Wednesday, August 12, 2009


When a student graduates from college, he or she will probably find a phrase on the diploma declaring entitlement to “all the rights and privileges thereto appertaining.”

How, one might ask, does one distinguish between a right and a privilege? Allow me to speculate.

A right would seem to be a claim you’re merited to make by virtue (in the case of a college graduate) of having earned a degree. Therefore, in applying for a job, say, you may rightfully claim the distinction of having met the academic standards for graduation from college.

Yet other claims to rights could be made merely by virtue of being human. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is a noble effort to articulate such innate rights, and The Global Ethic of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (1993) is another.

By extension, even the Earth, arguably a living entity, might declare (through us as spokesfolks) its own right to flourish bountifully.

Those, then, are examples of rights; but what are privileges? Something less mandatory, I would suppose, or less imperative. Not the cake but the frosting. Not the dozen muffins, but the lagniappe of the thirteenth in a baker’s dozen. A courtesy.

Not so, it turns out, at least by what a dictionary reveals. In fact, privilege seems less courteous than a right; rather, it is a demand made by rank (as in “Rank hath its privileges.”), “held as a prerogative of status or rank and exercised to the exclusion or detriment of others” (The American Heritage College Dictionary).

Thus to be privileged is to be allowed, whereas the underprivileged are disallowed or discounted or disregarded. That stinks. That’s rank.

Or, rather, rankism.