could afford to allow you to focus on your education, send you off to a good college, and maybe even pull some strings to land you your first job. You don’t want to thank the fact that you did not have any disabilities or other differences that prevented you from making full-use of these opportunities that your family gave you. No. You want to attribute your position to having worked hard, consciously made the right decisions, and maybe your intellect (while glossing over the fact that if you really are so much more intelligent than those who are not as successful, you surely owe that to the genetic lottery as well – because it’s so much more flattering to the self-image to think of intellect as a virtue rather than an ability).
Another fallacy I have seen at-play, especially (though not exclusively) in the discussion of intersectional oppression is the False Dilemma fallacy. The False Dilemma fallacy begins when one asserts in an argument a limited number of possibilities without really verifying that the list of possibilities given really covers all possibilities. Then, by proving that all but one of the possibilities in this limited set are false, the one that remains is supposedly “proven” to be true. It is a fallacy because it ignores the possibility that this one remaining possibility from the limited set is also false – and that the true reality is among those that were tossed out (or even out-right overlooked) without due examination.
When the False Dilemma fallacy is at play in privilege blindness, the possibility that is prematurely dismissed is often that two sets of privileges are both valid and real in society. Take for example, two African-American women – one of whom is heterosexual, the other of whom is a lesbian. The heterosexual African-American woman might be hesitant to acknowledge her heterosexual privilege because she feels that doing so would be to belittle the fact that she is denied male privilege for being a woman and white privilege for being African-American. In doing so, she commits a microaggression against her peer who also is deprived of the same sets of privileges – but who, in addition, is denied heterosexual privilege. She may even, as a result, commit herself further acts of discrimination, or promote policies that discriminate against her peer.
Another way that the False Dilemma fallacy may be at play can be illustrated by a scenario similar to the one above with only one difference — that being that this time, the lesbian in the scenario is white. Each of the two women in this scenario might be tempted to be dismissive of the oppression that the other faces out of a misguided feeling that to acknowledge the other’s oppression would be to dismiss their own. Both of them prematurely discard the possibility that two sets of privileges exist – both of them are real – and that one does not negate or “balance out” the other.
In this case, in addition to the False Dilemma fallacy, another fallacy may be at-play as well – the Ad Homenim fallacy. The Ad Homenim fallacy is when someone attempts to discredit an argument or a claim by attacking the person who makes and/or presents the argument or claim, rather than addressing the content of the argument or claim. The heterosexual African-American woman in the scenario just described might feel that the white lesbian has nerves to call-out her homophobia after all the oppression that blacks have suffered at the hands of whites throughout American history to the present day. Likewise, the white lesbian might feel similar anger if the heterosexual African-American woman calls out any inherent racism in her – all the while oblivious to the privileges that she enjoys just for being heterosexual.
But there is one more fallacy that is probably omnipresent in the world of privilege blindness – or at least very close to omnipresent. This is the Argument from Incredulity fallacy. Simply put, it is the name by which you call it when you dismiss a possibility because it is beyond the realm of what you can imagine – or have imagined. When you have privilege, it is a conscious effort to see it – because you don’t have any of those experiences that would force you to notice it. You don’t have that bloody nose from having run into a brick wall, or that head that aches from having bumped into a glass ceiling. Your own experiences are, after all, your main frame of reference – and therefore, when certain solutions to universal problems have always worked for you, it can be difficult to imagine that they don’t work as well for everyone.
For this reason, it is important that when an obstacle is brought to your attention that someone else claims to face from which you are exempt, whether it be on account of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender affirmation, or anything else – no matter how bizarre their obstacle seems to you, don’t just dismiss it off-hand as outlandish. Also, don’t just assume that the solution that worked for you in the most-similar situations you are familiar with will surely work for them. For all you know, they may have already tried it — and/or that same solution may be far more dangerous and/or costly for them than it is for you. And if you have been surrounded your entire life by whatever pastry you desire, to the point that you can’t imagine any choice of pastry ever being unavailable — and then you hear that some people of much lower income than yourself are starving because they can’t afford bread to eat – whatever you say, don’t say “let them eat cake”.