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.