This week on ABC2, the national digital channel commissioned to serve the interests of people in skinny jeans, a program called Hack Live went to air then gained headlines. We can’t be sure why. Possibly because someone used the most vulgar word available to speakers of English. Possibly because media outlets are looking to dodge an actual story — say, like the one about the 10th anniversary of the NT intervention, an ongoing and organised racist tragedy to which many media outlets could be seen as willing partners.

Likely because it explored, with all the depth of a kiddie pool in the desert, a “controversial” question. Namely: do men largely enjoy certain social opportunities largely unavailable to women?

The program, which you should view here only if you feel an urgent need to despise youngish persons with abnormally high self-esteem, posed a surprising question and answered it in an unsurprising way. A bit like Q&A with nasal piercings, or a raw denim take on the old Stan Zemanek abhorrence, Beauty and the Beast. People with “diametrically opposed views” and Twitter accounts shouted at each other. The host looked like he was just passing time until the special day he gets to deliver his TED talk. No one earned their appearance fee. All we learned was that some middle-brow youngish people think it is glorious to live life as a man, some do not.

But reading between the crude “diametric” lines of what can pass for debate, we might learn something else about the usefulness of an academic theory that has been adopted by popular press. The clue is in the title for the episode: Is Male Privilege Bullshit?

It is likely that you have heard or read the instruction to “check your privilege”. On a good day, this asks that a speaker re-examines statements they have made with recourse to their experience of social advantage. On a bad day, it’s a tedious trick of ad hom. On any day, it has its roots in scholarship. To better understand both why ABC TV continues to offer “youth” news content that advances nothing but individual careers, and by what a good deal of current debate around social matters is informed, it is worth looking at the thing that is sometimes called “privilege theory”.

Often, the origin of the term is attributed to US gender studies lecturer Peggy McIntosh. A paper she wrote in 1988, White privilege and male privilege: a personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies, was widely circulated. Its popularity was due in part to the then-novel academic technique of memoir; McIntosh, a white person, lists 46 ways in which she herself profits from the oppression of black persons. The paper also offered the sort of self-help style simile that is very easy to remember and quote: privilege, she says, is “like an invisible weightless knapsack”, one that can only be perceived, presumably, by white princesses of the academy, aristocratic enough to detect a pea.

The true birthplace of privilege theory is, in many accounts, Depression-era Massachusetts. W.E.B. Du Bois, the first black US scholar to earn a doctorate from Harvard, proposed in his collection The Souls of White Folk, that white workers derived a “psychological wage” from the disdain they had for black workers. This, in my view, is more like it. Like the very great Frantz Fanon who wrote about race in the 1950s, Du Bois explored the territory of the white unconscious, not McIntosh’s “lived experience” of privilege. In brief, you can feel more “whole” in your very understanding of yourself by believing there are others who are incomplete. For Fanon in particular, the “privilege” of whiteness is something that is felt under the skin, not necessarily reflected perfectly in the life outside of it. These are both Freudian accounts of racism. Fanon’s is also Marxist. Whatever your view of these two famous beards, you can probably agree that they deliver more than a knapsack’s worth of scholarship.

The psychological wage paid to the unconscious mind by civilisation is not always replicated in public life. Actually, this payday offered to the self can make up for the one that doesn’t appear in your bank balance. A person can be white and male and, as is increasingly the case in the current era, about as socially or financially free as a dodo bird. Still, the delusion that he can fly keeps him enslaved. Of course, there remain many many public instances in which a white male person will have rights that persons who are not white or not male will not. But to construe such things as “privilege” is lethal to socially focused debate.

It is not a privilege, for example, to be treated justly in a justice system. It is not a privilege to be less frequently subject to spousal abuse, sexual harassment or poverty in old age. When we understand rights as privileges, we accept wholeheartedly the idea of “meritocracy” — something that all of the speakers on the dreadful program wish to see working.

Panellist Clementine Ford, for example, was very keen to lay bare her knapsack and talk about the “unearned privilege” she and those other white persons on the panel enjoyed. She said that meritocracy was currently a myth, and advocated for a true meritocracy; a place in which “privilege” could be earned. No one disagreed that this meritocracy of privilege was a great idea. The only point of disagreement was on whether one’s place in that order was determined by race, gender, sexuality, etc.

So, if a “privilege” is not being beaten up by your spouse or the police, then that’s something you must earn. If meritocracy is the desirable social order, then inequality, as it manifests in either poor juridical treatment or very high wages, is as well. The problem is not that rights are not conferred equally to all. The problem, on both sides of this tedious debate, is that the wrong people have “privilege”.

No. The wrong people are on TV. Talking in “diametric opposition” about enormous, complex matters that do, in fact, have great theorists. The possibility such theorists exist was mentioned by nearly every panellist, apart from the slightly shell-shocked seeming Men’s Rights Activist, who all agreed to say, “well, it’s very complex” before going on to say nothing complex at all.

I mean, Jeez. Talk about unearned privilege. You want to see it, watch a panel show.