A Call For Compassionate Righteousness
The title of the article The Distress Of The Privileged makes it sound like another of the thousands of gleeful ten-minutes hate aimed at the privileged class of the world, the white and the male. But it is not. It’s actually something the ‘nets need a lot more of: compassionate righteousness, instead of snarky or angry righteousness.
For the record, I can’t fault the snark and anger too much if it is delivered by an actual person who has been oppressed or otherwise harmed due to being a non-privileged person, e.g., female or non-white. Being oppressed or harmed hurts, and it’s pretty insensitive to expect someone in that position to be a model of decorum when trying to point out that they’ve been oppressed or harmed. But the snark and anger mantle is taken up by so many on behalf of others in such a way that it is obvious many people do it because they take glee in having someone to beat up, and in being “safe” on the right side and no longer having to go through the psychologically uncomfortable process of critical thinking and examination of the self.
Further, laying down comfortably in your snark and anger is a nice and convenient protection from ever having to consider if perhaps you might be the author of some of your own problems, and not society. I talked about this in the previous post, Your Personal Problems Are Not Always A Social Cause.
I recommend reading The Distress Of The Privileged in its entirety, but I’ll pull a few choice quotes (slightly edited) to whet your appetite:
“He never set out to be the bad guy. He never meant to stifle his wife’s humanity or enforce a dull conformity on his kids. He never demanded a privileged role, he just uncritically accepted the role society assigned him and played it to the best of his ability. And now suddenly that society isn’t working for the people he loves, and they’re blaming him. It seems so unfair. He doesn’t want anybody to be unhappy. He just wants dinner.”
“But even as we accept the reality of his privileged-white-male distress, we need to hold on to the understanding that the less privileged people are distressed in an entirely different way. (Margaret Atwood is supposed to have summed up the gender power-differential like this: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”) He deserves compassion, but his until-recently-ideal housewife deserves justice. His and her claims are not equivalent, and if we treat them the same way, we do her an injustice.”
“Once you grasp the concept of privileged distress, you’ll see it everywhere: the rich feel “punished” by taxes; whites believe they are the real victims of racism; employers’ religious freedom is threatened when they can’t deny contraception to their employees; English-speakers resent bilingualism — it goes on and on. Confronting this distress is tricky, because neither acceptance nor rejection is quite right. The distress is usually very real, so rejecting it outright just marks you as closed-minded and unsympathetic. It never works to ask others for empathy without offering it back to them.
At the same time, my straight-white-male sunburn can’t be allowed to compete on equal terms with your heart attack. To me, it may seem fair to flip a coin for the first available ambulance, but it really isn’t. Don’t try to tell me my burn doesn’t hurt, but don’t consent to the coin-flip.”
This is all really good stuff. I’ll add one of my own observations: If you can only muster compassion and empathy for the people that it is fashionable to have compassion and empathy for, and in turn take glee in a refusal to understand the difficulties of any individual who is not in one of these fashionable (under)classes, then what you have does not qualify as compassion and empathy. It could be a justified righteous anger, especially if you are the one being hurt directly. But it could also just be a masked self-interest. I think a lot of the supposed crusaders for justice are really just masking their own self interest.