Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Necessary Illusions

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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.”


Written by janeh

December 21st, 2013 at 11:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Necessary Illusions'

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  1. Luck is when one person is born with greater talent or potential than another.

    Privilege is when two people, dressed alike, walk down the same street, and the black one gets stopped and the white one does not. Or two people walk into a store, and the hispanic one gets followed around suspiciously, and the white one is left alone after she says she’s just looking.

    There are intersections of luck and privilege, those happen all the time. A non-privileged person gets a lucky chance at an opportunity their group generally would not, and makes the best of it through talent and skill. I think it’s an error to call inborn intelligence “privilege” because as you say that implies it’s undeserved and somehow unfair, and the last thing we want to do as a society is stigmatize the smart people, they’re the ones that save our collective asses throughout the ages.

    Also, everyone has a kind of massive web of privilege and non-privilege that is peculiar to them….everyone is different. No one is totally privileged, no one is totally unprivileged, and comparing your personal balances is, like I said elsewhere, like 10-year-olds comparing scabs. Not very useful in moving the conversation into areas where something might be DONE.

    I agree that people without privilege have a responsibility, as do we all, to play the hand we’re dealt as best we can. Passivity is for dead people. I’m trying right now to move a person very dear to me off that helpless passivity and into a new life. Not easy. Costly in time, energy, money, and there’s a lot of silently rooting, “c’mon LUCK!!”


    21 Dec 13 at 1:59 pm

  2. I will post at least twice to this one.

    Jane, I agree–except about actual privilege, which can’t be eliminated, and for good reasons. Consider legal privilege for a bit. Yes, of course we still have it.
    –A while back my driver’s license expired and I had to have an eye exam to get a new one–not because the state had any evidence that my eyes were failing, but because I was in an age group more prone to failing eyesight.
    –The armed forces continue to refuse to enlist people below a certain height, or train pilots or imagery analysts who don’t have uncorrected 20/20 vision.
    –My state of residence will not permit me to have a natural Christmas tree in my apartment, though any drunken careless homeowner may have one in his residence.
    –It doesn’t matter how well-trained, clear-eyed and conscientious you are, you’re still not getting that driver’s license at 15

    In every case given–and they were a tiny sample of the whole–we discriminate against someone because the risks or administrative burdens of NOT discriminating are too great. When people live in groups too large to know each person in the community individually, we have to lump them for legal purposes. It’s bound to be unfair at the margins, but it can’t be helped. And when we do live in those small communities, we discriminate in favor of our friends and against our enemies–and probably one or the other with family members. Government will never be perfectly fair, and we ought to reflect on that before we make so much of it. Because legal privilege is part of the package.


    21 Dec 13 at 4:38 pm

  3. Lymaree, that was a great comment and a good example, and I agree with much of what you said. Now let me point out why it isn’t that simple.

    Setting legal privilege aside since I already did that one, you’re talking about bigotry. At least you hope and believe it’s bigotry. But assume for a moment you’re an Ivy League admissions officer. You have 10 or 15 applicants for every vacancy in your freshman class, and to whittle it down to “only” five applicants per vacancy, you discard everyone without perfect SAT scores and sterling grades. Certainly, you’ve just discarded a bunch of young people, some of whom would have made better graduates than some of the ones you picked. Have you “privileged” those SAT scores? Or are you using the evidence at your disposal to get the best result you can, even though it won’t be perfect?

    Now go back to your policeman–or house detective: and it runs all the way up to a homicide detective or an FBI agent investigating espionage. He doesn’t come in knowing who’s guilty. He sometimes doesn’t know anyone is. But he has to sort through people doing perfectly legal things–or illegal but irrelevant things–to decide who or what deserves more attention. What the people kept safe are sometimes pleased to consider bigotry may be what the person keeping them safe regards as clues or indicators.

    The cop on the beat who sees six black males in gang colors hanging around near the jewelry store at night is right to tell them to move along, just as he is right to check the well-dressed white kids in the ghetto for drugs. If you want police not to take race into account in their investigations, you first have to create a society in which race is of no statistical importance.

    And the shop clerk and house detective ought to keep a sharper eye on kids–and especially kids they haven’t seen before–than they do on middle-aged regulars. It’s not that there are no middle-aged petty thieves, but that the percentages are different. No one wants you steal something to join the Kiwanis.

    To insist that no one be legally punished for their race, sex appearance or whatever the cause du jour is may be reasonable. In fact it usually is.* But to demand that people discount the evidence of their own and others experience in choosing where and what to investigate is perilously close to saying “we don’t want the people protecting us to use their intelligence.” Even if you could get them to do it, you wouldn’t like how it played out.

    You’ve still got a good point. Just keep in mind the limitations.

    *I throw in “usually” because, for example, I really want firemen big and strong enough to carry unconscious people, and I don’t care if that means not many of them are women. I also want very dexterous people making small electronics even if that disqualifies more men than women. Life is, we agree, not fair. But try telling that to the EEOC.


    21 Dec 13 at 5:12 pm

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