DeWitt Henry

Notes on Privilege

It’s my great privilege to introduce.  My honor/function/chance/pleasure to say publicly how I value X, and how you all should value X; to celebrate, to recommend.

Privileged information.  Only a few are trusted to know; it’s confidential.  My Social Security number, for instance.  My credit card code.  Health records.

Over-privileged.  Advantaged.  More fortunate than necessary or deserved.  Blessed.  Favored.  Powerful.

Under-privileged.  Disadvantaged.  Misfortunate.  Cursed.  Stigmatized.  Powerless.

All men are created equal, writes the slave-owning husband and father, Thomas Jefferson, philosopher, scientist, inventor, architect, statesman, politician, patrician.

Would Darwin disagree?

What of the handsomer, brighter, more sensitive, stronger, more talented, healthier, and better coordinated among us?—these are differences by nature, rather than by choice or effort.

Still we self-improve, struggling to match gifts bestowed on others by luck.

The privileges of youth (an excuse for, say, poor judgment) opposed to those of age (an excuse for forgetfulness).  We grant allowances.

That’s her privilege, we say.  We may think her tattoo was a stupid choice, but it’s not for us to judge.

Entitlement.   I have a right to; I deserve.  (Think of Frost’s “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/ They have to take you in.” “I should have called it/ Something you somehow haven’t to deserve”).  Still, there are privileges we earn.

Symbolic servilities.  You can open the door, but here, I open it for you.   I bow, I salute.   I do you kindnesses.  Perhaps you’ll tip.

One person’s privilege is another’s oppression.  If we had the same advantages, there would be no privilege.

Eat your greens, clean your plate, think of all the starving children in the world!

Oppressed groups agitate and demonstrate.

Oppressive laws are amended or repealed; corrective laws passed.  The 13th amendment (abolished slavery), 14th Amendment (guaranteed “equal protection under the laws“); the 19th amendment of 1920 (giving women the right to vote); reconstruction statutes (on Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights, Conspiracies to Interfere with Civil Rights, Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law, Peonage Abolished); the Civil Rights Act of 1964, forbidding discrimination based on “race, color, religion, or national origin” in public establishments; Title IX of Education Amendments of 1972 forbidding exclusion from or discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance; the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, that all rights under the Constitution “apply equally to all persons regardless of their sex” of 1972-82 (never passed, but still in dispute).

Slogans are chanted.  Myths and icons challenged.  Pronouns changed.

Male and white, straight, employed and able-bodied, I should mind my manners, consider others, and reexamine my attitudes towards “difference.”  I think I’ve got it.  I’m a fair man, a good man.   An earnest citizen.  I fancy myself fair minded.

I need to re-examine my place in oppression: that men have been privileged over women, whites over people of color, straights over LGBTs, rich over poor, management over labor, marrieds over singles, Christians over other believers (and unbelievers), Protestants over Catholics, Presbyterians over Baptists, slender bodies over heavy.

Homophobia, for instance, is fear of the feminine within.  We scapegoat where we doubt.

Prejudice is a sickness of privilege, afflicting both the host and victim

We owe each other due regard.

Willingly, responsibly, I learn to listen.

*

And yet, what of reverse discrimination?  Reparations?  Affirmative action?  I feel oppressed (writ small) as I am categorized by gender, race, and age, and disregarded as an individual.  My worth is contested, complexity dismissed.  Payback, I admit.  Where society privileges, it can also penalize. 

*

Take literature, for another instance, my vocation.  Here is Terry Eagleton:  “There is no such thing as a literary work or tradition which is valuable in itself….’Value’ is a transitive term: it means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according to particular criteria and in light of given purposes.”  Accordingly, the Western Canon is dismissed as works by Dead White European Males, which perpetuates patriarchal, capitalist, and racist values.  Forget the beauty, glory, and imaginative capacity of such works, since they’ve failed to celebrate or failed to be celebrated for granting “agency” to women, the proletariat, or people of color. Imagination itself, then, appears to be only a projection of cultural experience rather than of essential humanity.  Harold Bloom protests against such ideas: “to connect the study of literature with the quest for social change [is a mistake],” he argues.  “Without the [Western] Canon, we cease to think.  Either there were aesthetic values, or there are only the over-determinations of race, class, and gender.  You must choose.”  Still, Toni Morrison’s PLAYING IN THE DARK illuminates Hemingway, allowing both for aesthetics and racial coding: “A criticism that needs to insist that literature is not only ‘universal’ but also ‘race-free’ risks lobotomizing that literature, and diminishes both the art and the artist.”  And Morrison’s reading of American classics seems congruent with Bloom’s reading of The Merchant of Venice in SHAKESPEARE AND THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN.  When my daughter graduated from Hampshire College in 1997, she had read none of Bloom’s Canon, a lapse I still regret for her; but she has dedicated her life to social justice and principles of non-violence, to writing, painting, and teaching, and to parenting, and her chosen library is as present to her (and strange to me) as mine is to me and strange to her.

*

From my library, Albert Camus writes: “Those who find no rest in God or in history are condemned to live for those who, like themselves, cannot live: in fact, for the humiliated” (The Rebel, 1951).  His solidarity in the absurd, partly Marxist, partly a response to the Holocaust, recalls the once-privileged Lear’s remonstrance to privilege: “Take Physic, Pomp, / Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel / That thou mayst shake the superflux to them / And show the heavens more just.”  Of course, Count Leo Tolstoy, giving up his property late in life and dressing like a peasant seems cranky and affected, while the redistribution of wealth under Communism privileged bureaucrats, commissars, and Stalin.

