The Responsibility of Privilege

Writer’s Note: I wrote this piece 60 days ago and due to travel chose not to publish it. This is still very much an open exploration and this piece feels less finished, perhaps because it’s more important, than much of my other writing. Given the personal development of the last 60 days, I have much more commentary on this topic. In the spirit of brevity, I made a few grammatical edits and am publishing as was composed then.

1 The Essence of Privilege

In regenerative practice, understanding essence is essential, particularly in the context of place like when discerning “what makes here, here?” What is the essence of Lansing, Michigan? How does it differ from Grand Rapids, Detroit, Dallas, and Sante Fe? What makes this place unique? What are its patterns? It is from essence that we are able to consider a system’s potential. By starting with essence we tap into template reality, the innate design inherent within the Tao – all objects, places, and beings.

What is the essence of privilege? By definition, privilege is a special right or advantage which is granted or available to only a particular person or group. For those that have it, it can be difficult to see. For those that don’t, its absence is painfully present. It has the power to completely shape our worldview and the difference in the lifestyle, access, and treatment between those who have it and those who don’t is astoundingly significant. 

Privilege comes in many forms. Peggy McIntosh lists in her seminal work “sexual orientation, employment, class, physical ability, region, handedness, religion, language, nation of origin, gender, gender identity, ethnicity, a families’ relation to money, education, housing, neighborhoods, and a families’ languages of origin” as some of the domains in which privilege exists. 

It can be difficult to see from the inside. For those that grow up with some type of privilege, or have grown accustomed to it, life becomes normal from that particular advantage point. When you’re surrounded by others who are also privileged it becomes the social norm. Normative ways of being and acting emerge during childhood and are impactful on shaping human identity. Soon privilege can become an entitlement, a projected expectation that privilege be maintained. 

Privilege is self-reinforcing. It congregates with other privilege to maintain itself. It builds momentum seeking to attract more privilege. As is said, birds of a feather. And when called out privilege often uses a myriad of explanations to justify itself. Social darwinism, “it’s a stroke of luck”, recounting the scoreboard of past compensatory actions, and pointing to the positive outcomes ie “the ends justify the means” or trickle-down economics are a few of the many defense mechanisms consciously or subconsciously deployed. 

It’s easy to deny this when we don’t possess them, but humans like privileges. They’re alluring and externally validate the internal feelings of specialness that most possess. People like to sit in the private box at sports parks and have access to the faster moving line. Our velvet rope society caters to this perfectly. And it seems that when those who are disadvantaged quickly gain privilege they accept it readily as if it’s due to them rather than breaking a cycle of haves and have nots.The Dictator’s Handbook describes in detail the truth behind the classic aphorism “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Examples abound from Africa and South America of how quickly the deprived liberators become the privileged oppressors. Similarly, in the Stanford prison experiment access to privilege was purposefully manipulated and both the guards and prisoners eagerly played into their new found privilege to shocking results. In many political coups, the formerly downtrodden faction which usurps power is intoxicated with their new authority and quickly become the brutalizers they despise. 

Privilege’s existence is tightly interwoven with humanity. It is driven by differences between one and another. While pre-agrarian societies were likely more egalitarian, the rise of concentrations of power – and thus privilege – has been occurring for many thousands of years. The Vedic caste system is an institutionalized system of privileges dating back to 1500 BCE. And before that the many empires that arose around acquiring and protecting land and treasure were societies in which privileged royals, priests, and merchants – almost exclusively men – lived much differently than workers, peasants, and slaves. 

Money and wealth is one of the most clear determinants of privilege. The more you have the more a different set of rules apply, the more access you can buy, and the more you can get away with. Between our globalized entanglement of capitalism and our legacies of oppression and racism still alive today, it seems that privilege is here to stay.

1.1 Accepting Privilege

In Alcoholics Anonymous the first step is to admit there’s a problem. Accurately defining problems is an undervalued step in realizing potential. Charles Kettering, an inventor of General Motors fame, correctly stated that “a problem well stated is half solved.” We, particularly those with privilege, need to get real about its presence in our lives.

The problem isn’t that there is privilege. The problem is that it is not being used to lift others up. If all of those with privilege used their privilege to level the playing field, the relative difference between the haves and have nots shrinks. Here lies the great potential. In a zero-sum world where there are winners and losers this would seem to be against one’s own personal interest. We’ll explore that more shortly. 

