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22 February 2016

I hope I never come to understand the attitude of feeling completely thwarted by forces beyond my control, to the end of despair and resignation. Now, to be certain: I am thwarted in some ways by forces beyond my control. I cannot drink alcohol safely no matter what I decide to try to do about it. I am defeated, there. Defeated and battle never to be rejoined.

But that isn’t the whole of me. Despite the limitations placed on me by circumstance and biology (I suffer from mental illnesses that kill many – in combination, probably most – of the sufferers therefrom.) I have found ways to survive and flourish. This has involved some luck, and a lot of hard work.

I am told repeatedly that it is my privilege that allows this. Lesser privileged people do not have options, and thus cannot flourish. And there’s no doubt that I have many privileges associated with my gender, my race, and upbringing. They have decidedly helped me in many cases.

But it is absolute nonsense that people with less privilege cannot flourish. In my meetings, I mingle with people from as low as exists on the socioeconomic ladder. As we say of our groups: we are people who would normally not mix. And I see people who climb from the lowest possible position to positions of respect, comfort, and dignity.

I know people who were imprisoned, who are minorities in the LGBT community, who suffer from worse mental illness than I, who were born impoverished, who were never educated. I know people from all these backgrounds who have come to be flourishing, productive, effective, economically secure, happy members of their communities and of society at large. Regardless of our privilege, we all have the ability to do the best we can with what we have.

Slinging accusations of being privileged or ignoring privilege is used in the academic community as a tactic to silence dissent from what is, to me, a peculiar kind of indulgent defeatism. It is an apostasy to say that people can change their own circumstances. It violates orthodoxy to believe in the capability of all individuals to better themselves and their prospects. I don’t know why, exactly. I don’t know why I’m supposed to agree that everyone without maximal privilege is helpless.

Privilege is real, and makes things easier for some people. It’s unfair, and we should work to ameliorate it wherever it occurs. People should have similar opportunities for education, employment, and identical civil rights and freedoms regardless of the circumstances of their birth. But to declare entire swaths of humanity helpless and hopeless simply because of their comparatively reduced privilege strikes me as both false and dehumanizing.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Aimee permalink
    22 February 2016 15:36

    It sounds like you’ve been having some poisonous conversations. My guess is that those you have been arguing with would say you have set up a straw man – that they never meant to call the less privileged helpless or hopeless. I can’t imagine anyone putting forth the argument you lay out here with a straight face, at least not in such absolutist terms. Certainly institutionalized or genetic or geographical disadvantage is sometimes used as an excuse for apathy. And certainly it is usually untrue whenever someone says “I have zero options.” But I think the other side of this argument, the assertion that “if I can do it anyone can do it” or, to be more fair “if this disadvantaged person that I’ve met can do it, anyone can do it” is equally false. Just as by everyone is equal in opportunities, not everyone is equal in energy, native ability, or ambition. The idea that the way out of terrible circumstances is simply to be an extraordinary person is facile, even glib. And of course some circumstances are too much for even the extraordinary. I recently met a person who I admired very much, who overcame truly terrible circumstances and managed to achieve what I consider truly amazing things in the face of her history – but these achievements look very modest to those who don’t know. A drivers license, a visa, a job, a family. More later I gotta run

  2. 23 February 2016 05:46

    As I read this all I had banging in my head was “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” Somehow fundamentally a tenant I’ve never had much qualm with – of course the issue being who decides what is the ability and what is the need… that’s where all the Animal Farm story is based of course when “some are more equal than others”… Of course then if someone looked at my needs and decided I didn’t need 20 guitars I’d also be unhappy which is where this all sadly falls down the desire for more that somehow we have within many of us and which continues to drive the slowly unravelling capitalist growth model. You always need in my view someone with more and privilege to be demanding of those lower in the cycle to provide for those with the most – I think this is where capitalism inevitably ends up. Currently almost everyone in the world is working to provide for the few that can all sit on a London bus who actually own the majority of it.
    So even for me, who thinks I’m very privileged compared with the vast majority in the world is actually by comparison to those few extremely underprivileged… so why do I perpetuate the cycle? Because there is really little alternative frankly

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