Friday, May 30, 2014

Soap Box: Wealth, Luck and Privilege

There seems to be some confusion, especially in the wake of recent tragedy and internet discussion, about the term privilege. As with many of the world's confusions and arguments, a lot of this seems to come down to poor communication. I think a lot of people are uncertain on the definitions of luck, wealth, and privilege as it applies to us and especially in the context of something like gender relations, social status and global economics.

So I think the best way to talk about this is, for the most part, to talk about myself. This is something I can do with relative certainty. I'm also a good example of somebody who is wealthy, privileged and lucky. But let's begin by defining that.

If you are reading this blog on a computer, on the internet, in your own home, on an internet connection you have paid for, then you are wealthy. If you are reading this on a mobile phone, you are wealthy. Congratulations. Welcome to the wealthy club. Here's your membership card, let me show you where the toilets are and I'll introduce you.

I'm wealthy. I make less than the median yearly income for New South Wales. I make just over half of it, in fact, and that has not always been the case. Not by a long shot. Together with my wife's income, we about make average. This also hasn't always been the case. According to some definitions, this is Relative Poverty. I have lived in this "relative poverty". But at no point did this "relative poverty" stop me from eating, going to bed with a pillow and a blanket or waking up in the morning and not having breakfast. I have always been wealthy. Even in my hardest struggles and least paid weeks, I have gotten by with only a little sweat.

Wealth does not mean you own three cars, have your parents pay for your University degree, go on holidays every six months, flying first class, living in the best part of town in an eight bedroom home. Those people are wealthy, yes. Some of those people are obscenely wealthy and far better off than most of us. But if you can afford to eat regularly, if you're buying new clothes when the old ones wear out and if you're reading this blog on your own device, in a home your own or rent, on an internet connection you've paid for, then you are wealthy. End of story.

And if you're wealthy, there's a good chance that you are lucky. If you come from a family that has always lived in those conditions of wealth, then you are lucky. If you were born in a country that has running water, then you are lucky. If you are born in a country that lets you vote for more than one government party, then you are lucky. If you can get a job that lets you sit at a desk and where a white collar and push buttons on a keyboard all day, then you're pretty lucky. Your wealth depends a lot on luck.

If you are white, you are lucky. If you are heterosexual, you are lucky. If you are male, you are lucky. If you are all of those, you are lucky. If you are just one or two of those things and not the other, you are lucky.

I am all three of them and, as I said, I am also wealthy. I also live in a country where I can vote, where I can opine about religion and politics and the taste of canned tuna and feel assured that I'm not going to be executed or imprisoned for it. I can disagree with my country and my government, hell, I can and often do come right out and say that I don't like my country or my government and nobody can do a thing about it. I have running water, stable electricity, public schooling and a white collar job. I am lucky.

I am not proud or ashamed of my luck. Neither should you be. You did nothing to earn it. It was not something you chose or something you can control. You were just lucky.

Finally we come to that bastard of a word, privilege. Again, if you are lucky and wealthy, then you are privileged. See how all these things sort of got together? You are lucky to be privileged and privileged to be lucky.

The Oxford Dictionary describes Privilege thusly:
A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group:

So now we ask, what special right, advantage or immunity I am granted by being me?

When I've finished writing this blog about how I and all the people who look like me are privileged, I might be called a nasty name. I might be viciously disagreed with. But nobody is going to threaten to rape me. And if they did, the chances of it happening are really, REALLY small. If someone threatens to rape me, I can walk out of my house, go about my life and generally not worry that it will happen to me. Sure it might, but it probably won't. It certainly doesn't happen with enough statistic significance for me to worry about it.

Likewise I might get murdered, mugged or assaulted. I might enter into a domestic relationship with a violent alcoholic who routinely beats me. But it's not likely. It's just as unlikely that I will ever see it happen or know somebody like me who has one through it. This is a privilege I have by being male.

There's also a good chance that I will earn more in any job I take, be hired over somebody else of equal capabilities and if I have a child, nobody will care if I choose to continue working a job or become a stay at home parent. Whatever I choose will be my business and nobody will scrutinise it or comment on how it reflects on me and my gender identity.