The first step is to understand our privilege. In an interview with The New Yorker, renowned women’s studies scholar Peggy McIntosh shares a simple question to pierce the veil of privilege. What do I have that I haven’t earned? It was this question that led Peggy to publish her 46 observations about white privilege by seeing how her privilege inundated her everyday life.

Self-awareness and acknowledgement allows us to map our privilege. I’m not going to hang my laundry so to speak. I’ve read plenty of articles where people list out their privileges. That’s not necessary here. Sufficive to say – I am privileged and I know it (said Gangham style). And the likelihood is you are too if you’re reading this. 

A quick note on shame here. The only way I will feel shame about these privileges is if I didn’t use them to benefit my fellows. I’m not ashamed of these privileges in and of themselves, most of which I was born into. It is the lot into which I am cast. My mother always said “there but go the grace of God go I” and “it’s a stroke of genetic luck I wasn’t born on the plains of Africa with no water, education, and healthcare.” For those born into or who have accumulated privilege, the question is what is the responsibility of privilege? 

2 The Responsibility of Privilege

So I’ve accepted I am privileged and sought to understand it. I’ve mapped my own privilege. Now what? 

The primary responsibility of privilege is wielding it to expand other’s access to opportunity. It is tempting to say that the responsibility is equality. Forced equality is different than equal access to opportunity. We have rarely had equality as evidenced by the millenia of hierarchical systems stemming back to earliest nomadic tribes who had hierarchical chiefdoms. Our goal is to eliminate barriers to accessing opportunity so we maintain the necessity of free will, self-determination, and natural variation. Ideally, access to opportunity is equal and what an individual chooses to do with that access is left to their own accord, supported by healthy parenting, whole human education, and vibrant communities. 

An important question emerges. Why would someone seek to expand other’s access to opportunities which if taken advantage of would seemingly reduce the relative power of their own privilege as others gain more? The answer lies in our intertwined fate.

An antidote to the many modern problems we are now facing is the evolution in understanding of humanity as a species whose common fate is total. At the species-level, we all thrive or we don’t. This realization, long since emerged, now beckons us to see the complexity, interdependence, systems, and patterns that don’t just link us – they bind us. By recognizing the fundamental connection between all things, expanding access to opportunity ensures all of our survival. All ships rise. 

We must grow the pie but not confuse this as a raison d’être for unfettered economic growth. “Opportunity” is so quickly taken to mean the opportunity for financial well-being in the capitalistic system. This narrow view fails to account for the multiple types of capital (financial, human, social, cultural, natural, built, and political). We must take a wide view of opportunity. It is the opportunity to breathe clean air and have water. It is the opportunity to have healthy systems of education, money, justice, etc… The opportunity to have our needs met in ways that aren’t explicitly tied to money first. To have vibrant, diverse, and resilient communities. 

Systemic imbalance and injustice, the hard-coded disadvantages of our systems and the soft-coded biases in human behavior, plagues humanity. It proliferates differences in access to the basic needs, most importantly education, furthering the stratification of our social relation. It is those who are privileged who must take the lead on this as they are the ones who control the systems. Passivity is an endorsement of the system as it stands today. “Silence is violence” is a popular phrase post-George Floyd. 

One responsibility of privilege is also to maintain privilege. It should not be shunned. Rather it must be wielded. Privilege’s viability, that is its ability to maintain itself across time, is essential. Its effectiveness diminishes as it is lost. One must fill another’s cup from their own abundance. If the systems which created said privilege are fundamentally unsustainable at their core then the preservation of privilege requires attention be directed to these systems. Ill-gotten privilege harms the self. If you can’t see it you’re not looking broadly enough. 

2.1 Safety Nets

I recently left an amazing job at an amazing company. I turned down career advancement in response to this inquiry about the responsibility of my privilege. 

The reality is I’m a highly educated and capable white male (among my many privileges). I don’t have to worry. My work experience is deep and varied and I continue to make significant investments in my personal and professional training and development to increase my capabilities. I’ve been successful and I have in the past and can in the future add a lot of value to organizations. I write and speak well. My network is full of advantaged people. I can’t fuck it up. 

What a safety net! Take a minute to reflect on your safety net. If today was the day you turned your life energy over to service, how much would really be at risk? Instantly the mind likely goes to the bank account balance. But ask yourself, what is the cost of my inaction? Not in dollars and cents but in quality of life, connection, and your personal vibrance?

