I’m going to talk about human experience and psychology and I’ll try to keep it on topic. Basically even though humans are empathy engines, we have certain blind spots. One of the major identified blind spots is that we can’t extrapolate experience from facts, only from stories. So a 900 people dying in an earthquake in Sumatra does not have the same gut punch as when that little girl Ann who lives near you, remember when she was run over by a drunk driver? she was trying to save her new puppy “Arlo” when it ran across the road, she was dragged 52 feet whilst still alive, the people who witnessed it are still kept awake by her cries.
To empathise with people, we usually need to have perspective so we have trouble not thinking that our sorrows are the worst sorrows that there are. Privilege leads to lack of perspective. I can cognitively know that someone who is below the poverty line is having a worse time of it for me but it’s hard to FEEL that. I might think “Well I’ve been poor” which is true I have, when I was younger I had weeks where it was a choice between food and rent but I also had a support structure that meant I didn’t starve and I probably couldn’t have starved in the street. The number of times I actually went hungry were few. I might also think “Well if they had a job or a better job than they wouldn’t have this problem” and this is where we run into our first difficulty. I have been unemployed. BUT by and large I’ve been working in good well paid jobs nearly my entire adult life. I have a good work ethic, I think that I am a good employee, I think I bring a lot to a job. It is difficult for me to think “I am an educated white male who speaks well and went to a private school and that privilege has got me jobs” because it didn’t feel easy. I worked hard and it feels like I did most, if not all of it myself. It’s very hard for me to pinpoint where if anywhere my privilege would have given me a leg up.
Thinking this also leads to a paradox. Am I where I want to be in life? Wealth? Love? Other aspects? If not, then I have to quietly admit that I either don’t work hard enough OR there are some aspects of life that working hard won’t overcome. Others may have had advantages, good fortune…perhaps some privileges that I didn’t. Once again we fall into this meritocritious fallacy that we all on some level buy into “I work hard, therefore I will be successful and good things will come” but we rarely ever see that in everyday experience.
If you think that privilege for most people means that they sail into jobs and it just rains money, then you are more deluded than those you rail against. In the top 1% it might work like that but the average experience is VERY different. If and when privilege kicks in it is often only a small leg up. It’s there but it’s not some secret handshake that makes all doors open for you. Usually it just means that some never quite shut.
While we are at it, this may come as a shock. But life isn’t easy for anyone. We all have to deal with life’s tiny pins no matter what. My friends still die, my love life is still chaos. I feel that have no real idea how to be a father and that bothers me. I still worry about things, I still have to overcome adversity. It’s just not the same level of adversity. Or, sometimes it is. I still have to live my life. I still ball up and cry on the couch when bad things happen, it is a nicer couch though and I own it. In my day-to-day I am probably no happier or sadder than anyone else. What I do have is a safety net. But an invisible safety net is often no comfort.
Think about it like this. Without perspective people just don’t realise what a dick they are being, with perspective they usually stop. People in pain ask for pain medication, in hospitals there is a pain scale and you are asked how bad the pain is from 1-10 and how much relief you would like. Uniformly if people say it’s above an 8 then they request strong pain medication. In war however it’s different. People at war often report terrible wounds only being around 3-5 and often refuse medication. Why? Because they have perspective. You aren’t going to waste valuable medication when your buddy has no legs. You KNOW what real pain is by this stage. Mild discomfort can be tolerated, not medicated.
Saying that I have privilege because I’m a white male also doesn’t tell the whole story. I am not a single vector. I’m also an atheist, a nerd (not a jock), divorced, with a history of anxiety and depression. So it might be easy to slap a PRIVILEGED WHITE MALE sticker on me and call it a day, but that’s not really a fair picture.
I don’t want to think I have privilege. I want to think that I achieved what I achieved on my own merits. I don’t want some invisible hand assisting me. This might be the thing that leads people to say “Yes bad things happen; you know what I do? I suck it up.” And do you know why this is such a prevalent attitude? Because there’s an element of truth to it, bad things do happen, but we still have to endure. What is the alternative? What we might not see is that for some people enduring is MUCH harder than for us.
But…..If we are outraged at everything then nothing is outrageous anymore. Not every little thing deserves to be blown up and scrutinised to death. Not everything is someone else fault either. Not everything is rooted in malice. In fact, most things aren’t. Yes, there are assholes. Yes, there are people who are actively love making other people’s lives misery. And when I see then I will come with you to protest them, or laugh with you when they get punched in the face. But they are in the vast minority. And our culture does itself no favors by making everything louder than everything else.
Yes, there is privilege. But it’s not just that people can’t see it, they don’t want to see it because it changes their story. We all want to believe that we are the plucky hero struggling against great odds to live a better life. And in that narrative, there is no room for some magical assistance that we can’t even see making our lives easier than for our neighbor who happens to be female, foreign or of a different sexuality.
“I know that I am not right about everything, and yet I am simultaneously convinced that I am. I believe these two things completely, and yet they are in catastrophic logical opposition to each other.” Will Storr
It’s difficult to deny privilege exists. But it’s also difficult to quantify, difficult to identify and difficult to stop and it’s difficult to see how I have privilege.
Privilege is when armed white men can take over a federal building in Oregon in the US, saying that they are prepared to fight, conduct an armed standoff with police for a number of days and then be acquitted of doing anything wrong. A simple thought experiment will tell you what might happen if people of any other nationality were to try that.
Privilege is where nobody looks at me and wonders if I am fulfilling a diversity quota at my job. This is an example of an unkind thought that I’ve had about someone that made me realise how privileged I am.
I am not considered a drunk, even though I drink and often, people don’t make the “drinky, drinky” motion behind my back or wonder aloud “What it is with my people and alcohol”. People do not worry about me being violent even though most spousal abuse is perpetrated by white men.
Nobody is surprised when I turn out to be an articulate, educated white guy.
When I make a mistake no-one says “Typical White people” if I’m a bad driver no-one goes “I don’t want to seem racist…. but he IS white”.
Privilege is never having to change my name to anything that is easily digestible for a white audience. (although when on the phone people still call me “Mike” for some reason I’ll never understand)
Privilege is not having any terrible historical event that is prescient in your thinking that people will tell you “You have to get over”. Because your race was the one doing all the terrible things to everyone else. “Because we had the better technology”. Because that’s an excuse.
It took me a long time to believe in privilege. Because I was fighting all these factors.
One of the first steps towards realising that privilege was real was this logic puzzle.
“A boy and his father are injured in a car accident. The boy and father are taken to separate hospitals. But when the boy is wheeled into surgery the surgeon sees the boy and the surgeon says “I cannot operate on this boy, he is my son”. How can this be true?
The fact that I didn’t immediately know the answer told me something.
These are complicated issues. And let’s be honest there are idiots on both sides that muddy the water. You have to be better than to listen to fringe elements on either side and then mistake that for the majority view.