My father had a principle of life that he used to hammer into us on a regular basis: if something goes wrong, hope to hell that it was your fault. If it was your fault, you have a chance to fix it. If it wasn’t, you’re screwed.
I bring this up because I was monitoring a discussion on FB last week about “privilege.”
I put the word “privilege” in scare quotes because it’s a very bad word for what the people in that discussion were talking about.
Like it or not, the word “privilege” has connotations in ordinary usage that cannot be wished away.
First and foremost, it implies that whatever you’re talking about is unearned. Second, it implies that what you’re talking about is unjust.
When we encounter “privilege,” therefore, we should work to eradicate it.
There was a lot of convoluted verbiage going on in the discussion, but after awhile it became clear to me that what the participants were mostly talking about was not “privilege” as most of us understand it, but luck.
(The big exception concerned two people, one of whom had the money to go from a nice warm and dry house to a nice warm and dry car to a nice warm and dry office park in unclement weather and the other of whom had no money and had to get wet and cold while taking public transportation. In that case, the circumstances of the two of them might be due to luck (or “privilege”), but they might equally be due to achievement–one of the two might have worked hard and gotten somewhere, the other might have been spending his spare time in casinos.)
It is certainly the case that luck exists, and that it is not “fair.” Some of us are born intelligent and others not. Some of us are born beautiful and others not. Some of us get born in the US and others get born in Chad. There’s a lot of luck out there, and in some cases it’s the beginning and the end of the ball game.
Bill died at forty six of a cancer so rare there are no known risk factors for it. How did he get it? Nobody knows. And unless somebody gets very luck fairly soon, I probably won’t know in my lifetime.
The problem with that conversation, for me, was complicated.
Framing the argument in terms of “privilege” and a consequent determination to make “privilege” cease to exist is an inherently false statement of the problem.
Luck is not the same thing as “privilege” as “privilege” is ordinarly understood as a word. And although we could possibly forsee a day when ACTUAL privilege could be eradicated–unlikely, but not completely impossible–we will never see a day when luck will be eradicated, or even when luck will not play a truly enormous part in the way our lives work out.
Think about the children dying year after year in that central African nation whose leader is convinced that polio vaccine is a plot by the Western powers to render his citizens impotent. Then think of mine, who did not.
The whole convoluted confusion around the idea of ‘privilege” encourages people to focus their time and energy around resentment, to be angry at the world and what’s been “done to” them. It teaches them to frame the events of their lives around an idea that sees them as essentially passive.
And, what’s more, it allows as the only legitimate response by other people an acceptance of and empathy with just that passivity. To respond to complaints of a lack of “privilege” by saying that luck is what it is and cannot be helped, so just get on with your life and get over it, is by definition in such a discussion “blaming the victim.”
But the issue isn’t about blaming the victim, or anybody else. Luck is. There’s no way to end it, and there’s no way around it. It is enormously annoying on almost every level. It is certainly not fair.
Get over it. Get past it. And get done what we need to get done.
Even then, of course, luck may kick your ass. That’s the nature of life. But the only chance any of us ever have is to play the cards we’re dealt and see what we can make of ourselves.
And most of the people who are caught in the miasma of “privilege” talk would live better lives and have better chances if we said just that to them.
This is not “blaming the victim.” It’s just reality.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t do things to make the world fairer, if we can. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t be sensitive to people’s needs when they tell us what they are (although in that case, there’s going to be some conflict–the rules that so many “feminists” these days want to install to make women “safe” feel to me like a suffocating prissiness that I don’t want and feel hold me back).
It is an illusion that luck doesn’t matter, but it’s a necessary one if we’re ever going to get anything. We need it in the same way every teacher needs to walk into her classroom is fully capable of learning the material. It isn’t always true, but if we don’t convince ourselves of it, we’re in danger of doing a lot of damage.
The “privilege” business does a lot of damage, too, it’s just that the people who engage in it decide not to see it.
I am, at the moment, in a definite funk. I had a student this term who was truly something amazing. Good looking. Intelligent. Charismatic–incredibly charismatic. With the kind of ear for writing narrative prose nobody can teach anybody. With the kind of comic timing nobody could teach anybody, either.
In one way, of course, he lacked “privilege.” He was a young black male from a ghetto family, no father, lots of violence in the neighborhood, and drugs on top of that.
He’d been arrrested before I ever saw him, but I think the judge may have seen what I, and his advisor, and most of his teachers eventually saw. Instead of locking him up, the judge gave him probation and an ankle bracelet. When he broke probation the first couple of times, he got reprieves.
I haven’t seen him for a couple of weeks, and I’m a little afraid that the reprieves ran out.
But–in spite of the “oppression” of being born in a ghetto and young and black and male, he was ALSO born with so much talent and potential he made me dizzy.
Most of his white, middle class classmates don’t have half as much going for them. They’ll plod through school and get some mid-range job somewhere and get by by following orders, and never have much of anything else to look forward to.
But this kid is something else. And there’s only one way he’s ever going to be able to achieve what he’s capable of.
He needs somebody to tell him, “yep, you bet, you got a raw deal on all those counts, grow up, get over it, and stop behaving like an adolescent asshole.”
But nobody will tell him that.
Because it’s all about “privilege.”
And telling him that would be “blaming the victim.”
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