I grew up with a sense that something was wrong with the world but I didn't know what; Was it socialism? Was it Muslims? Was it just adults? Was it Americans? Was it annoying celebrities? I wasn't sure, I had to try to work it out. Eventually I got there, or at least I got closer. I worked it out because I'm obsessive, I had time on my hands and I had pretty much all my other needs fulfilled, so, in a wonderful expression of self-actualisation I got there. On my journey I was able to debate it out, read books and endless amounts of online articles, watch films, see the news, ask people questions and listen to talks.
Eventually I realised that we live in a world where war, ruthless greed coupled with systematic violence, pervasive social hierarchy and selfish individualism were not just marginal problems, they were absolutely central problems.
I'm not like most people. This is not because I'm all 'political' and whatever. I'm not like most people because I had to work it out in the first place. Most people in the world know what is wrong because it defines their lives, it killed their brother, it threw them off their land, it raped them, it impoverished them, it spat on them in the street, it wore a uniform and shot them, it locked them up in jail...
This situation that I have found myself in is called having 'privilege'.
Any society that has both violence and hierarchy built in to the way people meet their needs and wants tends to order itself into a metaphorical pyramid type structure. Our world was not always this way but it is now. There are a few people at the top of this pyramid who own most of the land, wield most of the political power and have most of the capital. These people make up what is known as the ruling class (some people call them the 1% or just the capitalists). But how did they get into this position? Adam Smith, the famous economist said this:
"Labour was the first price, the original purchase - money that was paid for all things".
What he meant is that it is those who actually carry out the work that create wealth. This includes everyone who put in the necessary effort and creativity to get the job done. But in the way our world works wealth does not remain with those who create it. 20 people in our world today control as much wealth as the poorest 3 billion. (Some of them even have audacity to suggest that this is a good thing because some their wealth will trickle back down). This is because the pyramid that is our society, and society everywhere sucks wealth upwards towards the top as it exerts violence downwards maintaining control and forcing it's own brand of order on those below. This pyramid is the context in which we all look to have our needs met, our need to eat, drink, have shelter, be try to stay healthy, to attempt to be happy, hopefully to have fulfilling relationships and even to express ourselves.
In order to get what we need we have to be of use to someone above us, in order to get away with being ourselves we have to avoid breaking the rules that those above us have set. This can mean having to get married in order to have somewhere to live and food to eat, this can mean having to work for a boss in order to get money to survive, this can mean censoring ourselves so we don't get into trouble or pretending we are someone we are not in order to avoid the consequences and it always involves obeying a myriad of rules and regulations. If we fail, if we aren't useful enough or if we don't even want to be used or if we break the rules then we face either punishment or destitution.
All of this means that the closer you get to the top the more hegemony you find. In our world this means the more likely you are to be male, white, educated, a citizen of a wealthy country etc. etc. If you are in this position you find that it has some interesting effects; people tend to give you the benefit of the doubt more, people listen to you more and putting it bluntly, people act like your life is worth more than others, sometimes much, much more than others.
Going back to the theme at the beginning. Most people in the world have a instinct for what is going on, it is the air they breathe. When they talk about their oppression to people they know, they know that everyone knows what they are talking about. They don't sit in groups and debate it, they don't have fancy language for it, they just know.
Unfortunately for people like me (people who may not be a part of the actual ruling class but have had it fairly good in life), it can be almost impossible for us to understand what less privileged people are talking about when they tell us about their lives. They aren't used to having to try to describe it in ways that we will understand, they aren't used to being expected to debate it and they certainly aren't used to having to hear people being cruel about their situation. We have come up with comfortable stories which we think explains why we have it good but they don't. Stories about how poor people are lazy, how women are never happy and are always making things up, how people from some races are inherently violent and/or stupid etc. These help us deal with the bewilderment we face when we hear about oppression from people that face more of it in their lives than we do.
Having privilege isn't a bad thing, everyone should have it! It is also totally possible to have in some areas and not in others. it can all seem very confusing but it doesn't have to be. There are some very simple things that we can do if we want to be part of making this situation better:
- Listen more: Don't speak over people, don't try to speak for people, don't accuse people of lying all the time. It doesn't mean that no one is ever lying about anything, but if we don't listen openly we risk dismissing people who really need to be heard.
- Don't try to 'rescue': It's no good having people who have participated in oppressing you then deciding that it's their job to lead you by the hand to freedom. Instead we need to find ways to stop hurting people so they can heal themselves and their own communities/ countries.
- Don't be an asshole.
It's been a privilege.