The Concept of Privilege

The concept of privilege can be a challenging one to get across, but it’s one of the key factors that has shaped the inequalities, imbalances, and prejudices of society today.  In order to fix the problem, the first step is acknowledging it.

Too often, when a person is informed of their privilege, they are likely to respond “Hey, I worked hard for what I have.” However, what this person isn’t realizing is that acknowledging the fact that they are privileged doesn’t invalidate any hard work they might have put into their career, social life, and so on: it simply contextualizes it.  To be privileged doesn’t mean that a person had everything handed to them on a silver platter—though it can, if they did!—but rather, in many cases, privilege means that a person was born with the right set of circumstances that allowed them to achieve success through hard work. Not everyone is so lucky.

This really isn’t a complicated concept to understand: whereas a person born in a luckier set of circumstances (for example, a family that can afford to send them to a private school) can achieve success through hard work, another person born in more difficult circumstances could work just as hard, yet not achieve the same results, due to the unfairness of their birth conditions in relation to society. The widespread deception that “everyone starts on the same level playing field” is a dangerous falsehood that has festered in the American psyche for generations, and it accounts for a huge amount of the anger, racism, xenophobia, class warfare, and so on today.

Imagine an Olympic race where one person gets to begin running at the starting line, whereas another person—against their will—is forced to start ten feet back and wait twenty seconds, for no good reason. Sure, both runners might have given it their all. But one of those runners had a huge advantage at the starting point, and that’s fundamentally unjust.

Many factors play into privilege. Class is the most obvious one: it’s much harder for a person born in the working class to move upward than it is for someone born in the upper class. That’s pretty basic. However, race is arguably an even bigger factor: people with more melanin in their skin face irrational prejudices against them at every corner, combined with the horrors of systemic racism, and surveys have shown that far too many companies still are less likely to call back resumes with less-white sounding names. Sex is also an enormous factor, as women today still face the constant realities of sexual harassment in the workplace, and surveys show that, on average, women still earn 79 cents for every dollar a man earns. Disability, neurodiversity, nationality, gender, religious background, and so on are also factors.

Privilege is the invisible benefit one receives when one doesn’t have to worry about their race, sex, class, religious background, or so on: privilege is when a person gets to go into a job interview, and to know that they’ll be seen for their decided traits/experience/individuality, rather than the labels that others have applied to them.

Again, the first step toward fixing the privilege problem is acknowledging that it exists, and spreading that awareness to others. One of the best explanations I’ve ever read of the subject was actually featured in a web comic titled On a Plate, by Toby Morris. Give it a read on this link to TheWireless.co.nz, and next time you’re looking to explain privilege to someone, consider sending it along to them.

Link: On a Plate

 

Advertisements

George Orwell, on Freedom of Speech

occupy-orwell

The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them. The decline in the desire for individual liberty has not been so sharp as I would have predicted six years ago, when the war was starting, but still there has been a decline.

– George Orwell, in 1945

The Other - Shadow - Stranger

The “Other” is Not the Enemy

The human race is not a jigsaw puzzle. We’re not perfectly shaped pieces that all fit into a greater whole, together forming a perfect image. Instead whether by grace, fate, or coincidence, depending on your beliefs we are jagged-edged oddities, each one misshapen and clunky, each one reaching out for a sense of belonging.

We all have our flaws. That’s common knowledge, sure, but something that can’t be repeated enough. And probably one of the human race’s worst tendencies  if not the worst tendency  is our terrible urge to tribalize. To fragment. To sort ourselves into categories. To differentiate between a supposedly good, just, and moral “us”… and to then contrast this so-called us against a diametrically opposed “them,” who is supposedly unkind, unjust, and immoral.

This line of thinking bottles entire groups of people according to a handful of exaggerated traits, ripping away each person’s individuality. Thankfully, human language has also given us a term to bottle such behavior into, and that term is prejudice.

It’s an ugly word, isn’t it? But a fittingly ugly word, for an equally ugly behavior.

other3

Every day, all across the world, we see entire groups of people boxed into the “Other” label. We see racism. Sexism. Homophobia. Class warfare. Liberals and conservatives scream obscenities at each other. Religious groups pigeonhole other religious groups according to their most extreme members. Belief systems are mocked. The older and younger generations both blame each other for society’s woes. The sick, the disabled, and the mentally ill are written off as less than human. When you’re at work, even first shift and second shift always blame everything on each other, or perhaps both of them blame it all on third shift. In each case, it all comes down to one group blaming their problems on a monstrous Other.

Here’s the truth, though. The brutal truth.

bodyworlds_dance2

The Other is exactly like you. In both a cosmic sense and a physical one, every single member of the Other a carbon-based lifeform, a fleshy sack of muscles, bones, and tendons wrapped up in skin, combined with hopes, dreams, and perhaps a soul has more in common with you than you can possibly imagine.

The Other has reasons for the way they think. The Other can’t control the social, environmental, or genetic features that have determined their birth, beliefs, and appearance. To write off the Other is to believe that your narrow view of the world, so much of which has been determined by your surroundings and personal history, is the only view that matters. It’s hard to get more solipsistic than that.

There is no Other. The Other is you.

The Other - Shadow - Stranger

When you travel around the world, when you go from developed nations to third world countries, when you see the rich and the poor, one lesson that hammers itself home forever is the fact that no matter where you go, people are always the same. People are people. People laugh, cry, and dream. Children play games. Families eat together.

Perhaps ending tribalization is impossible. It’s been a part of human civilization since the beginning, after all. But if we at least attempt to recognize it any time it rears its ugly head, to see it in our world instead of denying that it exists, we can start moving in the right direction. If we fight back against the voices that tell us to segment, to stereotype, to pigeonhole, then we can properly open up the floor for real discussions that need to be had.

If each of us makes the best effort we can to accept others who have opposing viewpoints, backgrounds, and beliefs, then maybe there’s a chance of breaking down the boundaries.

other2