I don’t like how we talk about privilege. It’s like we’re asking people to apologize—please excuse my privilege. It is always evoked derogatorily as something that stands in the way of seeing clearly—something that blinds us from seeing another perspective accurately. Or it is the dynamic by which society is made inequitable. And when people acknowledge their privilege, it is seldom with adulation for the people who helped them succeed, but as a form of virtue posturing. They seem to hope that by acknowledging it, people will be able to see past it. Like it’s an ugly blemish on their otherwise upstanding character.
People who speak of privilege in this way have, I believe, good intent and are certainly right about the socioeconomic inequality that exists. The goal of deprecating privilege is to let people know that there are people out there, a lot of people, who don’t have it so easy. And that’s a good message. So let me make that point first.
There are a lot of CEOs making a lot of money. And for each one there’s a thousand other people who are just as smart, maybe smarter, who could do the job just as well, maybe better. So how do people get on top? It’s not just because they’re the best for the job. From what I can tell, there’s three things that get someone to that spot: personal virtue, luck, and privilege.
Personal virtue is the intelligence, social graces, skills, and all other traits that someone brings to the table. This involves inherent traits, learned behaviors, and skills that have been generated through hard work.
The second aspect is luck. This is being at the right place at the right time. Malcom Gladwell has famously written how Bill Gates was the right age, with the right skills, at the right place when the personal computer revolution took off.
The last one is privilege. Bill Gates was also the son of a wealthy lawyer father and banker mother and he attended a prestigious private school. You can have all the brains in the world, but if you’re stuck at a dead-end job to pay for your parent’s medical bills, you’re probably not going to be the next Bill Gates. Privilege is the reality that people don’t normally succeed alone, and not usually on their first try. People succeed because they get help, because someone at some point is interested in their success.
But how we talk about it you would think this help is undesirable, like it would be better if people succeed alone. I think we’re wrong about that. People perform better when they feel supported, when they have someone who has a vested interest in their success.
I think when it comes down to it, when we say privilege, we are normally talking about mothers and fathers trying to help their children succeed. They provide safe homes, teach their children social skills, ingratiate them with valuable connections, and submerge them in a culture where they will learn how to get to and through college and into the workplace. Of course, it’s more than a one generation phenomena. Parents are able to privilege their children based partially on what privileges they themselves received. Privilege moves from parent to child from generation to generation. And the web gets very thick. But at its heart, privilege is family.
That’s why almost every utopian experiment has attempted to regulate the family. Because people tend to privilege their family ties over and above the rest of the community. A recent article in The New Yorker by Akash Kapur suggested that “the urge to procreate and nurture a family has proved to be one reliable trip wire” for successful utopias. The thing is that when a man and woman love each other they begin to privilege each other. Not only does a man have a special affinity for one woman over and above the others, but the man will want an exclusive relationship. He will begin to feel jealous of other men sleeping with that woman. The same is true for the woman. That is the beginning of inequality. Privilege really begins with romance—choosing one person over another. Then comes family and, if unchecked, aristocracy.
To avoid the unwanted baggage of privilege, several utopian experiments like Oneidans have attempted to communalize sex so that “private ties” would not trump “communal solidarity.” But the inevitable result is that people are not satisfied with the communal arrangement. They want privileges. Eventually, communal solidarity seems like an empty, meaningless, and unnatural replacement for romance.
To love collectively is not the same as to love individually. Collective love is initially much easier and ultimately less fulfilling. It is easy to feel wave after wave of generalized love for all mankind but it lacks the deeper substance of personal relationships. It exists nowhere but in our oblique imagination. The problem is that you cannot make love with humanity. You cannot enjoy a dinner, or watch a show, or tell a joke, or get to know the idiosyncrasies of humanity. Humanity is homosyncratic. We are never confronted with humanity except in the form of individuals. And it is on the individual level that our love is tested, stretched, enhanced, and deepened.
If Oneidans believed, as Akash Kapur suggests, that communal love could be promoted by destroying private ties, then they were partially right. When we stop loving actual individuals, our love for humanity often grows. In a marvelously revealing moment in Dostoevsky’s the Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima says, “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. . . the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.”
Imagine a world without privilege. Instead of helping children through school, parents donate large portion of their income to the general education fund for all children. Rather than a willful contribution, education becomes a mandatory tax—much larger than the one currently imposed. Parents no longer struggle for the success of their children; instead, money is taken from them to support paid professionals in helping children succeed (but this time with no bias). And these disinterested professionals can finally give the children the fair and equal treatment they deserve. The children succeed and fail based on their own intelligence and not because they have someone pulling for them. Nobody succeeds beyond their natural abilities. And the parents, rather than having a single child to worry about, feel like they own a tiny fraction of the stock of all children. Would such an economy survive? prosper? I doubt it. And not because people aren’t good enough for such a society, but because such a society isn’t good enough for people.
Instead, a school system completely devoid of privilege sound like the worst schooling environment imaginable. A rigid meritocracy, every student pitted against the other. No safety net, no one pulling for them. That’s not really how we reach our highest potentials. Children succeed because they have people on their side, because there are children who have parents who have invested themselves, soul, heart, and hand, in their children’s success. Fear of failure diminishes potential. And privilege is how we overcome.
We need privilege, as strange as that may sound. We need special people with special places in our lives where we can love not abstractions but actualities. We need to struggle to raise a child, not send them off to a boarding school. We need committed, privileged relationships—not orgies or open relationships.
The problem with the world is not privilege. I am sure we are better off with privilege than we would be without it. We are better off with parents personally invested in the success of their children than a generalized governmentally run school system where everyone gets a “fair shot.” There’s a reason this sounds like the dystopian novel you just finished.
But the value of privilege admittedly comes at a cost. The cost is the underprivileging of large portions of our society. There are people who don’t have a chance to live up to their potential. So what’s the answer? I don’t think it’s disparaging the parents who helped the other children succeed. It’s not getting people to apologize for all the people who have helped them along the way. People are not more virtuous for succeeding alone or against the odds. Inasmuch as a family is able to raise children and help them succeed, things are working. That doesn’t need to be fixed. What needs to be fixed is the leaving behind of the other children.
Government intervention has its place, but I don’t think the solutions will come through massive government programs that more or less act as family surrogates. Instead, I think we should consider enlarging the borders of successful families. Rather than another lackluster, utopian attempt at communal solidarity, why don’t we consider ways to promote and expand private ties.
If we accept family and even privilege as a desirable outcome, we can begin to imagine solutions that engage, expand, and rely upon family engagement rather than circumvent it. We can begin to imagine a world where aunts and uncles feel responsible to get nieces and nephews through college. Encouraging broader family responsibilities would ensure more help and more role models for currently underserved children.
And then there is marriage. Marriage has long been the beginning of privilege and the method whereby privilege is expanded as a family adopts new in-laws and new familial responsibilities. Marriage knits families together and can just as easily break down racial discrimination and economic inequality as perpetuate it. It just depends on who is marrying whom, and how and why.
I am not suggesting that the government should get tangled too much in the nitty-gritty of families. But why not use more of our resources towards promoting successful families. Why not focus on promoting healthy family habits like offering tax breaks for businesses that have shorter workdays so parents can spend more time with children. Why not use a lot of that money that is trying to replace families with programs meant to support, expand, and repair them. In short, I believe we’ll serve more people by embracing and expanding privilege rather than attempting to overcome it. So let’s talk about privilege like the desirable outcome it is and start finding ways to expand it.