The failures of Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s 2017 book The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved By Accusing Others of Advantage extend beyond its actual text, and in fact precede it. Today’s publishing industry is more than ever in pursuit of the trendy and the topical, and acquisitions editors are frantically contracting anyone with a viable online platform to deliver manuscripts on any subject calculated to be momentarily important, i.e. talked about, i.e. commercial. The result is that many contemporary nonfiction titles are cobbled together from recent rounds of semi-viral tweets, blog posts, and comment threads, with little structural coherence or persuasive force. The result is a work like The Perils of “Privilege.”
It might have been an interesting idea. Maltz Bovy’s argument, so far as I can make it out, is that the current tendency in political and social debate to charge others with unfair head starts which they don’t know they’ve had is actually undermining any real progress towards equality and freedom. In one of her few clear passages, she counsels, “Impeccable, unimpeachable self-awareness is not part of the human condition. Everyone’s oblivious to life beyond his or her own experience, and that’s normal…We should be suspicious of the people who claim to have transcended such limitations, not condemnatory of those who’ve failed to do so.” Yet most of The Perils of “Privilege” reads like the content feed of a catastrophically distracted hipster activist’s Facebook page. When psychologists suggest that addiction to electronic devices is destroying an entire generation’s attention spans and capacities for linear thought, Phoebe Maltz Bovy and her book might be Exhibit A.
Thus The Perils of “Privilege” is essentially a confused survey of the Millennial demographic’s opinions on diversity and identity, as found in its various forums circa 2016. It is not an in-depth review of a modern controversy, but a self-indulgent, at times almost gossipy snapshot of intellectual life among the academy’s and the entertainment sector’s pundit classes. Some of the author’s sources and citations include Tumblr, Medium, the TV show Girls, Tina Fey, The Daily Beast, Jezebel.com, Fusion.com, Slate, Stephen Colbert, and a scattering of New York Times, Washington Post, and New Yorker think pieces and responses thereto. Frequently – I mean every few sentences – her prose lapses into the affected conversational style of someone talking, texting, and scrolling through Instagram at the same time; you can almost hear her incessant you knows, totallys, likes, whatevers, and yadda-yadda-yaddas. Often it’s difficult to tell whether Maltz Bovy is critiquing notions of privilege for being unenlightened and problematic, or just for being uncool and passé. Somewhere, there may be serious, scrupulously researched analyses of what privilege means and how the concept has been rhetorically used and abused, but such scholarship will not be found here.
For what it’s worth, though Maltz Bovy focuses on the heated discussions around white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, cisgender privilege, and other familiar categories, she wholly neglects to address the hidden biases of youth privilege (people under thirty wield disproportionate power in a public discourse where the middle-aged and the elderly are hopelessly uninteresting), anger privilege (complainers always attract more notice than the complacent), and plugged-in privilege (any idiot with a Twitter following, or a WordPress blog, can draw a bigger audience than a deep thinker who lives off the grid). If this book represents the future of critical study and cultural reporting, we’re all in big trouble. The Perils of “Privilege” is what we get when politics becomes indistinguishable from pop fashion and social justice is entirely defined by social media.