Oh God, people are sharing yet another earnest video on Facebook which attempts to explain ‘privilege’ to the uninitiated. You don’t even have to watch it to know what you’re in for – after all, it’s published by a group called “Woke folks” (for those unaware of the lingo, the term “woke” is used as a byword for social awareness – the Urban Dictionary defines it as “a state of perceived intellectual superiority one gains from reading the Huffington Post”).
In this video, a group of people are lined up to start a race, and the organiser tells them that before the race starts, he’s going to read out a list of conditions, and for each condition that a person meets, they get to take two steps forward. First, anybody whose parents are still married gets to take two steps forward. Then anybody who grew up with a father figure in the home. Then anybody who had access to private education. And so on, through numerous other conditions, until eventually, those who have had “privileged” upbringings, who have never had to help their parents out with the bills or worry about where the next meal is coming from, are midway across the field before the race has even started, while a few unlucky people are left still standing on the starting line. Naturally, the overwhelming majority of those left on the starting line are people of colour, and every one of the “privileged” people midway across the field is white.
At this stage, the organiser tells those at the front of the field to turn round and look at those behind them – and gives them a brief lecture about how all of the statements he’s made that have allowed them to progress across the field, have nothing to do with what they, themselves, have done. All of those advantages they’ve received have nothing to do with decisions they’ve made or actions they’ve taken. As he explains to them, the fact that they have a head start, doesn’t mean the others don’t still have to race. There are no excuses – everybody has to give it their best shot – but the reality is that whoever ends up winning needs to recognise that “it’s only because you had this big a head start, that you’re possibly going to win this race called life”.
Excuse me while I throw up – or hurl something at the wall. This video pushes every single one of my buttons. Not because I don’t ‘get’ the concept of privilege – but because I do.
Because I’d have to be either a moron or a psychopath not to.
And the fact that so many people are sharing this, in the earnest belief that this will bring people to a greater understanding of the unfairness of society, and in that way bring about greater equality and harmony, is utterly heartbreaking and horribly demoralising.
It’s heartbreaking because it exposes so clearly the way in which those of a liberal mindset misjudge their conservative counterparts. Jonathan Haidt, in his brilliant book “The Righteous Mind” explains how, when conservatives are asked to explain liberal ideologies, they are usually able to do so fairly well – they may not agree with the liberal viewpoints but they understand what they are. When liberals, on the other hand, are asked to explain conservative viewpoints, they invariably attribute horrible motives to conservative views. In the liberal mind, conservatives are just selfish, uncaring people who have no empathy whatsoever for anybody else. They fail to understand that conservatives have just as much empathy as they do, that they care just as much about fixing the injustices of the world, but that they just have different beliefs about how to go about fixing those injustices.
This video is a classic example of the liberal belief that if they just “explain” privilege to conservatives, maybe the blinkers will finally fall off and we will “see” the injustice to which we have previously been blind.
The problem is, we already see injustice. We know that those of us who are lucky enough to be born in a wealthy western country, to married parents who can afford to raise us, have a far better start in life than those who are born in poverty, or to single mothers. And we know that with only a small number of exceptions, those born white have an easier start in life than those who are born black or brown.
But here’s the problem. Well, two problems actually.
Firstly, while we know all this, there’s nothing we can do to change it for the current generation. We can fight for racial equality and we can fight to end poverty but nothing is going to change overnight and nothing I or anybody else can say or do, will make the person who grew up with four siblings in a one-room apartment with a single mother feel any better about their upbringing. I can sympathise, I can try to provide help with the person’s current circumstances, but I will never be able to change the facts of my upbringing or of theirs. I can never erase that ‘privilege’. And constantly asking me to acknowledge it is like badgering a train conductor to issue repeated apologies for the lateness of your train – it’s annoying, it’s pointless and ultimately it makes neither party feel any better about themselves.
The second problem, is that once you start assigning ‘privilege’ to things that are out of individual control, where do you stop? How do you decide who has the greater privilege when deciding between a white person who grew up being passed around from one foster home to another, who never had proper schooling, and was always in trouble with the law, and a black person who grew up in a stable family environment, completed their schooling and went on to university? Leaving race out altogether – how do you decide who has the greater privilege: somebody whose parents are still married but who have been violently abusive towards each other for years, or somebody whose parents are divorced and possibly happily remarried to other people? How do you tell a woman caring for a husband paralysed in a motorbike accident, or somebody who worked their socks off to afford their first home only to have it destroyed by a natural disaster, that they have greater privilege than somebody else simply because they went to university and the other person didn’t?
But the biggest issue I have with this particular video, is the entire analogy of the race – “the race of life” as the organiser terms is.
Life is not a race. It’s not – nor should it ever be – any kind of competition. Encouraging people to view life in that way, to view their fellow citizens first and foremost as competitors, is possibly the most destructive mindset I can comprehend. It is this obsession with “privilege” – with highlighting the myriad areas in which one person has an advantage or a disadvantage relative to another – that is setting neighbour against neighbour, and turning friends into enemies, across the western world. If you want to understand why the world seems such a hateful place at the moment, why everybody seems to be at everybody else’s throat, look no further than “privilege”.
In the immortal words of Aerosmith, “Life’s a journey, not a destination”. It’s at times random, unfair, difficult, wondrous, exciting, exhausting, rewarding, demoralizing – and all too soon it is over. If we spend all of our time apologising to those whom we perceive to be less privileged than ourselves, while resenting those with greater privilege, not only do we create an unpleasant environment for ourselves, but we also end up wasting our energies on events that are in the past.
None of us can do anything about our privilege, or lack thereof. All we can do is make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves – and try to do our best to help those whose situation is worse than our own. So let’s stop obsessing about privilege, and focus on empathy – because that’s something that even we “horrible” conservatives can understand.