I could continue to use my privilege to amass a very comfortable and abundant life. Sure, I’d donate or volunteer in the margins. But is that enough? If most of us did just a little would it be enough to meet our current crises? Can a minority solve the meta-crisis affecting the majority? 

Like most, I am not financially independent. Yet the relative safety net of my education, experience, and network afford leaps of faith into the unknown terrain of wicked problems and societal need. What sacrifice and service does the comfort of your privilege afford?

And what of our individual legacies? What will we tell our children when they ask ‘what did you do when you first knew?’ Continue on in willful ignorance (or cognitive dissonance) kicking the proverbial can down the road? Or take the hard actions which require sacrifice of today’s comfort for tomorrow’s vibrance? What of our personal daily actions that are meaningful for the 7 generations?

For me I am frequently reflecting that “life is short”. There’s only so much time to accomplish our potential, to realize our soul’s dream for our unique life, before we’ve joined our ancestors and are pushing up trees. This is not the first or last last lifetime which I’ll be incarnated in. And while everyone has different goals in each lifetime, this life’s set of lessons require me to skate to where the puck is going and to be of service. All that glitters is not gold despite the pleasing nature of the shiny and alluring career. 

Many traditions the world over emphasize service to others over service to self. These indigenous ways of living and being are struggling to survive the effects of modernity’s encroachment on their land and cultures. Yet until the industrial revolutions these societies thrived for millennia in great harmony, abundance, and health relative to the dominance of Western econo-politics. 

It is also out of self-interest and as a steward of our unborn children that the harsh realities of our modern world can no longer be ignored. The climate, education, economic, spiritual, and moral crises, also known as the meta-crisis, the seeds of which were sowed long before I was born, is reaching criticality, word choice which is a nod to Bucky Fuller who described this lucidly decades ago. While earth will be fine and nature’s antifragility will ensure its survival, it is the human species which may or may not survive (or thrive). 

Amidst all of the dire predictions and my own predilections towards doom and gloom, it is difficult to have certainty about the future given our crises. It can always be said that the future is uncertain though 100 years ago that uncertainty didn’t reasonably include the potential for the downfall or destruction of our species in the consideration set. Since the dawn of the Nuclear era, humanity has possessed the capability to destroy itself. Fortunately we were able to avoid our own hubris and now the clock measuring the likelihood of our Mutually Assured Destruction ticks backwards from midnight. Despite this, we are now on the verge of tipping the ecological balance of this planet through modern industry and the effects of unbalanced capitalism.

Our best option is to engage our sensemaking using the highest quality and most varied interdisciplinary information currently available to determine what future outcomes are most probable. This function, the luxury of being able to pay attention and devote time, attention, and precious life energy to this conversation, is at once both a privilege and a necessity for successful navigation of the 21st century. It is matched only by the requisite inner work, the evolution of our individual emotional and spiritual faculties which connect our hearts with that which is also alive. 

Through my sensemaking I arrive at an overplayed sentiment: the time is now. The risk of cataclysmic events is far greater than the reward of today’s personal comfort. I can no longer in good conscience stand on the sidelines. This life’s energy and attention must meet the moment. Even if the cataclysmic events never materialize it is an abandonment of conscience and the Eightfold Noble Path to not respond to the determination of our dire present need for broad systemic, bio-regional, and local evolution. Every single one of us is needed. Given the scale of our challenges, tremendous opportunity is available and we are still at the early stages of realizing this potential despite many decades of diligent work.

Only the ostriches are left with their heads in the sand about the manner in which humans currently occupy Earth. Side note – ostriches don’t actually bury their heads in the sand – it’s an urban myth.

3 The Regenerative Take

If we view society as a complex system where there is natural variation in an individual’s capabilities, whether they are inherited or created, it makes sense that privilege arises out of nature’s diversity. Yet the distance between the least and most privileged is growing exponentially based not on inherent qualities but on systems of tax avoidance, wealth transfer, institutionalized and systemic injustice, corporate favoritism, and too many other methods of “looking out for our own”. A society with significant stratification of privilege may be an inevitable consequence of our modern push for human “progress”.

To gain the most leverage we must focus on nodal interventions that specifically target where privilege and power coagulate and fortify. This requires us to examine and evolve the incentivization systems that allow for the destruction of habitat, monetary manipulation, economic fail-safes like bail outs and subsidies, all of the industrial complexes, the partisan politics masquerade, and the doom loop of campaign finance and corporate corruption. New incentives must stimulate actions that expand access to opportunity and hold bad actors accountable for their externalities. 

