I did a tour as a Capital-R Republican in high school. Combative as I was and still am, I've heard just about every line of argument and reasoning one would expect to be slung at a Capital-R Republican, and I feel like I developed a pretty decent command of the vocabulary. So while I'm sure the term must be older than it seems, it feels like "privilege" has recently been elevated in the popular lexicon. I feel like I first heard it only a few years ago, and now it's nearly a third of the words on my Facebook wall. As a visual aid, here's the always-excellent Bob Chipman bringing it out against South Park.
I'll grant it's taken some of the venom out of the rhetoric. It used to be you could ask someone what they had against rich/white/male/cis/straight people and, if you caught a person with weak resolve in a sufficiently agitated state, they'd probably mix enough frustration in with their response to commit some moderate-to-serious ad hominem. Point to the bitter crazy person, offer calm snark, argument over. With most of the U.S. population in a perpetual state of "weak and sufficiently agitated," progressive rhetoric was pretty sorely lacking in vessels capable of conveying the progressive gospel without being tripped into a conniption fit.
Privilege seems to emerge as a kind of stand-in answer to these usually-inflammatory questions. It is in short a statement of exactly what's wrong with all those demographics, constructed in a way that's neutral and blameless: you can't help that you have privilege, but you should acknowledge it and let that knowledge influence your opinions. What privilege constitutes, how it should influence your opinions, etc. tends to mutate, and we'll get to that in a moment, but the fact that it packages a (usually) non-attacking argument for a rhetorical situation many have trouble navigating is what gives it its value.
Of course there's a couple of problems with packaging arguments in single words: you can use them without understanding them, and you can use them without making your opponents understand. Preventing privilege from turning in to a rhetorical pleestop is exactly the sort of task that broad, decentralized political movements are bad at. People generally aren't much interested in correcting people on their own side for bad rhetorical form, and deciding who is and is not proxy to the central authority on a given ideology is a hard problem for both the speakers and the audience. Meanwhile the listener isn't necessarily much educated by the assertion. If he hears "privilege" and understands "shut up and take it because you're white," who's to tell him he's wrong? Our naive progressive is the one that should be making him understand what privilege means, but they dropped the mic and went on to their adoring fans. Is this a "just fucking Google it" moment? Is there no fallacy in "go figure out why you're wrong?" I'd say as-is, our naive progressive is as guilty as if they had said exactly what our listener understood, but then I have these radical, new-fangled ideas about words meaning nothing beyond what they successfully communicate.
But I don't think privilege's weakness stops here. The bigger problem is that, while neatly packaged, the evidence and context don't come in the box, and often even when expanded privilege ends up constituting a weaker argument. People don't just fail to understand or explain privilege, they fail to explain how and why it applies. Let's go down a few examples of how privilege is used in arguments, and see if, as I suspect, the arguments can be made stronger by doing without privilege as a concept.
Privilege as lack of empathy
This is the weakest use of privilege, and also the one most distant from what I would assume was its original intended meaning. Here the word privilege basically condenses the traditional "bleeding heart" argument. It cites the opponent's failure to "walk a mile in another's shoes."
Argumentum ad misercordiam has been wrong for long enough to have a Latin name. As I've discussed before it's probably also worth noting that the opposite premise is built into our legal system. More empathetic does not equate to more correct. I can be quivering in mortification at the plight of the starving, but it doesn't make spending two thirds of GDP to buy the lot of them a can of soup to share between them a good idea. We don't need to go much further with this one, but it is related to another, stronger form.
Privilege as isolation
This use of privilege asserts that we don't know the hardships of the oppressed class, in the literal sense. It's a subtle distinction, and it's often quickly corrupted into the previous form (you don't know, and you can't "really know") but the subtle difference is enough to render it technically valid. In its highest form, it's essentially another statement of the fallacy of anecdote: use of a single instance (in this case your own privileged experience) where a broader representative sample is required.
So why not just call it that?
The irony here is that this use of privilege becomes more bitter and nonobjective precisely because it points to a real problem. You're pointing out a common fallacy, emphasizing a mistake people make all the time, and you're choosing an inherently class-loaded way of doing it. Why not just point out the rhetorical flaw and leave out the feather-rustling categorization of your opponent? Argument from anecdote doesn't need a new name, let alone a demographically targeted one.
Privilege as a correction of rule utilitarianism
Ah, now we're really getting somewhere. This is the most structurally sound meaning of privilege: the rules governing moral behavior are violated in ways that disproportionately affect the happiness of certain groups, therefore adding corrective rules that disproportionately affect those groups yields a practical benefit to net happiness. Put another way: the rules shouldn't apply the same way to everyone because the rule-breakers don't hurt everyone to the same degree.
It's an intriguing point. The problem is it's rarely backed up. I heard a proponent of affirmative action respond to the idea that anyone found the policies unjust with simply "remember your privilege!" No further discussion. But privilege in this form doesn't necessarily justify affirmative action. What degree of alteration is appropriate given the degree of oppression the groups in question are experiencing? Is the policy self-scaling so it fades naturally with the oppression it combats, or are we trusting lawmakers to make continuous adjustments? How are you measuring the net happiness gain versus the happiness lost to injustice? Is there a more efficient way? Did you even ask the economics department to look over your notes?
Without all of these questions answered, and answered very carefully, it's not entirely reasonable to expect people to allow adjustments to their rights. In stead we see appeals to the previous forms. Privilege is something you should feel guilty about. You should be thrilled at the opportunity to atone! Now stop asking all these silly questions. But rigor doesn't step out of the way of anything, even good intentions.
Privilege as "shut up and take it"
I was out drinking one night in the company of someone I'd known for quite some time. He was a homosexual, which I knew and which we had discussed before. He certainly new I was not. There was never the slightest bit of tension between us in that regard, but for whatever reason he decided to come on to me that night, with a level of inappropriateness that included putting his hands on me.
So I remembered my privilege.
It must be my homophobia that's making me uncomfortable I thought. This felt like a violation of my rights, but... no... that happens to women and minorities and others at the hands of privileged power-holding people like me. Surely I couldn't be the victim here.
So I sat in stunned silence until something, my own tortured body language or the bartender's growing discomfort, convinced him to lay off.
This is the damage that haphazard application of privilege does. It's a cry to suspend the conventional notion of rights wherever progressives find it complicates their argument, and the internalization of that idea is poisonous. It may be useful when applied by people with strong arguments, but for now I'm convinced that the academics that coined the term need to revoke the general public's "privilege" privileges.