What is it that makes us so attached to privilege when we have it? I have seen a lot of polarity in discussions about privilege, with people who have little access to class, race or gender privilege often having disparaging views about those who do have such access, while those who do have the privilege feeling confused, ashamed or guilty, but nonetheless unable to make a decisive stand on it in terms of their own lives.
I remember in particular a striking example that happened in 1994. I was at the time part of a group of people who were very committed to a shared vision of a transformed society, similar in many respects to the vision that I am working towards these days. At one point in one gathering of the group, the person who was facilitating the gathering asked the people present what would get in their way of committing a significant portion of their income or savings to the joint project. As people responded to the question, I noticed the very vivid level of fear about having nothing left which leaked out of them. I understood then that the key to making sense of the difficulty lay in understanding the nature of the fear.
I have thought about that moment a lot over the years. The question seems even more pressing today, because our very survival as a species, it seems to me, depends on being able to reduce our consumption of resources dramatically. Because I am completely committed to doing so without coercion, I am called to find the root of the issue, so that letting go of privileged access to resources will be seen as attractive rather than a giving up.
These days, with my deep grounding in the centrality of human needs, I have an understanding that I want to put out in the hopes of generating further discussion. I am hungry for leverage to create a peaceful, collaborative transformation in how we live.
My understanding at this point is that privilege is a substitute for real needs. While I don’t believe that any explicit conversations take place about this with children, I have a sense that an implicit process takes place in which we are first cut off from the hope that we can get our real needs met. We are made terrified and hopeless, and actually give up any belief in getting our real needs met, often to the point of losing track of what those needs might be. This gets reinforced later by theories (such as Freud’s) that tell us that our true, unconscious drives are insatiable and can never be fulfilled. I know how often I meet people who dismiss the idea of the real possibility of having their needs met.
Then privilege is offered to some of us as something we can have. Although privilege is a very meager substitute for our real needs, it becomes the only thing possible to have. This is how I currently understand the sometimes desperate clinging to privilege: it looks to us as if giving up the privilege would amount to giving up everything, since the real needs cannot even be experienced. The fear of the void and the nothingness is so strong, that oftentimes it can obscure our own clarity of vision about how we want the world to be.
With this framework in mind, I have set out to identify pairs consisting of a real need and the privilege that’s offered as a substitute for it. In each case, the privilege end of the pair supports the existing structure of society. I also like to believe that if more and more of us reconnected and reclaimed fully the needs that we gave up, by necessity this would make us subversive, agents of change. I see comfort as the cement that holds it all in place. Comfort when we have privilege, and comfort in the familiarity of the numbness and craving of privilege that we have when we are, like so so many people in this country and everywhere, without our real needs met and without access to privilege. This understanding provides some relief, some tenderness, lots of compassion for why change is so hard.
In my next post I plan to present the pairs I have identified, and explore what we might do to support ourselves and others in overcoming this key obstacle to transformation.