Privilege of the Gaps

by G. M. Sutherland

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This past semester, I was a teacher’s assistant for a course on divine goddesses. When I heard that the course had been assigned to me, I was curious to see how I, a white male, would be received by a student body composed of 95% females and 75% ethnic minorities. The irony was not lost on me — possessing the privileges of an instructor over female and minority students for a course that calls out the injustices of social and institutional white male privilege. Mirroring the head professor and core textbook, I revolved the classroom discourse around ancient cultural ideals and taboos concerning femininity, embodied in the divine goddesses. The ancient cultural projection of these goddesses provided ample material, serving as proxies, for my students to compare ancient social justice issues with those in the present.

In the last class, I explained how gods and goddesses provided explanatory principles for gaps in ancient scientific knowledge within all areas of human experiences, such as politics, society, economics, and nature. For instance, Lakshmi is a goddess who bestows wealth, success, and riches; Athena grants civilizational order and fortitude to the city of Athens; Inanna causes the fertility and success of various kingdoms.

I then proceeded to compare the ancient peoples’ method of explaining the world with that of my students’ method: The ancients explained phenomena, such as fertility, prosperity, and success, by appealing to the gods and goddesses; my students explained socioeconomic disparities between identity groups, such as the distribution of wealth, success, employment, income and life expectancy, by appealing to “privilege.” The goal of the comparison was to unsettle the principles that the students took for granted in making sense of the world.

The term “gods of the gaps” is often applied to religious thought that posits a deity in an area where there is a lack of scientific knowledge. For example, ancient peoples were uninformed about what meteorologists now know concerning weather patterns and what botanists now know about plant life. Hence, in order to make sense of the things they observed in the world, such as storms, famines, defeat in battle, a good harvest, barrenness of womb, sexual desire, wealth, death, and new life, they created myths and stories that explained the happenings of nature as the result of the gods’ activities. Although they acknowledged some secondary causes, everything was ultimately explained with recourse to some deity. Consequently, they struggled to predict the activities of nature since the principle explanation, namely, the gods, was inaccurate. So to cope with the unpredictability of the gods’ activities, complex religious rituals, such as sacrifices and festivals, emerged over time. The ancients believed that these religious activities would confer the power to influence and manipulate the gods. The myths and stories were galvanized through inter-generational storytelling aided by the corroboration of personal experiences.

Now, if the dominant discourse within most ancient societies was, in certain regards, pseudo-scientific, is it possible that a dominant discourse within our modern context likewise suffers from pseudo-scientific methods and principles? I think the prevailing explanation, in North America, of inequality in outcomes between races and sexes, share troubling similarities with ancient explanations of natural phenomena. Like the ancients explained nature with reference to the gods, we today, from the pulpit to the newsroom and the political rally to the lecture hall, explain the achievements and favourable outcomes of certain groups as the result of unmerited and discriminatory privilege. Unfavourable outcomes of certain historically oppressed groups are explained by positing that they are underprivileged. Out of all other contributing factors, privilege is postulated as the main reason to account for racial and gender disparities in outcomes.

With great pain, I recognize that white privilege was a historical reality over the past four centuries and that male privilege existed globally only until the recent past, but it is less obvious that widespread unmerited privilege exists today. Not only have discriminatory laws and policies against blacks and females been outlawed following the victories of the civil rights and suffrage movements, but society unanimously denounces racism and sexism as evil. Although old-fashioned racism and sexism became socially unacceptable, circles of legal scholars and psychologists now claim that discrimination found asylum elsewhere. The unconscious privileging of some individuals over others has left a sinister trace upon the statistical disparities between the races and sexes. The activist scholars primarily locate privilege neither in the laws of the land nor in explicit attitudes and behaviours, but in a realm insulated from hard empirical examination: the unconscious mind. Yet, tests devised to detect unconscious bias have been disproven by disinterested psychologists and social scientists because the results are unrepeatable and they do not meet basic scientific standards. The insulated location of privilege within the mind is reminiscent of the inability to empirically study the gods, who were not physical and were beyond the realm of mortals.

