Thursday, 21 July 2016

Privilege and Its Pitfalls

Privilege is generally seen as a positive aspect of life, but the idea could be a hindrance to personal freedom and promote social inequality. In my middle class Protestant background, as children we were made aware of our privilege from an early age. We were taught to be grateful for having our survival needs met and having access to the best facilities, which would enable us to continue the legacy provided that we devoted our efforts to society’s notion of success. Quite often the idea was at odds with religious doctrine of love, service and the insignificance of material possessions. While I think gratitude is a most valuable tool to navigate the waters of life, I don’t see any reason why it should be adopted against the misfortune of others, however subtly it is brought into the equation.

The Wheel of Fortune as a symbol
illustrates that everyone is subject
to the ups and downs of life.
Within the idea of privilege I find a subconscious assumption that only some people can have good fortune while others have to be underdogs. This is problematic on so many levels, especially when it is accepted that that is just the way the world works. To begin with, those in “privileged” positions might not be happy with their circumstances, because the set-up does not suit them. They might not be content for whatever reason, and within our rigid social structure that classifies people according to their wealth, there might be little escape for the privileged in misery. Making changes could compromise their relationships, finances and social position, which could lead to even more suffering and disconnection from others. From a different perspective, regarding some people as under-privileged because of the absence of financial riches could deny their competences. We limit ourselves when we define people according to their financial capacities. There is light and darkness in everything, and in reality human nature cannot be confined within social categories.

Our notion of privilege also encourages me to think about where basic rights end and where special rewards begin. In a truly humanitarian society, having one’s survival needs met would be a right unless Nature decides otherwise. The same goes for access to education in a chosen area of interest when it is available. I do not propose that anything should be taken for granted, but I think an attitude of appreciation is a personal choice that benefits the one who adopts that mind-set. Clinging to stale notions of privilege makes inequality easier to justify as it is convenient to argue that working in harsh circumstances or being underpaid is preferable to having no income. It is inevitable that those in privileged positions are the benefactors giving the under-privileged the means to survive. A power imbalance can thereby easily be disguised as charity.

Something I find ironic is seeing how often misery results from clinging to superior positions. It might be my own projection, but I have often felt that in highly privileged environments there is little room for hilarity or genuine connection. Some of the wisest and kindest people I have known didn’t have money or status, and I have been to places where people showed warmth to me despite difficult political and economic circumstances. I do not wish to deny the challenges faced by those who struggle financially, or claim that everyone who is rich or successful is miserable. I do however suggest that we look deeper into our notion of privilege and question whether it is useful in any way unless we can have compassion while there is still social inequality.

Ultimately privilege is a matter of perspective. Life can be seen as a privilege with all the ups and downs, even though it might not always be obvious in dark times. Sharing with and learning from others, no matter what the differences in background, can enrich us if we look past appearances.