According to Isidore of Seville in the 7th Century, the etymology of the word "privilege" traced back to Cicero's use of the Latin terms leges privatorium (laws of individual persons) and privare lex (private law) in the sense that "a privilege" separates one from the common norm or renders one immune from the general law." So it was with Paucaplea in the 12th Century and his definition of lex privata and privatio legum (McCormack, 1997, p.6). Before modern times, privilege almost always referred to some type of legal relationship that conferred a "positive benefit" or "unfair advantage," and to "special rights, immunities, permissions, licenses, or authorizations to do or to omit what was otherwise forbidden or required" (McCormack, p. 5). Under a feudal regime, privileges were often "a right granted as an advantage or power" or "a special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste," almost always derived from the monarch or some close proximity to power (Wildman and Davis, 1996, p.13). Monarchs had privileges or prerogatives above all others, as did Popes in the church sphere, and they could in turn grant special privileges to nobles, clergy, towns, guilds and corporations. In modern times, though, elected legislatures and executives have assumed almost all of these powers, with a few exceptions. To be sure, privilege still exists in the modern world despite formal equality under the law, especially because of wealth, color, gender or ethnicity. Social scientists often describe 'white skin privilege' in the United States, for example, as an advantage that benefits all those born with a certain color. In general, however, the concept of special rights, privileges, exemptions and benefits is anathema in a democratic, egalitarian society.
Privilege as Something that Must Be Earned
One classic example of a privilege earned was the grant of nobility or knighthood by monarchs as a reward for services rendered or distinction in battle. Advancement based on personal merit was the exception rather than rule in ancient and feudal societies, however, where almost all persons remained in the same social status into which they were born and slaves, serfs, peasants and laborers could almost never advance any further in life. Only later with the development of the capitalist, money economy did such changes in status become more common. In a liberal, capitalist society, all privileges are supposedly earned as a result of individual merit, not based on birth, color, gender or ethnicity. At least, meritocracy is the ideal no matter how far removed from reality, and this ideology remains particularly powerful in the United States, where "foreigners are often struck at how many Americans, even poor Americans, think privilege is something earned or deserved" (Coffin, 2004, p. 70). Nevertheless, children in America are routinely taught that there exists a great distinction between rights and privileges in that "a privilege is something earned" and can be granted only by the parent once the child has learned to "behave appropriately" and demonstrated "the ability to handle the newly granted independence responsibly" (Barkley and Robin, 2008, p. 152). In history, of course, the distinctions between rights, power and privileges are not so clear cut, and the many privileges of the past such as citizenship and the franchise gradually evolved into the rights of modern times. American children are still socialized into the idea that they have legal rights only when they reach a certain age, while dating, curfews, the use of cars, computers and phones, and allowances are all privileges subject more or less to the arbitrary powers of their parents.
Privilege as a Right
In the Decretum of Gratian a privilege could be right "acquired by custom and prescription" (McCormack, p. 7). During the Middle Ages, a privilege could be the right of a church to offer asylum to lawbreakers, for example, or a grant of special favors to knightly orders like the Templars. Article IV and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution contain privileges and immunities clauses that guarantee equal rights to citizens of all states such as equal access to the courts, habeas corpus, voting in federal elections, petitioning to redress grievances, buying and selling property, and the right to travel inside the country and reside in every state. This clause is rarely used in federal court cases, however, since the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment also grants these rights to citizens of every state. Before the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments in 1868 and 1870, voting and citizenship rights in the U.S. were in reality privileges reserved for whites only in most places, and in reality these were not fully extended to blacks until 1964-65. Nor were voting rights extended to women until 1920, while full social and economic equality for these groups has not come yet. Perhaps the greatest distinction between rights and privileges is that the latter were always granted by superiors to inferiors, while human rights in the modern sense are universal.
Privilege as Advantages Enjoyed
Privilege is often invisible and the special advantages derived from it are veiled and obscured by the language of equal rights for all citizens in modern democratic society. Unlike ancient or feudal systems, in which inequality was a given and indeed enshrined in law, since the American and French Revolutions equal citizenship has been the norm. Even so, this legal language "masks a system of power," although "the notion of privilege based on economic wealth is viewed as a radical, dangerous idea, or as an idiosyncratic throwback to the past" -- to a feudal society, for example (Wildman and Davis, p.10). White supremacy is also an advantage enjoyed by all whites in the United States, where whiteness is considered the norm, as is maleness and heterosexuality. Mythology may hold that all individual have equal opportunity to obtain wealth and power, but the reality is far different, given that wealthy white persons will always have many advantages over poor blacks, while all whites may be less subject to general police harassment and suspicion than all blacks.
Privilege as Freedom from Obligations
In France before the 1789 Revolution, the nobles and clergy were exempt from taxation, which was one of many privileges they received as a result of their place in the social hierarchy and caste system. Gentleman and nobles were also free from the obligation of working with their hands or dealing with trade or commerce, which were considered activities suited only to the lower orders. By the same token, they had the absolute obligation to fight in wars when called to service by the monarch, and indeed the main social role of the aristocracy in the past was always associated with the military. In modern society, of course, military service is associated with the lower classes rather than privileged elites, but for most of history the opposite was the case. In modern times, wealth and social class often bring about similar freedom from burdens and obligations, such as the ability to avoid military service or special treatment in the civil and criminal courts. Inherited wealth also brings with it the freedom of obligation from physical labor or the ability to obtain superior social, political and educational advantages compared to those without wealth, status and position.
Privilege as Exemption
Under Roman and feudal law, a privilege could be an exemption from general law, a concession in "favor of individual persons but also…granted to all persons of a certain class or category" (McCormack, p. 6). Roman citizens would be exempt from crucifixion, forced labor and corporal punishment, for example, just as aristocrats were in feudal times. Under English common law, parliamentary privilege was an exemption granted to members of parliament that protected them from arrest for debt or interference with their free speech rights, while nobles and gentlemen were exempt from the harsher punishments routinely inflicted on commoners. Other groups entitled to exemptions were attorneys, physicians and members of the clergy in privileged communications with their clients. Diplomats and nobles also had a privilege or immunity under which they could not be arrested, while nobles, members of parliament, attorneys and physicians were exempt from jury duty (McCormack, p. 5). Some of these exemptions such as attorney-client privilege, physician confidentiality, diplomatic immunity, the right of spouses not to testify against each other and the ban on self-incrimination have carried over into modern times, and are no different from legal rights.
Privilege as a Social Arrangement
Privilege in the modern sense can refer to the power of social and economic elites, based on race or social class rather than the special rights, immunities and exemptions granted under feudal regimes. Privilege allows its beneficiaries "to assume a certain level of acceptance, inclusion, or respect in the world, to operate within a relatively wide comfort zone" (Johnson, 2008, p. 117). Privilege means the power to set agendas, determine rules and standards, make judgments about others, define reality, and to determine who receives attention and gets taken…