There is no doubt that some individuals today have benefited from historic or even current instances of discrimination, but how much can we ascribe to discrimination today in accounting for disparate outcomes? This is not a new question. The black economists Thomas Sowell and Walter E. Williams, among others, have written extensively on the often overlooked causes of racial disparities in outcomes, such as cultural attitudes, values, behaviour, and the socioeconomic policies that intend to help close the gaps in outcomes.[1] Christina Hoff Summers and Jordan Peterson, among others, have spoken and written on the causes of gender disparities in outcomes, and they have demonstrated that discrimination is not a significant factor among the many contributing variables. In light of this body of scholarship, we can understand the concept of “privilege” as functioning in a similar way to the function of the gods in some ancient and modern religious thought. Social justice adherents share some striking similarities in habit and belief with the ancient adherents of the “gods of the gaps”.

It is impossible for the average person to comprehend all of the relevant knowledge—such as free markets, economics and history—in order to come to an informed opinion on the causes of different outcomes between groups. Ancient belief systems depended on ignorance of the thousands of variables and complexities that cause, for example, a single grain of wheat to grow. A Roman did not require training in the natural sciences or philosophical schools in order to come to the conclusion that crops grow because Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, was satisfied with sacrifices offered to her at the spring festival. Moreover, for a priest to attribute the prosperity of Athens to Athena neglected to take into account, for instance, the effect of the Athenian’s culture, its democratically enacted laws, or the values and attitudes the citizens had towards commerce, work, law and order, civility, cooperation, and familial bonds. Moreover, what of Athen’s geographical location respective to bodies of water and material resources, the temperament and culture of surrounding cities with whom they could trade or fight, and local weather patterns?

Athena alone cannot explain the prosperity of the Athens; nor can privilege explain disparities in group outcomes. There are innumerable variables that cause these differences in outcomes between identity groups. Privilege, like Ceres and Athena, is an unhelpful concept that reduces the cause of the gaps to a single variable, namely, discrimination. Ignorance reigns as thousands of variables and causes go unexplored. The risk-adverse expediency of a single-variant analysis—that privilege explains socioeconomic disparities—is preferred, and thus effortlessly taught and propagated in the academy and by the entertainment and media industries.

Privilege, as a notion, is having a disastrous effect on the outlook of historically oppressed groups. If something bad happens, it is easier to ascribe the cause to someone else’s privilege than to an unknown cause. This is the “privilege of the gaps.” The privilege of the gaps forms a superstitious lens for the believer to interpret their daily experiences through. The gods, goddesses and privilege are seen as external realities that you cannot control, existing in the heavens or in the unconscious mind. If the gods and Fate determined one’s prosperity, success, and fertility, then one would rightly feel weak, helpless, and a victim. Manipulation becomes the only tool to achieve an illusion of control.

In pursuit of equality in all measurable outcomes, the modern equivalent of spells, sacrifices, and rituals to manipulate the gods are diversity quotas, equity programs, redistribution of resources, reparations, and affirmative action. The hope is that these policies of manipulation nullify the power of Privilege by closing gaps between groups. The ancients used to say, “you prosper because you have pleased the gods.” We now say, “you got the job because you’re a white male.” Thus, we try to manipulate employment outcomes for ethnic minorities and women by setting race and gender quotas in order to bring about parity in employment, for example.

The “privilege of the gaps” is only made possible by both legitimate and willful ignorance. Interested parties ignore disconfirming evidence. Earlier pseudo-scientific theories, now disproven, attributed race or gender disparities in outcomes to genetic inferiority. White supremacists were not interested in uncovering the truth that differences were not grounded in genetics, rather they tried to justify their discrimination through “science”. Likewise, the ideological priests of the modern university and the grievance industry have no desire to seriously scrutinize the gods and goddesses that keep them employed. There are activistic departments that exist for the sole purpose of proving the existence of Privilege. It is thought that without Privilege, every measurable outcome between identity groups would render a holy parity, an equality of outcome, representation, and distribution of prosperity and success. Ancient communities built around mythologies that were corroborated by personal experience often met the challenges of philosophers and natural scientists with violence. So too, modern activists silence dissenting ideas with violence in word and deed. Science and logic, as forms of oppression, are depreciated. The personal experiences of the underprivileged assume the status of truth akin to the divine oracle’s of the high-priestess at Delphi, insulated from the scrutiny of “privileged” forms of knowing, i.e., science, reason, and logic.