This developmental effort must occur at all levels of work. On the first level (ourselves) it is not only the actions described above to examine and take responsibility for one’s own privilege that is required. We must continue to create on-ramps for people to become regenerative to the systems within which they are nested and begin thinking in terms of connections and wholes. At the second level (us and those around us) it is the necessity to use our privilege to benefit our communities and take actions that are slightly more than proportional to one’s privilege. On the third level (all of us in the greater whole/system) we must be advocates and donors, voting with our dollars & feet, and hopefully transitioning one’s life work to generative and beneficial endeavors.  

It is also important to realize that lack of privilege and the subsequent disenfranchisement, suffering, and anger represent enormous activating potential and the transmutation of these into higher levels of consciousness is best facilitated through appropriate interventions. Stoked to a proper degree and collectively harnessed our outrage at the social, economic, and environmental injustices of this world can lead to the powerful reconciliation of the systems as they stand today. These systems are the restraining forces that seek to keep the status quo, associated power structures, and beneficiaries producing privileges for the minority at the expense of the majority.

It is trauma that obscures our seeing of true essence and potential. While history may contain much trauma inflicted by the hands of other fallible humans acting from their patterns of trauma, these actions are not our highest nature. By recognizing and addressing traumas and creating spaces for healing, we can engage in the multi-level healing required to unstick dense and stagnant privilege in our interdependent systems. The way out is through it and up (think Sprial Dynamics). 

Many privileges have social and economic externalities. A wide view of externalities defines them as an unintended consequence of an action that is pushed on a different party than the beneficiary of that action. Many of the privileges that are enjoyed in the West are at the expense of someone or something else. When the full-scale multi-systemic impact of our actions and consumption is not reflected in the costs we pay for products we are creating imbalance in the macro-and-micro flows of our systems. Just because the outcomes of these balances are not visible or purposefully obscured does not mean they don’t exist – they do. For pop culture reference, see the Architect scene in the matrix discussing the “sum of an anomaly”. These are the black and grey swans which are inevitably forming as the unintended consequences of irresponsible and unchecked privilege. 

4 Rights and Privileges 

There is a distinction between rights and privileges. As defined by John Locke which became the basis for U.S. democracy we are all born with inalienable rights. A right cannot be taken away. It can be blocked, but it still exists a priori. 

We need both rights and privileges. The problem is that we have lost sight of the difference between the two and are now frequently misconstruing our privileges as rights (ie driver’s license and weapons of mass destruction like automatic weapons) and our rights as privileges (ie health care and a healthy ecology).

What happens when rights are not accessible equally? Does everyone receive the same right to a fair trial? No. We have different justice systems depending on race and socio-economic status. Does everyone bear the environmental costs of our modern way of life evenly? No. The biggest polluters (individuals and countries) do not experience environmental degradation like the poor do. Does everyone have access to health care (which should be a human right)? Not in most places on the planet. 

Life is unfair. Boo hoo. Good intentions and idealism make for easy targets in our laissez-faire capitalism. In a world where there are scarce resources to meet everyone’s needs and there is not enough to go around, it’s a tough argument that the privileged should advocate for the disadvantaged. But that is not reality. The privileged have plenty of resources, access, and special treatment. And rights are not equitable either. This is not an argument for the redistribution of wealth. Rather it’s the call to action for those with privilege to answer the moral obligation of their privilege and to act in their own self-interest.

5 Onward

These thoughts have been simmering for a while amidst the pretty fancy circumstances I manifested for myself. Over the past years I have lived in a really nice part of Dallas, traveled everywhere I’ve wanted, and essentially wanted for nothing (because it’s easier to actually just want less but that’s a different article). I’ve eaten many nice meals and stayed in a few superb resorts and lived a life of privilege begat by the many privileges of birth which I already enjoyed (not to downplay my substantial hard work but I’m sure it pales in comparison to a day’s labor of a physical worker in the poorest places on earth). 

With such a personal safety net it’s unconscionable to look out at the world, replete with its many systemic challenges and enormous potential, and continue to cruise on easy street. For several years I have prayed for “hard work that is easy to do”. It is my service to community and life that I now take responsibility for by focusing on actualizing the potential of our systems. 

What’s your move?