What do you do if you’re in a privileged class?

There is a huge tension between being a radical and being a person who has privilege in some hierarchy or other, as most of us have. As radicals, we see privilege as an external force, something to be abolished. As people with privilege, we see privilege as something that’s a part of who we are in society. Being a radical necessarily means the desire to abolish, to cast off, part of oneself. Since they are, after all, human, a lot of radicals are uncomfortable with that fact. There is also an unfortunate tendency to balkanize, to believe that one’s specific radical ideology is the only radical ideology worth pursuing, and that all others are pointless. This makes it easy to ignore privilege, and is basically the radical equivalent of “Oppression Olympics.”

The expression currently in fashion with the liberal/SJW set is “check your privilege.” This is used to shut down arguments from a person who holds a position of privilege, whether that privilege is relevant to the conversation or not, and equating such a position with an automatic disqualification from rational conversation. In general, “check your privilege” is not used to grapple with the concept of privilege, but rather to wield it like a weapon. Since it is wielded by people who, like most of us, have some position of privilege, this betrays a lack of self-awareness or irony.

So what should a radical do when confronted with their privilege as, for instance, a Western consumer, a parent, a man, a white person, or a married heterosexual (to name only those)? What they should not do is introvert and examine themselves for their merits or shortcomings. As any radical necessarily understands, criticism must be systemic in nature, and praising or attacking the individual, even if it’s yourself, is irrelevant. The radical which strikes at the root on one or many issues must not forget to do so on all issues. Reducing everything to yourself (“but I’m a good person!”) is reactionary, because it shields some hierarchies from analysis. So is simply ignoring hierarchies if you’re on the side that benefits.

The first step is to actually realize that you are a beneficiary of a hierarchy. This small step is already a great deal more than most people can muster, which is why it’s worth noting. Intersectionality, as used by liberals, has done a lot of work in helping people make that realization a lot harder. You can ignore the fact that you’re benefiting from one hierarchy by pointing out that you’re losing out in another. But ethnicity does not cancel out class, class does not cancel out sex, and so on. These are all separate social realities which must be addressed separately.

This is the place where people can work at rationalizing their benefits in order to go back to their state of mental comfort. The gamut of rationalizations run from biology (“I benefit because I am biologically/mentally superior”) to consequences (“If you take away those benefits, the world will basically end”). It’s important to realize that this is irrelevant to the whole process. Whatever your explanation for the existence of the hierarchy, it still exists.

If you are able to go further, the second step is to look at this hierarchy and how it manifests itself in your life, mainly in the expectations it places upon you (your social role), as well as your reactions to things that happen around you. As male, for instance, I am placed in the social role of man and expected to perform masculinity. I am aware of how this has affected my life profoundly and how it has colored my actions and thoughts. Many events in my life, which previously seemed mysterious or unimportant, are revealed, upon reexamination, to have been caused by people taking on, or reacting to, the man or woman social roles. I also understand that the way in which I react to events or things people say concerning sex or gender is grounded in my socialization and indoctrination as a man. Before you can criticize, you have to understand what it is that you’re criticizing.

The third step is self-criticism: realizing how your actions have harmed other people, or how the benefits you have received have been stolen from others. As a Western consumer, my life of plenty has been subsidized by sweatshop labor and slave labor in the Third World. As a man, I have benefitted from women’s labor and women’s grooming. As a person who passes for white with a white-sounding name, I benefit in added safety and financial opportunities (amongst other benefits) which exist at the expense of people of color.

Again, the point here is not to beat yourself up, or to give up because you don’t want to feel bad about yourself, but to engage in systemic analysis. People shirk from self-criticism because they want to “stay positive.” But this has nothing to do with being positive or negative. I am not automatically a “bad person” for being a Western consumer, a male, or white-passing. Neither do I get a “pass” for not being a bigot. It’s not about you, it’s about the hierarchies you benefit from. Besides, it’s wasted work to try to understand how hierarchies affect your life if you don’t do anything with that information.

If you get this far, this is the place where you should be able to realize that the rationalizations are false and that the people who are labeled superior and inferior in a hierarchy are actually equal, full human beings. You are able to do so because you’ve realized that the inferiors (which I use in this entry in the sense of “classified as inferior on some hierarchy,” not of “actually inferior beings”) are put in their situation by the hierarchy itself, not by some personal defect, and that they do not deserve to be inferiors. If you do not have the empathy or the reasoning abilities necessary to arrive at this conclusion, it is highly unlikely that you’d even get this far anyway.

When I say that superiors and inferiors are equal, I don’t mean that they are already equal in society. Of course you can always ignore reality and claim that the hierarchy somehow has no effect on people despite systematically imposing control on them and redirecting resources away from them. But again, I assume you do not have the combination of stupidity and cruelty necessary to contort your mind into believing such a thing.

If we are equal, then nothing can justify the status of superiors and inferiors, and we arrive at our status through accident of birth or, sometimes, accidental fortune or misfortune. Any person in a situation of privilege could have been born without that privilege. That being the case, it must be true that privilege is unjust.

Furthermore, you must recognize that the situation of the inferiors is different from yours. That is to say, that due to their particular situation, the inferiors cannot simply “stay quiet,” as you are able to. Usually people are able to stay quiet because they are not the ones being exploited or oppressed. To be an inferior is to cope, either by acquiescing or resisting. One must resist the temptation of jeering, or hate, those who acquiesce, but rather recognize that we are all reacting to our place in society in different ways.

The last step is to revolt against your social role. The way in which you do this depends on what you can, and what to, do. What you shouldn’t do is introvert and feel pity for yourself or rage against others, which is, as I said, a danger at every step. You need to look outwards. Read about radical ideologies which fight against the hierarchy you’re a part of. Join, or support, some form of collective action or community. As I’ve said before, being nice to oppressed or exploited people makes you a decent person but it doesn’t actually help make any systemic changes, which is why liberals are so keen on it. Go beyond just “being nice” and actually do something that makes an impact. Speak up against other privileged people when they rationalize. Make it clear you’re on the side of the people being exploited. Donate time or money, if you have any.

Note that none of this applies to the inferiors in a hierarchy. It would be pointless, as well as mean-spirited, to throw the points I’ve listed back in an inferior’s face and tell them that they should acknowledge their faults or acknowledge that they are both equal. Inferiors are under no obligation whatsoever to have sympathy for the people who are exploiting them. Doing so can only slow down, or completely halt, the process of disentangling themselves from the socialization and/or indoctrination used to enforce that hierarchy. “Naming the oppressor” is a huge step in that disentanglement. To spend one’s time pondering the equality between themselves and those who oppress them, or to reflect on how nice some oppressors are, while technically valid, is time which could be better spent understanding and naming.

One thought on “What do you do if you’re in a privileged class?

  1. sbt42 May 19, 2017 at 05:54

    This is personally a huge topic. As part of the eminently-privileged class here in the US (the world?), I consider it my obligation as a Decent Human Being to contribute to those who lost in the lottery of life. Donating time and money to worthwhile causes (instead of illusions like, you know, the Democratic party) can make an immense positive impact for those not as fortunate.

    There’s no substitute for personally being there as a volunteer in a minority-led initiative. When you’re lucky enough to not have kids or significant debts or obligations that suck up your time, energy, and funds, there’s really no reason not to be a volunteer. And NOT assuming you’ll be the one in charge.

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