How many fatherless children must bleed out on the operating table of pretense? How many young black men must be slaughtered on the altar of Privilege? How long will we raise our clenched fists to heaven and curse Privilege for our barren wombs, fatherless homes, achievement gaps, imprisonment rates, and poverty? When will we cease to revere and worship Privilege as that source of divine favour, prosperity, and blessings? How long will we persecute those who question the power of Privilege over our tribe? Privilege has become the god whom we now fight through myth-making (storytelling) and strategies of manipulation, rather than taking a serious look at the many complex political policies, and cultural and gender values and attitudes that contribute to these disparities.

 

G. M. Sutherland is a graduate student at McMaster University. His research includes the fourth-century Trinitarian controversies and the modern intersection of race and Christian thought.

[1] Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities (New York: Basic Books, 2018); Walter E. Williams, Race & Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination? (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2011).

10 thoughts on “Privilege of the Gaps

  1. Eric Adriaans says:

    It is great to see someone in the process of developing an idea. I’m not sure that the comparison you’re making is apples to apples yet. “Privilege”, which might fairly be defined as “access to resources” and its benefits…..isn’t really all that hard to understand, is it? It doesn’t seem a mystery to me that an organism with access to resources is, on average, going to do better than that same organism without access to resources. Individual variation will occur. However, the veneer of racism that has been laid over a fairly universal situation…that really does sound like the tribalistic, superstitious bunk that rides shotgun with god-making. The sons and daughters of monarchs the world-over seem to do alright. The very demi-gods of our times.

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  2. FDuquette says:

    This has an interesting “plot” twist. If Privilege is a reincarnation of an old trope about the gods’ fickle favourtism, it also simultaneously negates it: having the favour of the gods was once seen as a blessing, luck, fate – a point of admiration. However, it seems now a point of objection. Thus it is unfair the god Privilege has blessed you. Rather than transcending the problem, the negation affirms an underlying fatalism. Blessings from the genetic lottery of life is property, a defined area (eg race) that can be expropriated and transferred to others. Thus if we find ourselves stripped of our blessings, we can always take it from someone else to fill in our gap.

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  3. Rasool says:

    The depiction of “privilege” here is a straw man, ironically a myth, that the author tears down. Many scholars and activists who critique racial and gender bias don’t indiscriminately conjure “privilege” and wave it around as a magic wand at every disparity. There are several major presuppositions here that bow to the “god of the gap” called Status Quo. Assumption #1: Centuries of institutionalized racism was eradicated with the passing of Civil Rights Laws. When did the white privilege acknowledged as part of the legal, educational, business and social systems end? Did these laws supernaturally change the practices of the very people who fought the laws? According to that logic when slavery was abolished, blacks were treated with equality from their former slave masters and those who considered them inferior, but we know that is not true. Though there were some legal protections in “theory” as history shows us, and the Civil Rights Movement illustrates it took another 100 years to fight for a truer freedom. So does the author really believe those who were no longer able to explicitly discriminate just gave up on centuries old notions of superiority?

    #2: There is no empirically driven studies that show privilege. The author wrote: “In light of this body of scholarship, we can understand the concept of “privilege” as functioning in a similar way to the function of the gods in some ancient and modern religious thought.”

    Citing only writers who champion the view that social inequities are not a problem does not make all the other scholarship go away. Scholars like James Forman Jr., Michelle Alexander and Douglas Blackmon illustrate racial disparities in criminal justice empirically that are continuations of the past policies. Cherry picking a few scholars who reject the presence of privilege actually is the type of “pseudoscience” repudiated as mythology. Which leads to another presupposition.

