“Check your privilege!”

Right now I’m on my computer, sharing thoughts with friends, and possibly strangers, in a warm, lighted house. Given that there’s a couple of feet of heavy snow falling and extremely high winds down by the seacoast, there is no guarantee that the power that keeps our computers, lights, water-pump, thermostat etc. going will not kick out, and stay out for a few days. We’re not terribly concerned because we’re set. Our house was built in 1852, and was intended to be heated by wood-stoves (which we have). We’re probably better insulated now than then. We have a full woodshed, oil and propane lamps ready, a full cistern waiting, and a land line phone that will still work even if we lose power, not to mention that we’ve charged up our cell phones and other electronic devices.  Not only that, we’re psychologically better off than most people.

Both my SCA hobby and my “back to the land” mentality have left me with a better understanding that until the last hundred, or maybe fifty years, the idea of having light at the flick of a switch, drinkable cold and hot water- running right into your house, and food all year around is pretty incredible in the history of homo-sapiens. It’s still pretty incredible when one compares it to life in the rest of the world, which we rarely do. And I suppose, that’s what the phrase “Check your privilege” is about isn’t it? Are you aware of how good your life is?

People are fighting now for (and against) universal health care. Historically, whatever health care you had was provided in your family or by your friends. If it wasn’t enough, you died. When modern folk take as a given that we have “rights” to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that’s not something that’s been a given for most of history. Perhaps generations before mine didn’t worry about having their lives snuffed out by an atomic blast, but they knew that if the weather didn’t cooperate, there might not be enough food for everyone in the family to live through the winter. If the life was good, someone from over the nearest border might want what you had and come take it, killing you to get it. Or the people who ran your country might take it, because they had the ability to do so. Or the “other people” might not just kill your family and take your stuff, but also drag you off and make you a slave, and you would have to work for them, perhaps starved and beaten until you died. Each generation has its own fear, and because ours is new doesn’t make it more emotionally crippling. Social security? For most of human history, we were surrounded by cripples, by disease, by old people dying when they could no longer feed and shelter themselves. If you want to talk privilege, just living in 21st century is privileged.

Since the media has been looking at Ferguson and other tragic shootings, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” has been reminding people of how, in the past century, some people have acted as if they don’t matter. In Canada First Nation people are reminding the press that hundreds of young women have disappeared without most people showing the outrage that would certainly be expected if these women weren’t from the indigenous people. “Immigration Reform” discussions center on how to legislate and enforce quotas for Latinos or Muslims or Asians or other “non-white” people. For some of us these are the most bizarre discussions; we don’t get why they see a difference, we don’t see race, we see humans!  But we are told to “check our privilege” because we don’t know what it’s like to have to live in fear that we’ll be shot if we tick off the guy with the badge, that we don’t understand what not expecting to get protection from the law is, we don’t get that we or our families won’t be allowed into the country because of some quota. But there’s a difference between having to deal with it, and understanding that it’s wrong anyway.

Oddly, it’s the people of privilege who tend to see everyone as deserving of rights, perhaps because we no longer have to worry about ours. (Perhaps it’s simply not being exhausted by having to deal with it constantly that gives us the energy to do so.)  If you are worried that you may starve, you’ll forget the possibility of the guys with swords coming over the hill; or if you see the swords, you forget the coming harvest. An immediate threat always crowds out other fears. People who aren’t afraid can, and often do want to spread the confidence in the future that they feel to others who they can see don’t have it. They know from experience (as those who are burdened understand the pressures they deal with) the wonderful effects that can result from being free from these injustices. If you have freedom from pain, you want it for other people as well, so they can do what you do.

I find it very frustrating that all too often good people are attacked and vilified because they are told that they “can’t understand” because they don’t experience immediate threats themselves. Individuals I have known, and strangers I’ve read about, such as the leaders of the Covenant of the Goddess, have been criticized for saying “All lives matter”. Of course they do. Of course “Black lives Matter.” But it is not right to vilify those who say “all lives matter”, and claim that by not giving pride of place to that campaign means that they don’t get that far too many people in power have been acting as if black lives (or indigenous lives, or poor peoples lives) don’t matter. For an individual, or the representative of a group, like the CoG to express that they want justice for all doesn’t in any way negate demanding justice in any single case or set of cases.

I hate to say it, but I’m reminded of the “joke” that points out that animal rights activists are far more likely to throw paint on the fur coat of a rich old woman than the leather jacket of a biker. It’s safer to attack someone who you know is going to be hurt and appalled (the liberal who loves “all lives”) than someone whose mind you aren’t going to change and might call in someone to remove you (politicians or police who perpetrate these injustices). Am I saying that those who insult and get indignant about the people who say “all lives matter” are cowards or stupid? I’ll let them pick which one they identify with more.

I think it’s more comfortable to get angry, especially at someone who isn’t going to fight back if you yell at them, than it is to be afraid: afraid that this injustice can’t be changed, afraid that your voice won’t be heard, afraid that the people who hope will care don’t. But calling people names rarely gets them to work with you. I’ve often heard “if you’re not outraged you’re not paying attention.” What is the advantage of being outraged other than that it feels more powerful than being terrified? I will grant you that the outraged person is more likely to act than the terrified one. But we do not need outrage, we need resolution. We need to resolve that where we see something wrong, that we will change as much as we can, as fast as those changes can be made. We don’t need a “if you’re not with us, you’re against us!” “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem!” attitude. Over the years we’ve learned that we can get more done by cooperating and working within a system than simply trying to stop it or overthrow it. Slavery in England was stopped by making it economically nonviable. The fight against disease saw its greatest gains in building infrastructures for clean water and garbage removal.

Privilege? We are all privileged to have the current infrastructure we have. At this point the greatest discrimination problem is not racial but economic.  We need to stop demanding that other people fight on the front we are fighting and recognize that their battle may be helping in ways that will benefit everyone.

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