*

Sexual harassment, we are told by human resources officials, is as oppressive as racial discrimination.  If it is or was the way of the world, like bribery and greed, it is a wrong way.  And rather than our being tough enough to endure it, we should be tough on it.  Call it out.  Take it to court, if necessary.  Power disparity negates mutual consent.

At first, in the 1990s, I had trouble identifying with harassment concerns.  I respected boundaries, yes.  But what of friendship in the workplace, between supervisor and worker, professor and assistant professor, teacher and student?  Was it fraternizing, in the military sense?  Did it distract from professionalism? Did it privilege a promotion or a grade, or appear to?  Where was the allowance for humor, affinity, comradery or proportion?  A desk photo of a wife in a bikini was inappropriate.  A closed office door with a student invited suspicion.  Later, I understood, having been routinely cornered by a department chairman and forced to listen to his fantasies of success with his novels; or having my college president direct me to flatter a wealthy donor, who then bothered me with calls to my home.  I squirmed in these situations and despised my self-betrayal.

Objectification is related to harassment. I check my gaze. I struggle with the beauty myth, who’s hot, and who’s not, and why, and for whom. Women judge women, too, viewing through their idea of male eyes. Perhaps no difference is more prone to fantasy and self-hatred, as any teenager knows. Glamor is privileged over essence. Other attractions, such as character and personality, follow on looks. While fashion, cosmetics, hair dye, Jenny Craig, and surgical improvements offer to correct our flawed natures, for a price, most of us are not for all markets. Might we all fare better, I wonder, if nudity were taken for granted or if we all wore togas, moo-moos or Maoist pajamas?

*

Consider the Boston Marathon, the only marathon where dedicated runners of different nations, ethnicities, genders, and capacities must qualify by making stringent times for their age groups in another marathon.  Differences are allowed for, focusing on achievement according to factors of luck and physical givens.  Men are physically larger and stronger than women.  The young are physically stronger and more flexible than the old.  Runners with legs are privileged over those in wheelchairs.  Each competitive group has its starting time.  First, the women’s, then the men’s wheelchair athletes.  Then the elite women runners, expected to finish in 2:20 to 3:00 hours.  Then the elite men, expected to finish in 2:08 to 2:45 hours.  Then the runners of both sexes grouped by slower qualifying times, expected to finish in four hours, although those running for various sponsors and charities may take six or more.  The idea is to distribute the 20,000 some runners along the narrow course, and to keep them out of each other’s way.  There are champions and placers for each group, except for the non-competitive back of the pack, where finishing is its own achievement.  All finishers get medals, jackets, and Mylar capes.  Though the field is overwhelmingly American and white, since 1988 only three non-Africans have won the men’s race.  The Kenyans and Ethiopians are particularly gifted with lean, small bodies, but they are also culturally driven, selected young and state-supported.  Running becomes their way out from poverty, and when they win, they reinvest the prize money back home.

*

There are lucky lives, no question.  But even the luckiest is visited with suffering, and even the most wretched with measures of joy.  I believe that.  The long haul is more leveling than we admit.  The distribution more just.  Or is this only a belief?  All is vanity, sayeth the Preacher.  “Call no man fortunate that is not dead” (Yeats), Oedipus’s example suggests.  Privilege is the chance to fail.

*

In James Alan McPherson’s 1968 story, “Gold Coast,” James Sullivan, the elderly Irish janitor for a Cambridge apartment building assumes power over Robert, the narrator, who is black, young, and a writer with potential.  Robert works as the janitor’s apprentice.  For Robert, it is a temporary job and source of material, while for Sullivan it is a closed destiny under both owners and tenants.  Sullivan patronizes his apprentice and advises him on his station; he also offers friendship, intruding on Robert’s privacy.  Robert indulges Sullivan, listens to his bigotry, and feels sufficient in his talents, youth, record collection, and white girlfriend. However, his sufficiency is undermined when “social forces” cause him to lose the girlfriend and for a while he bonds with Sullivan (“having him there was much better than being alone”).  Then as Robert’s youth reasserts itself, Sullivan’s misery becomes too oppressive to tolerate (“I did not want to hear any more and he would know he was making a burden of himself”).  Robert moves on, leaving Sullivan behind him.  Having witnessed, he will tell Sullivan’s story and his own, but privilege demands self-preservation.

*

Supposedly, the privileged became monks in the Middle Ages and most failed to reproduce.  In the Russian Revolution, comrades slaughtered the aristocrats.  The Third Reich practiced unnatural selection, resulting in devolution.  ISIS seems fixed on a similar goal.

G.I. Jane.  Women in combat and policing.  Contrary to being saved first, now women may stand, if they wish, in harm’s way.

I wonder in our idealism, are we over-sensitive?  Too thin-skinned and fastidious?  Is it a fault of the over-privileged to think so?

Recognize your janitor, I am reminded, because my custom has been to take him or her for granted, as if she or he were invisible.  Every job has dignity.

*

Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) to Private Ryan (Matt Dillon) at the end of the film, Saving Private Ryan: “Earn this.  Earn it.”  As a survivor, Ryan’s duty is to make his life worth the sacrifices of other soldiers, who have died to save it.

*

A privileged narrator knows her or his characters’ fates, feelings, and thoughts. Usually, he or she shares these with the reader, creating narrative irony.  We know more than the characters in their errors and we pity and sympathize with their limited awareness or perspective both about themselves and about others. Think of Oedipus’s unwitting killing of his father. My favorite moments are when the characters then discover the truth too late, and rise to some self-affirming action (Oedipus’s self-blinding, Othello’s suicide), where they seem to know more than we do.

Aesthetic distance, of course, where readers have no chance to intervene, is different from social distance, where in fact and in spirit, in small acts and large, we can reject oppression and take our place in a braver, more generous world.

Life is our privilege. Every breath we take.

 

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