    #3: Supernatural explanations of reality only exist because of a lack of scientific evidence and understanding. “Social justice adherents share some striking similarities in habit and belief with the ancient adherents of the “gods of the gaps”. While it is true that some beliefs and explanations about natural phenomena can be explained as superstition, not all or even most of it can. The worldview of secular humanism, birthed from the Enlightenment – a reaction of the egregious overreach of the Catholic Church – purports this erroneous idea that supernatural explanations are only held because of a lack of empirical evidence- but this itself is a myth! Many of the most important statements of faith regard categories that naturalism doesn’t have the capacity to explain. Questions of our morality, meaning and destiny are outside of the scope of empirical research. Many well educated scientists, physicists and scholars still hold to these beliefs not because they need a “god of the gaps” but because there are existential truths that transcend scientific knowledge.

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    • grantmsutherland says:

      Assumption #1: You must not have read the article. I said that discrimination still occurred after the civil rights movements and today. “When did the white privilege acknowledged as part of the legal, educational, business and social systems end?” – You say it hasn’t. I say it has. When? I couldn’t give you a date. It was a gradual social and cultural change. But there are still racists today who discriminate, and so privilege their own race.

      Assumption #2: “Citing only writers who champion the view that social inequities are not a problem does not make all the other scholarship go away.” I didn’t say it did. But I do think most of this scholarship is methodologically and philosophically corrupt. “Scholars like James Forman Jr., Michelle Alexander and Douglas Blackmon illustrate racial disparities in criminal justice empirically that are continuations of the past policies.” – I can’t speak to Forman or Blackmon, but Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” is the exact kind of conspiracy theorist pseudoscience that I am speaking to. I will have to go back and count how many times she appealed to some secret, implicit, and hidden plot to instil the new racial caste system. I can’t quantify how poor that book was and how many holes there are in her theory. Check out Heather Mac Donald’s War on Cops for a good repudiation of her thesis. “Cherry picking a few scholars who reject the presence of privilege actually is the type of “pseudoscience” repudiated as mythology” – should I list every scholar? Citing a representative few is not pseudoscientific, it’s time sensitive.

      Assumption 3#: “Supernatural explanations of reality only exist because of a lack of scientific evidence and understanding.” – I didn’t say this, nor do I affirm this. Even if I did, this doesn’t impact my idea. It’s an analogy to a specific kind of religious belief that cannot reconcile faith and science/reason.

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  4. Andrew says:

    Interesting…However I found this article disturbing in its ignorance. I wondered in reading if the writer ever spoke to or understood the historical events that have occurred even up to of late to minorities. At one point I would have been upset, but now it does not even surprise me when Christians write or speak from their own biases. And I wonder if it comes from their own desire not to see the disparities of other peoples. It in no way represents what I see in Christ, but again I will just say this article is interesting. I guess you have to ignore Jim Crow Laws, Gentrification, Red Lining, Stop and Frisk, etc. To say their is no discrimination after the civil war is ignorance at its best.

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    • Frederick Duquette says:

      I wonder if historical events are subject to an evolutionary moral regression of guilt: how far back to we go? do “modern” homo sapiens owe neanderthals an apology? Slavery and subjugation were common, if not a key to perseverance; many races were eliminated in the horror of survival, leaving only the few we have now and to whom guilt is bequeathed. If you are prone to evolutionary speculations, we are here only because our ancestors did and endured things we cannot imagine, and the imputation of guilt is universal. Personally, i would trace this back to Cain and Abel, which identifies the psychological problem of resentment and blessings after the Fall.

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    • gmsutherland says:

      You must not have read the article. I acknowledged the historical miscarriages of justice, and present acts of discrimination. “And I wonder if it comes from their own desire not to see the disparities of other peoples.” — This entire article is a recognition of the gross and problematic disparities. I never mentioned the civil war…

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