Thoughts on Privilege

Any discussion of privilege has to make room for three contrasting truths. Every society, every economy, every political system favors some groups over others in unjustified and sometimes brutal ways. It is essential to examine and address this without flinching. At the same time, the picture is more complicated than we may realize; groups are not internally uniform, nor is their external treatment; neither of these can be understood properly without a careful study of history. Beyond that, no one knows the sum total of another person. We have little idea what those around us have gone through, good, bad, or mixed. Nor are they obliged to tell us. Any discussion of privilege must respect privacy and the unknown.

Everyone’s life contains a mixture of advantages and setbacks. There is no way to calculate the sum total. That doesn’t mean group privilege, such as privilege resulting from one’s race, class, or sex, should be ignored. It can just be approached discerningly.

Privilege comes in many different forms. Some of it is accorded to us, or withheld from us, on account of our race, class, sex, sexual orientation, or even looks or mannerisms. (David Brooks has a compelling opinion piece on “lookism.”) Some of it comes to us in response to things we do. Some responds to how we see the world. It’s hard to isolate the things that we received passively, through no work of our own, from the ones we and those around us had a hand in. One of the biggest complications here is that parents tend to want every privilege in the world for their children. Even if they try to make their children aware of the privilege, they would not want to take it away.

What some people call privilege, others call blessings; yet the two words have profoundly different connotations. Blessings come from God or from unnamed sources; they may be earned or unearned, but a person is supposed to see them, give thanks for them, rejoice in them. Privilege, on the other hand, is a distinctly secular concept. It comes from the world, not from God, and while one can feel grateful for privilege, it’s generally considered wrong to rejoice in it, because it comes at someone else’s expense. The goal of at least some discussions of privilege is to change the system of distribution.

But privilege is only partly objective. Two people in near-identical circumstances can have opposite views of their fortune, and their views can change considerably over time. This does not erase the circumstances themselves, buf it adds a twist to them.

Once you have identified some privileges and inequalities, what then? Efforts to rectify the latter can have terrible (or, at best, mixed) consequences. Social justice movements can be myopic, ignoring some of the injustices in their midst. Take, for example, the teaching profession in the U.S. In many parts of the country, teachers and their unions have succeeded, over time, in securing higher salaries. But in return for these raises and new salary scales, they have agreed to do additional work, such as daily meetings, hall and cafeteria monitoring, regular parental contact, detailed documentation of everything. The job can be so exhausting and packed that it leaves little time for what should be at its heart: thinking about the subject matter and considering how to teach it. The privilege of the higher salary comes at the expense of contemplation. Here in Hungary I have a drastically lower salary than I would in the U.S., but I have considerable freedom and flexibility (as well as a curriculum, mind you), which allow me to do my work better. I would not exchange that for more money. Teachers should be paid more here, much more, but we should be careful about what we agree to give in return.

Discussions of privilege should involve the following questions: What do we mean by privilege? How might our view of it be limited or distorted? How much do we know of another person’s privilege or lack thereof, or even our own? What are we hoping to accomplish? What might be some unintended consequences of our efforts? Who is “we” here? Such questions, if taken up boldly and thoughtfully, would deepen the discussion and action.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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