The English language has a rich and robust vocabulary. So much so that I ended up in a linguistic wormhole trying to define the actual difference between some words that keep getting thrown around today. For insight, I consulted by old friend, Miss Merriam-Webster.
So I started with “privilege.” Heard that one enough lately? Financial privilege, male privilege, white privilege—they all sound like something one gets born with or without on a completely random basis. So I consulted Miss Merriam, and she defined privilege as “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor.” Peculiar indeed, Miss Merriam. It wasn’t clear that a privilege might be a right.
In this context, what is a right, Miss Merriam? “Something to which one has a just claim, such as the power or privilege to which one is justly entitled.” Like voting rights? Miss Merriam nodded her head. (She is clearly unaware of what is going on in North Dakota and Georgia.)
But, Miss Merriam, if one is justly entitled to this right (which is also a privilege), does that make it an entitlement? And according to Miss Merriam, entitlement is defined as “the state or condition of being entitled: right.”
So privilege leads to rights, which points to entitlements, which circles back to rights, which jogs on back to privilege, which is where we started to begin with. Miss Merriam, I am so confused!
So going back to the source, Miss Merriam reminded me that a privilege might be an immunity, rather than a right. So what’s an immunity? Well, Miss Merriam got all medical on me with a definition including a reference to pathogenic microorganisms. But she did give me another lead, naming “impunity” as a synonym for “immunity.” (Don’t you just love it when English synonyms rhyme?)
And what, specifically, do you mean by impunity, Miss Merriam? “Exemption or freedom from punishment, harm, or loss.” So let’s see how that privilege thing works when we replace it with its rhyming synonym. We’ve got financial impunity, which makes sense—“the rich get rich, and the poor get laid off,” like the old song says. And male impunity is on display with everything from sexual misconduct to hissy fits in Senate hearing rooms. And white impunity—well, do I even have to give an example? Only if you insist. Of all the rich men accused of some type of sexual crime, name the one in prison. Hey, hey, hey, it’s not Fat Albert.
So now I know to substitute impunity for privilege when what we’re talking about is not a right. That’s really good to know, don’t you think? Kind of clarifies it a bit.
And the next time someone starts to talk about cutting entitlements (or, as Mitch McConnell would say, “reforming” them), please remember that entitlements, by definition, are rights. Do you get a little uncomfortable when someone starts saying that we need to change/cut/reform your rights? Gosh, I do. Especially when those rights are benefits that we are entitled to because we paid for them every time we got a paycheck. Even in Las Vegas, where we know the odds of winning are against us, the casinos don’t change the rules of the game after you place your bets.
Oh, and Miss Merriam, thanks for always being there. You see, I need you for more than spelling.