Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

4.05.2012

On Privilege

Privilege is a hard thing to talk about because, so often, in so many ways, it's hard for the privileged to even see or acknowledge their privilege as existing. It's such a part of "the way things are" for them that they can't imagine anything different, can't see how it might be different for others. And even when it's acknowledged, it's exceedingly hard to feel any fault or responsibility for it. It's just "the way things are," the way they've always been, since before any of us actually came around. I didn't create the current dynamic that's giving me privilege, did I? I didn't ask for this, it's just how things have worked out. And I'm certainly not actively doing anything to contribute to it, am I? It's this big, ubiquitous thing--bigger than all of us--so how am I supposed to do anything to change it in any way? Perhaps so. That may indeed be true. But do you really want to perpetuate your privilege, to enjoy it's advantages, if that means others are suffering for you to have it? Do you really want privilege that comes at someone else's expense? Because, by definition, that's the way it works.

I'm afraid I'm not going to talk about privilege at length at the moment or write a full, complete thought, but I at least wanted to give that introduction. I'm sharing today because I've recently run across a number of good thoughts on the topic written by others, and I want to share them. First, a general analogy that does one of the best jobs I've seen of conveying what I just tried to say above. Then, two considerations of the idea in relation to very specific contexts from the news lately: The Hunger Games and the Kony 2012 video that was all over the social media a few weeks back. All are excellent and need to be read in full, but I'll try to pull out a few key/representative thoughts to give you the gist of what they're saying.

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On the Difference Between Good Dogs and Dogs That Need a Newspaper Smack

. . . Consider: he’s a nordic dog in a temperate climate. The word “cold” is completely meaningless to him. He’s never been cold in his entire life. He lives in an environment that is perfectly suited to him, completely aligned with his comfort level, a world he grew up with the tools to survive and control, built right in to the way he was born.

So the lizard tries to explain it to him. She says, “well, hey, how would you like it if I turned the temperature down on you?”

The dog goes, “uh… sounds good to me.”

What she really means, of course, is “how would you like it if I made you cold.” But she can’t make him cold. She doesn’t have the tools, or the power, their shared world is not built in a way that allows it – she simply is not physically capable of doing the same harm to him that he’s doing to her. She could make him feel pain, probably, I’m sure she could stab him with a toothpick or put something nasty in his food or something, but this specific form of pain, he will never, ever understand – it’s not something that can be inflicted on him, given the nature of the world they live in and the way it’s slanted in his favor in this instance. So he doesn’t get what she’s saying to him, and keeps hurting her.

Most privilege is like this. . . .

And then the dog just ignores it. Because he can. That’s the privilege that comes with having fur, with being a dog in Ohio. He doesn’t have to think about it. He doesn’t have to live daily with the cold. He has no idea what he’s talking about, and he will never, ever be forced to learn. He can keep making the lizard miserable until the day they both die, and he will never suffer for it beyond the mild annoyance of her complaining. And she, meanwhile, gets to try not to freeze to death. . . .

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Hungry for the Hunger Games: Why We Need Dystopian Tales

. . . In a world where teenagers really do kill each other in cold blood, perhaps it’s good that YA literature move away from lipstick and boys. American teens today face more real-life horror than many of us remember, including gang violence and bullying. Outside the United States, Joseph Kony isn’t the only adult forcing children younger even than the tributes into armies. Child soldiers in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Burma fight for causes they don’t understand but which can often be traced back to resources that fuel Western appetites.

Humans the world over are sold into sexual slavery around the world, their bodies used by others as a release for all kinds of emotions—lust, stress, rage. Children also work long hours in dangerous factories, producing goods that fill American superstores, but rarely enough money to feed themselves.

We like The Hunger Games because we want to identify with the rebellion. If we look closely, though, we are often more likely to find ourselves, however unintentionally, siding with the Capitol. We turn a blind eye to suffering, allowing the rest of the world to meet our every need and desire, though it costs them their lives. We sit in air-conditioned luxury, practicing Twitter activism, while people around the world (and in our neighborhoods) starve. . . .

Like all great literature—and as the writing improves and themes deepen, much of modern YA will be included in this category—dystopian novels give us a chance to reflect: Am I shallow, lazy, and oblivious like the average Capitol citizen? Am I controlling and manipulative like the officials? Or do I embody some of the virtues of the heroes? For all of us, we can probably see in ourselves a little of each. . . .

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The White Savior Industrial Complex

. . . But there's a place in the political sphere for direct speech and, in the past few years in the U.S., there has been a chilling effect on a certain kind of direct speech pertaining to rights. The president is wary of being seen as the "angry black man." People of color, women, and gays -- who now have greater access to the centers of influence that ever before -- are under pressure to be well-behaved when talking about their struggles. There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as "racially charged" even in those cases when it would be more honest to say "racist"; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic. One cumulative effect of this policed language is that when someone dares to point out something as obvious as white privilege, it is seen as unduly provocative. Marginalized voices in America have fewer and fewer avenues to speak plainly about what they suffer; the effect of this enforced civility is that those voices are falsified or blocked entirely from the discourse. . . .

I want to tread carefully here: I do not accuse Kristof of racism nor do I believe he is in any way racist. I have no doubt that he has a good heart. Listening to him on the radio, I began to think we could iron the whole thing out over a couple of beers. But that, precisely, is what worries me. That is what made me compare American sentimentality to a "wounded hippo." His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated "disasters." All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need. . . .

How, for example, could a well-meaning American "help" a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I've seen many) about how "we have to save them because they can't save themselves" can't change that fact. . . .

Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy. To do this would be to give up the illusion that the sentimental need to "make a difference" trumps all other considerations. What innocent heroes don't always understand is that they play a useful role for people who have much more cynical motives. The White Savior Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage. We can participate in the economic destruction of Haiti over long years, but when the earthquake strikes it feels good to send $10 each to the rescue fund. I have no opposition, in principle, to such donations (I frequently make them myself), but we must do such things only with awareness of what else is involved. If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement. . . .

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Oh, and one other thought. I said at the top the first article is one of the best analogies for explaining privilege I know, but now that I think of it I know another. One of my favorite picture books, that I posted a while back. If the articles are too long for you, you can surely find a couple of minutes to read Plantpet: Golden Rule Plus One

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