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The Problem with Privilege

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I have no problem “checking my privilege.”

I acknowledge quite readily that I benefit from our society. I’m a white male receiving a college education who has never been convicted of a crime. But this admission leads me to ask: So what? In what sense is everyone not (to some extent) privileged? And what’s wrong with being privileged in the first place?

Merriam-Webster defines privilege as “a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others.” In this sense, no person can deny being privileged. Socially, I benefit immensely from my middle-class background, my skin color, and my parents’ fiscal responsibility.

In other ways, I am less fortunate. I suffer from Crohn’s Disease; I’ve spent the last few years in a single-parent household after the loss of my mother to cancer on the day of my high school graduation. At various points in my life, I have been unable to walk, had to take chemotherapeutics, and experienced the mundane trauma from living in an unfair world. This one example might cue us into something often ignored by both sides in our political discourse: that privilege is more complicated than skin color, hierarchy, or background.

Privilege is a fact of existence. We’re all privileged; we’re all disenfranchised. We’re all haunted; we’re all blessed. In short, we are all human. Take for example, global differences in “well-being” (a terribly nebulous term). In the “developed” world, we have access to food, basic sanitation, and medical care, an opportunity inaccessible to other parts of the globe. We are privileged.

At the same time, we’re missing something. Anti-depressant usage has been sky-high for some time. Even supposedly “happy” countries in Europe rely on modern medicine to stave off an existing ennui. Some might say that such medications would still be abused were they available in other countries, but I’m less sure. Of course, depression always will exist, but that doesn't imply other societies suffer depression at the same rates, or that they cope in the same ways we do. In fact, rates seem to fluctuate based on culture and historical circumstance. The Japanese and Chinese are “less depressed” (and I’m very cautious about “measuring” depression) than Americans and Russians. However, the Chinese tend to be poorer, exist in more crowded conditions, and live in a more repressive country. Who is “more privileged” in this situation?

We have arrived at the crux of the problem. Like all products of human experience, privilege resists quantification. Perhaps we can speak of some groups as inheriting privileges others don’t. But even if we establish a system of privilege in the United States, how do we classify Europeans, Asians, Africans, or (more difficult still) Turks and Russians? Is a white male American with Crohn’s, one parent, and a college degree more or less privileged than a Nigerian immigrant to America with two parents, a masters, and a clean health record? Answer: That’s a silly question.

The real question is: Why aren’t we accepting each other as individuals? Privilege is not an argument, but a reality. Checking it is a worthwhile suggestion at best, and at worst it’s a camouflaged ad hominem attack. Conservative arguments dismissing privilege are misguided because whites do benefit from the system in the United States. Liberal generalizing forgets individual circumstance, weaponizing a mere suggestion to avoid rigorous rational discourse.

Privilege is a part of existing. We are human, imperfect, and searching. As intelligent people who desire a better world, what we owe each other is not more generalizing or more anger. No. We owe each other recognition of our advantages and disadvantages. But, more importantly, we owe each other recognition as individuals facing unseen problems, haunted by old specters. Good answers don’t come from pandering, attacking, or generalizing. Instead we must find them as individuals. As Kierkegaard put it, “A man's personality is matured only when he appropriates the truth, whether it is spoken by Balaam's ass or a sniggering wag or an apostle or an angel.”

Discourse, not distance; people, not privilege.

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