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09 July 2021

Zero- and Non-Zero-Sum Advantage

I've been thinking a lot recently about "privilege," what I agree is more sociologically termed advantage.* Specifically, I've been wrestling with the practice of publicly forcing people to acknowledge their advantage. I think this crescendoed last summer during the BLM protests. On whole, I think that these kinds of correctives are good. Part of advantage, after all, is not having to recognize that advantage so making advantaged folks see and address their advantage opens the opportunity for social change.

Along the way, however, I think there has been a shift from making people aware of their advantage to shaming and stigmatizing that advantage. As an example, imagine a white woman posting a picture of the new home she just purchased to Facebook and her friends commenting on the post that she is blindly demonstrating her privilege. It is a fine line between rightly problematizing her ignorance of her privilege and problematizing the purchase of a new home per se. I propose that it is better to think of two kinds of advantage/privilege, zero-sum and non-zero-sum.

By zero-sum advantage, I mean those kinds of situations in which one benefits at the expense of another. Generational wealth is a good example of this since, under capitalism, one's economic fortunes are tied to the current and/or historic exploitation of others. Because of this, corrective actions are necessary beyond just consciousness-raising (e.g. reparations or redistributive taxation). My advantaged economic standing is systemically linked to the standing of others, which requires the reduction of my advantage.

By non-zero-sum advantage, I mean those kinds of situations in which one's benefit is not directly linked to another's disadvantage but is instead a comparative or relative advantage. Interactions with the police are a good example of this since the fact that whites are less likely to have negative interactions with the police does not explain the increased propensity for police to target (intentionally or otherwise) blacks. The disprivilege of BIPOC folks to be disproportionately mistreated by the police does not mean that whites should be exposed to more mistreatment; instead, the "advantage" of being treated fairly and humanely should be expanded to the disadvantaged.

In other words, non-zero-sum advantages should be extended to those who are disadvantaged, while zero-sum advantages should be removed from those who are advantaged. I think this distinction will be helpful in both the public discourse about advantage/privilege as well in its treatment.


* - See here for a note about this.

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