Sunday, December 21, 2014

Perspective and Privilege

I have found that it is helpful in facing the vicissitudes of everyday life to maintain a balance between perspective and respect toward my emotional responses. Perspective means to view circumstances within the larger context of one’s life, and also in contrast with the conditions of others. Respect means to acknowledge one’s emotional response and to treat it as valid and relevant. Note that both viewpoints can apply to both positive and negative events, though generally it is the negative that is most challenging.

Finding a balance between these two viewpoints helps to maintain an even temperament, but most people have a propensity to emphasize one or the other. For some, it is quite easy to become too skilled and reflexive in having perspective, which can lead to minimizing, denial, or repression. Others lack perspective, and thus exhibit entitlement and self-absorption. If you are unsure which is your tendency, it is easy to test. Imagine that some misfortune occurs, say, you inflict yourself with a paper cut. Then, further imagine two witnesses to the event saying, respectively, “No big deal,” and “That’s terrible!” You will find one of these two responses annoying; the other is your own inclination. I submit that you will find it valuable for your emotional health to grow more comfortable with the response you did not like.

We will return to this notion in a moment.

Recently, I have been attempting to learn a bit about the sociological concept of “privilege.” As best I can understand, privilege is the idea that some in society have an advantaged position due to some identifiable group to which they belong, and that non-members of that group are systematically oppressed in relation to members. Such oppression is not necessarily a direct consequence of the actions of individual members of the privileged group, but is perpetuated merely through support for the wider system under which it occurs. Privilege is not absolute: it is always with respect to a particular group. Therefore one can be privileged in one respect and oppressed in another.

It seems also to be a corollary of privilege that those who have it can never truly understand the experience of those who are oppressed along that dimension. However, they may gain some limited purchase on this understanding through whatever oppression they themselves experience. I should point out that in my efforts to grasp these notions I have been unable to identify any material dimension along which I am not privileged (I am a white educated American straight cis health-abled male), thus my understanding (as posited by these views) is necessarily limited to the concepts and excludes the experience.

In my reading of various articles and opinion pieces by or about those who are oppressed, it is not entirely clear to me what actions the authors seek from those who are privileged. Much of it is elaboration on the ideas that, first, we cannot possibly understand their circumstances, and second, any individual behavior or actions are neither worthy of credit nor particularly meaningful. Since we definitionally cannot empathize, the most we can do is acknowledge that they experience oppression, and possibly, though I am uncertain of the scope of our putative epistemic gap, to recognize an actual fact of oppression.

Presumably, though this is rarely stated as an explicit request, we are also asked to support the overthrow of the system of oppression. Even when this objective is apparent, the bounds of the system to be overthrown are left unspecified. Is it “capitalism”? The government? Civilization as a whole? I suspect that this is left open because most who are oppressed are also privileged along one or more dimensions. They would like to see the end of their particular oppression without losing whatever privilege that they happen to have, and this leads to a certain ambivalence.

We can make this last point very concrete. Most of those talking about privilege and oppression live in developed countries and particularly in the United States. If ever there was in the history of the world a group that was deeply privileged, it is those born and raised in America. Even those in the worst circumstances here have enormous advantages over those in third-world nations. Nowhere in America do you see children with distended bellies. Nowhere in America is the sewage and fresh water commingled. Not in two hundred years has a foreign power (and an additional fifty, a tyrant) systematically killed large numbers of our citizens. These are chronic, everyday realities in some third world nations.

This is where we return to the ideas about emotional balance that I expressed at the beginning of this article. I say to those who are privileged along some dimension (and anyone born and raised in a developed nation is privileged in that respect) that you apply the same response to your privilege as I proposed that one take toward the events of the day. Respect, and do not minimize, both the oppression you experience and that which you see imposed on others. Have perspective on the fact that your privilege as a citizen of a developed nation likely makes whatever oppression you or others here experience much like a paper cut compared to another’s cancer. Do not justify ignoring oppression here in our own country just because those who are oppressed happen to be reasonably well-fed. Do not dwell on any experienced or observed oppression to the point that you forget just how privileged we all really are. Balancing these things is hard.

If you experience or want to fight oppression, you also might want to think harder about exactly what system you’d like to overthrow. According to the canon of privilege, I have nothing to say to your oppression, but I can speak to your privilege. And if you are reading this article, you are deeply privileged.