Debate Magazine

Waging War on Privilege

By Cilaw

Waging War on Privilege
In The Drowned and the Saved Primo Levi writes: “The ascent of the privileged… is an anguishing but unfailing phenomenon: only in utopias are they absent. It is the duty of the righteous man to make war on all undeserved privilege.”

Our ability to make war on privilege is bound up in our understanding of it. Privilege is a dirty word, especially for well-meaning lefty liberals like me. It is easy to get worked up about the evils of preference without thinking very hard about what “privilege” means, or its wider implications. One problem with privilege is that we tend to think of it as characteristic of someone else. We imagine ourselves, and those like us, as unique and above categorisation. We pity the underprivileged for being poorer, coarser, or less resilient. The privileged we envy for their wealth, beauty, or power. This allows us to feel both superior and aggrieved, and gives rise to the British national hobby of minding other people’s business.

Privilege is not, however, by definition evil. Reduced its essence privilege is simply difference, which is a fact of life. No matter how rich, poor, fat, thin, happy, sad, fit or unhealthy we are, there is someone better and someone worse off. If we look hard enough we can always find evidence that we are either favoured or oppressed. Trying to define our duties by calibrating our place on the privilege continuum is a Sisyphean task. We have a choice: we can get caught up in the comparison loop or we can take positive action.

The best way to make war on undeserved privilege is to stop privileging it. To worry less about the big things and go after the little things instead. We must assess our gifts, inclinations, affections, and ideas and – having inventoried these tools – use them wisely. Whatever spare resources we have (of time, energy, love, money, patience) should be lavished on those around us. Feeling guilty about privilege is stupid and wasteful. Our responsibility is to use the gifts we have righteously and to not make excuses. Just because we can’t save someone doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help them; and if we can’t perfect something we can still try to make it better.

We don’t have to be saints or martyrs to fight privilege. To Levi, the few ordinary German citizens who made the effort to offer a cup of water, or even a kind word, to the outcasts in their midst were heroes. He understood that what mattered was that they did what they could. Doing what we can means staying conscious and being compassionate. There are innumerable ways to fight privilege with goodwill, here are a few suggestions:

Do what’s right, right here, right now.
Say “thank you” and “I love you” more often.
Accept imperfection.
Expect less.
Be kind.

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