As a white heterosexual, I will never be called "evil" because of who I love. I will probably reach the end of my life without suffering abuse because of how I look. Nobody will say, "He talks really well, for a white guy." or "It's good to see a white person breaking out of that culture."

This is privilege. These are privileges you get by being lucky. It is nothing to do with you or the choices you made. You don't need to defend being privileged, because you didn't do anything to get these privileges. All you need to do is acknowledge that you are privileged and accept that not everybody is as lucky as you, and we should probably see about changing that.

Okay, listen, I've spoken about me and I've explained what these terms mean. Now I want to speak directly to all you other straight white males in the first world. Listening?

It's been popular, lately, to say that we're playing life on easy. That's catchy and all, but there is that kind of uncomfortable undertone that makes it sound insulting. So let's get clear of that idea. Nobody is playing life on easy. Life is not easy. Life is a bitch. It is a bigger bitch for some people and less of a bitch for others.

You and me, though, we are social vanilla. We are the baseline. Everything else is compared to us and right now, the world makes a lot of judgments as to how different groups of people add to or subtract from vanilla. We are the majority. We are the uninteresting, safe, catch all group. When you don't want to offend someone or make a loud statement, or you don't want to risk serving a flavour nobody likes, you serve vanilla. That's you and me, my straight white male in the developed world brother.

And being vanilla is the biggest privilege of all. Congratulations.

Now that you understand what being wealthy, privileged or lucky means, you can enter into the discourse like an educated adult. Now it's time to start thinking about whether or not a select few being wealthy, privileged and lucky is fair. Some people are suggesting that you and I share our privelege around. Some people are suggesting that even if we don't get down and pull them up to our fortune, we at least recognise the hand they've been dealt in life is not as good as ours.

They don't want to bring you down. They don't want to take something away from you. They're not criticising you. Right now there's this big discussion going on about misogyny and violence against women. Before you start to get defensive and deny your privilege, before you say something stupid like "I'm not that guy.", "I would never..." or "Not all of us..." you need to understand that this conversation is not about you. This is a conversation about big problems in society. The only reason you're being invited into this conversation is because you might have the wealth, luck and privilege to lend a hand and share that wealth, luck and privilege around.

But if you're not interested, don't be a dick and try and invalidate the discussion. If you don't want to get involved, then just shut up and go find a conversation you are interested in. Nobody wants you here if you don't want to be. It's not about you.

Okay. I think we've got everything cleared up. You can not go on with your life, acting like an informed adult. Best of luck to you.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Challenge Yourself

Cough. Cough.

So... How you doin'?

Read any books lately? Yeah? Cool.

Read any books that blew your mind? Read any books that made you uncomfortable? Read any books that confused you? Read any books that you didn't like?

Yeah? No?

Well, here's something you should do. Find a book from another country and read that. Oh yeah, and it can't be a country that speaks the same language as you. That means that if you're an American, reading a book from England doesn't count. I want you to dig up a book written by a German, or a Chinese book or a Norweigan book. It can be translated into English. That's fine. It just can't be a book written in your language. The more recent the book, the better.

Here's the thing:

The world is big. There are a lot of people in the world. Those people can be roughly divided into cultures and cultures are often defined by a common location, time and language. What is normal and common and reasonable in your culture may not necessarily be normal, common or reasonable in another culture and, more importantly, what is normal, common and reasonable in one culture may not be normal, common or reasonable in your culture.

Still with me?

Let me boil it down. PEOPLE ARE WEIRD. You don't know how weird until you witness it and literature is a good way to witness what is going in at a given time in a culture. I'm not saying that one book will give you deep insight into how other people live, but it's a start. A book from another culture will give you new ways of looking at the world, new ideas of how people can act and think. The way a story is written and the kind of story being told will be influenced by the culture the author comes from.

If you're a writer, or even if you just like books, you should be reading broadly. That means you should read multiple genres, read fiction and non-fiction and read books from across time and from across cultures. Everything you read will teach you something new and take your mind in ways you might not have taken it all by your lonesome.

Okay.  So that's it. Go find a book and read it now. I'm going back to whatever it was I was doing. I'll catch you next time.

Happy reading.