Monday, September 21, 2015

Faith, Privilege, and Power

Privilege is such a peculiar concept.

It's the buzzword of the day, the mantra of the earnest, well-meaning left, and on many levels, I get it. But on others, well, the concept seems peculiar.  For example, there's an exercise out there now called the Privilege Walk, in which participants are encouraged to take steps forward or back based on a set of criteria.  Are you white?  Step forward.  Did your parents divorce?  Step back.  Are you college educated?  Step forward.  Have you ever not been able to afford medical care?  Step back.  The goal: "illuminate privilege."

What "privilege" entails varies depending on the version of the exercise.  Some versions are oriented towards gender/queer issues.  Others focus on race.  Usually, there's a filter of socioeconomic status.  In almost all of the versions I've encountered, I am at or close to the front.

This is not surprising.  I am, "white," male, straight, raised by two loving parents, educated, the upper end of middle class, all those things.  What I wonder, looking at that exercise, is just what organizers figure will happen next.  

After such an exercise, there will be discussions, sure, and people will feel resentful and helpless or guilty and helpless.  And there will be more discussions, and participants will feel more divided and less unified.  But will those conversations do anything, other than heighten anxiety?

No.  No they won't.  Heightening anxiety is their primary purpose.  They are deconstructive, in the matter of all academe.  There can be a place for that, but it's limited.  If all you know how to do is tear down, you will never build anything.

"Check your privilege," or so the saying goes, and in some ways it's helpful.  I don't get pulled over for driving while black, for example.  I don't fear for my safety while walking at night.  I don't get harassed because I look sorta generically Middle Eastern.  I don't worry about financial ruin if I get sick.  If I did not recognize that my reality is not the norm for others, I'd be a fool.

But in mindlessly applying that principle to everything, "progressives" sabotage progress.

The issue with being "privileged" is that an unbalanced culture gives rights to some, and denies them to others.  If I can interact with law enforcement officers with confidence, speak and move without fear, then that isn't something I need to "check."  It's something I need to share, in the way that knowledge must be shared.  I need to press for justice for those who are denied those same, inalienable rights.

And while the imbalances of unjust privileging are worth fighting, privilege itself is something misused by deconstruction.  Privilege is the absence of oppression, and in that it is power.  As power, it can be used used rightly in a culture.  Privilege can bring about change.

If privilege has given you the right to speak without fear, and the right to be heard, and the ability to stand against oppression unchallenged, then that is to be used.

Within the aeons of sacred story rising from my faith, there are examples of those who used privilege rightly.

There's Isaiah, the poet-prophet whose tradition sings furious against the imbalance of economic power and worldly privilege.  But Isaiah himself was a man in a position of power.  He moved among the Jerusalem elite.  He had the ear and the respect of kings.  He was, as they say, privileged... meaning he could speak truth without fear and be heard by power.

From his position, he challenged the economic imbalances of urbanization, and the power imbalances that served the privileged elite.

And sure, he could have checked himself, but the call for justice would have been lessened without his voice.

Or Paul, Paul the educated, rhetorically gifted, classically trained apostle.  Paul--not his culturally conformed disciples, but the soul that gave us the Seven Letters--spread Christ's message of a radically egalitarian form of being, which fundamentally subverted the power dynamics of Greco-Roman society.  And yet when that power came for him, he didn't recoil from his identity as a Roman citizen.  He used it to face down power, to push back against power with its own strength.

"Do you realize I'm a full Roman citizen," he'd say, and those who'd imprisoned or beaten him would blanch.

He knew he was a bearer of privilege, and knew how to use it to sabotage privilege itself.

And in those ancient witnesses, a truth: privilege is power, power to act, power to make change.  Reflexively attacking every manifestation of power only impedes transformation.

If you find yourself with power, and you do not use it for good but instead spend all your energies deconstructing it, how does that serve the cause of justice?