Friday, November 25, 2011

Understanding privilege

In several posts from the recent and not-so-recent past, I have been writing about inequality as a driver not only of sad human conditions, but also as a driver of ecological degradation, which comes full circle to negatively affect the human condition. (Please do not take me as an anthropocentrist.) Where there is inequality, there is privilege, and recently, I have been thinking about where I stand, where I come from, where my thoughts stem from...and that is a position of privilege.

I live in the uber-rich city of Ann Arbor, with access to information, data, nature, people, and thoughts found in only a handful of places in the world. I am "educated," come from a rich family, and am Indian. (As you probably know, as an ethnic group, Indians in the US are some of the most privileged people in the country.) My education, and the privilege it bestows on me, are things that cannot be glossed over. I wonder how my privilege affects how the unprivileged view me. This is complicated further by what I am thinking of doing after I am done with graduate school--do I do a post-doctoral fellowship at another elite institution? Or do I go into the streets? I have tried so far to balance my privilege with grassroots activism and writing, but I feel I must constantly think about the tensions between the two in order to be more effective in helping create lasting change.

Institutions of higher education--for all of the tremendous work being done by academics there about social injustice, inequality, and ecological degradation--can cut us off from the actuality of the world in two ways. First, many of them, like the University of Michigan, are located in economically rich parts of the country. Poverty and inequality are far away. Second, for all of the knowledge that academics have about science, society, and culture, I find that I see very few of them interacting in activist circles. Many are of the mindset of, "We'll do the academic stuff, and let that speak for itself." This, as I have previously, this can be dangerous and counterproductive to movements of change.

And I think privilege also adds another layer of complexity. Many of us have become so used to privilege that we cannot see what it is like to be unprivileged. If money lends itself to privilege and human worth, we do all that we can to earn it, spend it, and show it off. And so, if there is to be any significant progress towards dealing with ecological crises, we must recognise that the privileged must be ready to recognise their privilege, give it up, open themselves up to criticism, become the vulnerable. As Jean Vanier, the founder of the l'Arche movement has suggested in his conversation with Krista Tippett, we must form our society by taking into consideration the needs of those most vulnerable among us to be paramount. It is these people that need protection, not the powerful, who will spend millions of dollars just so that they can continue to earn billions of dollars, wasting our Earth, poisoning it with their toxins, and walking away from the scenes of crime as if they were entitled to our Earth's bounty, and no one or nothing else.

I believe that the first thing that we, the privileged, must do is to try to stop doing things just because we can. Therein lies a deep challenge. Just because I can buy a new iPhone every time a new one comes out doesn't mean that I do buy a new iPhone. Just because I have the luxury to travel far distances wherever and whenever I want to doesn't mean that I do take advantage of that luxury. Recognising the privilege in our lives, and understanding that this privilege is what contributes to the destruction of the Earth's capacities, this is what is important; this is what is necessary.

1 comment:

  1. Darshan, congratulations on your courage to confront inequality on a personal level! the disconnect between some circles of academia and societal improvement certainly deserve your intelligent, thoughtful examination. :) as well i think it's crucial to keep in mind related (reproduced in part?) vast inequalities at um, both within and between schools and departments, and the ways and levels in which pursuit and realization of opportunity is expanded or constrained. a public instition, no matter how decentralized it is and difficult are the economic times, has great responsibility for helping students to reduce their vulnerability and build resiliency.