Last week, we shredded a commenter who suggested that poor people just need to cut out their “latte a day” habits – and just got more ridiculous from there. Another assertion of his that I think merits a whole article – because it’s such a common idea – is that people who are struggling financially should stop whining about privilege and work on elevating themselves from poverty.
I have no problem with people trying to better their financial situation, as long as they don’t trample others to get there. Right? We probably all agree about that.
The problem is that privilege – a system in which some reap unearned benefits and others reap unearned suffering – makes it impossible to avoid trampling others in your worthy pursuit to make your own life better. You won’t know it’s happening – that’s the best benefit of a privilege system, according to its fans. It enables them to operate like a sociopath who has no empathy or conscience without actually being a monster.
Let’s talk in examples. You grew up working class, but you’re smart and willing to work hard, and you want to have a middle class profession. You get into college. You don’t realize the college accepted you because you’re white/male/able-bodied/something and turned away another applicant for not being one (or more) of those things. You’ll never meet the applicant, who may be just like you, in all other respects: working class, wanting a better life, wanting to make parents proud, etc. And you can actually say you didn’t directly hurt the person. Maybe you didn’t even know. But later you do realize what probably happened. What should you do?
You need not apologize for trying to better your life. You need not apologize for being ignorant. But you could examine how you found yourself trampling someone to get ahead without even knowing it, let alone choosing to do it. You could consider that, by and large, college has become more about gate-keeping privilege than education. You might support policy makers who are trying to change this. You might operate a business that doesn’t demand college degrees for positions where it’s really not needed (in this job market, people are requiring degrees for “receptionist”). You might donate to causes or scholarship funds you believe will help fix this problem.
The most unacceptable response is to simply deny your privilege.
But let’s get down to practical issues. The whole point of a privilege system is to keep the have-nots competing ferociously so the haves can just sit back and enjoy an uninterrupted and unshared good time. If in 2007 – when jobs were relatively plentiful – a million welfare recipients had suddenly elevated themselves to the status of sought-after professionals, the job market just would’ve soured a little sooner, and many of them would be laid off along with many born middle classers now. If a million welfare recipients suddenly qualified to be valued professionals now – when jobs are in devastating short supply – it wouldn’t make an iota of difference in their situation and would give a million born middle classers more difficulty replacing their lost jobs. Because that’s how privilege works: it continually shoves the status quo back at you, like it’s a force of nature – which is what many people believe it to be.
But it’s not a force of nature. It’s a force of human greed.
You see, it’s not enough for humans that some people start out at a disadvantage and have to work extra hard and smart to overcome it. We really don’t like the idea of those types being amongst us someday – might use the wrong fork or tell an embarrassing truth – so we create power structures that act like grease on the walls of the well they’re trying to clamber up out of. The idea of meritocracy and class mobility is very new in human experience. Even now, Social Darwinism is far more popular. The commenter last week is a prime example: because he’s rich, he must’ve done something right (and is therefore more fit to survive), and because others are less well-off, they must have done something wrong (hence his ludicrous assumption about “latte a day” habits).
Maybe someday we’ll actually have a meritocracy. I kind of doubt it, knowing how the human brain is structured and how it’s evolved – I think we’ll always be emotion-driven shit-flingers mistaking ourselves for logicians until we render ourselves extinct. But in either case, right now, we have a class system and a privilege system that fights to keep everyone in their place. A few people managing to elevate themselves out of the “lower” classes – most often by knowingly and uncaringly trampling others – does not fix anything. It simply replaces some privileged people with other privileged people, and round and round it goes.