‘Privilege’ is a word that gets thrown around a fair bit these days, though seldom correctly. Social structures are increasingly being put under the lens of privilege, which has become a primary measure by which standings and inequality are understood.
Yet, all too often, we box-in privilege as consisting of a few, unchangeable personal features; race, sexuality, and gender-identity being some of the most common ‘privileges’ brought to the table.
But is this really the best way to understand this illusive underpin of society? While we may be correct in our view that society, in the big picture, benefits certain demographics above others, would it be correct to apply this at the individual level?
Oftentimes this is the case, and the newfound focus on privilege as an unalienable factor of birth may have rather harmful effects. Amy Chua, author of ‘Political Tribes’, argues that the primarily left-wing focus on identity politics may have been a push-factor in creating a more white-centric right.
Indeed, now that the word ‘privilege’ often crops up in a rather accusatory manner, we have begun to see a great degree of division along demographic lines. As the left berates the white, straight man for his privileged place in society, many of his peers retreat into defensive tribalism. As Chua aptly phrases this as “the most striking feature of today’s right-wing political tribalism: the white identity politics that has mobilized around the idea of whites as an endangered, discriminated-against group.”
This leaves us somewhat between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it’s pretty clear that inequalities of privilege do exist within society. On the other, many attempts to reduce this gap run the risk of further dividing society. Evidently, we need to take a different, new approach to our understanding of privilege.
Interestingly, the best place to look for alternatives may be 2000 years ago.
While reading Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’, one of the most important texts of the Stoic philosophy, I came across an interesting sentence on the topic of privilege. Writing to himself, the Roman Emperor argued this:
“In those things which conduce to the comfort of life – and here fortune gave him plenty – to enjoy them without pride or apology either, so no routine acceptance of their presence or regret in their absence.”
Here, Aurelius paints privilege as a simple fact of life. Those who are born into fortune should not take any sense of superiority in the circumstances of their birth, as some on the right seem to do, nor should they make any apologies for it, as some on the left expect them to do.
Rather than perceiving privilege as a defining factor of both society and the individual, this stoic approach would instead view it to be something that no individual should take pride or shame in. Instead, all individuals should remain humble, and avoid falling into the traps of misplaced esteem or envy.
So what is to be done with privilege? While Aurelius’ argument is certainly valid at an individual level, it is likely not so convincing to a person arguing that privilege is a major contributor to systemic oppression. After all, it’s hardly a matter of envy or insignificance when one demographic must fear being shot while the other doesn’t.
How, then, should privilege be viewed at a societal level? While an individual should not be ashamed of their privilege, how can wider social divisions be healed without further alienating one another, as we see so much today?
Naturally, it does not make sense to attempt to remedy the inequality at a societal level through depriving certain groups of their privilege. We cannot expect individuals to give up, either willingly or by force, those privileges they were born with.
Indeed, it is attempts to do this that have contributed to the defensive tribalism of the right wing, as discussed earlier. The modern us-versus-them format of the privilege debate prevents inequalities from being addressed as a common issue, and instead has contributed to a left-right division along demographic lines.
This is where stoicism can provide a useful alternative. Instead of the accusatory style we see today, we should push the stoic ideal of a mutual struggle for justice amongst rational individuals. Rather than expecting the privileged few to feel guilt, or to deprive them of their privilege through force or coercion, we should instead encourage them to use their positions to highlight and heal cases of injustice.
If we follow this path, we may be able to prevent the polarisation and identity-politics which currently drives the extremes of both ends of the spectrum. In accepting privilege as a natural phenomenon that requires no apology, we prevent the alienation of people away from the common benefit, and towards a fear-driven adoption of tribalism.
In sum: Let’s stop painting privilege as a dirty word. Following the advice of Marcus Aurelius to himself, we can take a far friendlier, more rational approach to equality, without pushing others to extremism.