Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Agenda-Laced Words: Underprivileged

Whenever I read a news story or opinion article that uses the word "underprivileged," I can't help but wince a little bit. Though I usually enjoy creatively altered English words, paradoxes and oxymorons, the use of this particular word seems to go far beyond mere benign and playful usage. Instead, it is a value-laden term that is used to promote a specific world paradigm which is often used to justify a socialist political agenda. It suggests a perspective that is quite far from the truth of the matter. "Underprivileged" is a word which officially entered dictionaries in 1897, and carries with it some relatively complex concepts:

The notion of privileges for favored people--the wealthy, or those in the know, or those connected to the government--has been around as long as civilization. But the democratic notion of privileges for everyone came into its own in America with our adoption of the word underprivileged. To say someone is underprivileged is to imply that there is a standard of privileges to which everyone is entitled, privileges that have been unjustly withheld from the underprivileged.
Yet the concept of being "underprivileged" seems to conflict with the definition of the word privilege. The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition, defines privilege as, "A special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste." If something is a special right or advantage, there is a clear implication that such a benefit is not enjoyed or possessed by all people; it is not normal or ordinary. Therefore, a privilege can only be considered a privilege if it is not something that is not common to all, since it must be something that is special. For example, if apples grown in Washington State are better than the rest of the apples in the nation, those who enjoy fresh Washington apples are privileged, since they enjoy a benefit that not all Americans enjoy. Likewise, if a charitable organization is not taxed by the federal government, it is a privileged organization, since it has been granted a special advantage.

The very definition of the word privilege divides people into two groups: those who enjoy a particular privilege and those who don't. There are the privileged and the non-privileged. Yet, the word underprivileged implies "that there is a standard of privileges to which everyone is entitled." What right does any person to claim entitlement to privilege? Though there are certainly arguments in favor of certain common rights, there can be no legitimate claim that any person is entitled to any sort of privilege. While those who have been unjustly stripped of an unalienable right may have a valid complaint, even someone who has no privileges cannot suggest that an injustice has been done. For an injustice to be present, some sort of harm must be shown, and no person is being harmed by not being granted privileges. The very concept of an underprivileged person is a contradiction of terms, since privilege implies that there can be no such thing as underprivilege.

Given the very specific sort of ideology that is suggested or propagated by suggesting that all people are entitled to a certain level of privilege, all rational thinkers must be wary whenever such a term is used. Often "helping the underprivileged" is used as a justification for promoting or implementing various social reform programs, placing a higher tax burden on a certain group, or enacting restrictive legislation. While many of these programs sound good, they are generally used to increase the power of the government and they typically result in more individual liberties being unjustly stripped from people in the name of "common good." Whenever the word underprivileged is used, it is critical to consider the ideologies that are being suggested. What is the author saying that a certain group of people is entitled to? Do they actually have a right to such things? Who does the author suggest should fix the problem? Could there be ulterior motives?

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