Things That Annoy Me, Episode #1478: "Check Your Privilege"

I’m annoyed by nearly every movement which names “awareness” as its motive.

I’m annoyed by “check your privilege” even though I like the idea of living consciously.

When I try to imagine the person that came up with “Check your privilege” I see a white college student that hasn’t had a serious struggle in his/her life who found the perfect blank check to be instantly smarter than everyone else. What better way than moral oneupsmanship?

But I have no problem whatsoever with privilege. It has no inherent problems in a free society. My father got my family the hell out of starvation and persecution by a communist regime in Vietnam. This was a gift like no other.

I thank my “lucky” stars that I was born in this country and I would not rather have been born in Vietnam. “Privilege” is the outcome when parents succeed at giving their kids better circumstances than they had. The motive is noble.

So some kids grow up as “comfy kids” because they didn’t have to experience severe poverty growing up. I am a “comfy kid”. The challenge of creating a life that is personally meaningful is not easier for the “comfy kids”. “Character” is forged in the crucible of our life’s struggles.

In this sense, the “check your privilege” campaign has a seed of truth. It can be hard for the “comfy kid” to understand the opportunity that he/she has when viewed from the perspective of any of our archetypes of poverty: the homeless man, the working single mother, the citizen of a war torn country.

The broader culture seems to agree that it’s a tragic waste to squander a position of privilege. “Think of the good you could do” we are admonished.

  • White people are in the best position to change the system for blacks.
  • Men are in the best position to change the system for women.
  • America is in the best position to make a difference for any poorer country.

Because we don’t want to waste privilege, we sometimes act without fully understanding whether our actions will make a difference. Is doing something always better than inaction? I don’t think so.

Whatever we do, we have to live our lives actively and consciously and work to discover/choose our unique purpose, which we can work at tirelessly. This an enormous challenge with defies prescription but I believe it to be the surest way toward a better world.

We talk about fixing the system as if it’s one system but the prescriptive solutions seem to imply an understanding that there isn’t one system to fix. This make sense. Human systems, whether villages or corporations, are generally implemented as a haphazard collection tribes, each of which agree on a way of doing things toward a common goal.

There isn’t one system and we can’t simply modify a few lines of source code to make it better.

The prescriptions I have seen seem to agree that mindfulness and self-examination are the solution. But they also note the challenges because our biases become hard to see when they get baked into the fast parts of our brains.

So as a way of closing, I’d like to document my own prescription. Slow down.

One of the gifts of privilege is that we can afford to act with less urgency. We have resources and more time to get it right.

What if we committed to using the slower and more rational parts of our brains? What biases could we overcome by cold-hearted rational decision-making? This is a question that Paul Bloom seems to have taken up. It’s interesting to consider.

The world seems to be speeding up rather than slowing down and I wouldn’t mind if we took a step back to consider. Are we being driven by FOMO, the fear of missing out? Do we need to say “no” to more things? Do we need to meditate more?

I'm annoyed by “Check your privilege” because it's structured as an angst-provoking statement rather than a thought-provoking question. But I don’t fundamentally disagree that is worth considering how best to use a bit of leverage we may have that others may not.

I'd rather ask and answer this: “What would you do to improve human existence (starting with your own) if you could cash in your privilege and buy time with it?”

That's effectively what privilege amounts to for most of us: More time. And that's not a bad thing.