The High Price of Privilege

Eyeglassesby Sarah at ProgressiveKid

I live with two other people and five animals in a 1,400 square-foot house that includes my workplace. I know that compared to most of the world I live like a queen. I’m aware of this fact every day and I’m constantly grateful (except on really cranky days). But my home is in a community where most (although certainly not all) live in much grander style than I, and so I am in the somewhat unique position of being able to feel privileged while being reminded on a daily basis that I am merely a small wedge of cheese surrounded by wheels of brie.

This unique position affords an advantageous viewpoint, advantageous in that I get to see things from different perspectives. In other words, my 1,400 square feet come with a view. And one of the things I can see with this view is that privilege, although featuring a comparatively high salary, also extracts a high price on everyone, including, eventually, the privileged.

Choosing Not to See

One of the many benefits of privilege is that you don’t have to see what you don’t want to see—the underprivileged do not get to make that choice. For example, privileged people can choose not to see how their behaviors and choices affect the rest of the world disproportionately. This is especially true in the context of manufacturing and resource extraction.

M. E. J. Newman of the University of Michigan and his partners at the University of Sheffield have created a series of cartograms that provide a visual understanding of the economic and environmental disparities on our planet. Two of the most poignant are the Forest Loss map and the Wood and Paper Imports map. Comparing the two maps shows that a vast part of the world is degrading its own resources for the benefit of the other. Basically, deforestation in the southern hemisphere is carried out for the purpose of supplying the northern hemisphere with products and resources. Plenty of other maps in the series, when compared, yield the same understanding, that environmental degradation caused by large-scale manufacturing and resource extraction poisons water supplies and agriculture all over the planet but especially in places where people can least afford to purchase the outcomes of these enterprises.

Where I live, we all enjoy the benefits of wood and paper production. And I am surrounded by evidence of people choosing to build new houses even as there are plenty of homes that sit idle on the market. When people make that choice, old growth trees are cut down to accommodate the new construction. The map of this deforestation would look nothing like the Forest Loss map of Newman and his associates. But the privileged people who live here will nonetheless be affected by it in the long term. We privileged folk are in a position to better weather, if you’ll pardon the expression, the early ravages of global warming than are people who live in less developed countries where there are inadequate tsunami warning systems, for example, fewer Red Cross resources, an infrastructure that facilitates the onset of disease, conditions of drought that already represent limited water supplies, and so on. But in the long term, water tables will dry up, erosion will carry away nutrients from the soil, average temperature will increase further, and birds and animals will die. In general, the qualities that made life in this place seem so appealing will be diminished.

Poor Choices That Result from a Lack of Vision

Choosing not to see, in essence choosing to forfeit a vision, often results in poor choices. If I won’t look at what’s on the table in front of me, how can I select the carrot sticks instead of the potato chips saturated in cottonseed oil? In a sense, the privileged enjoy the privilege of not having to see, but cashing in on that privilege can turn out to be a disadvantage if it results in a handful of chips.

Here’s an example. Although there is plenty of research about the toxic and carcinogenic properties of synthetic turf used for play surfaces (see previous post Home Turf Disadvantage), because the people where I live are used to high quality experiences, resources, and facilities, many of my fellow parents, upset with the poor conditions of soccer fields at a nearby park, are choosing to introduce synthetic turf into their environment, thus exposing their children to its toxic effects, so as to improve the quality of their children’s play experience. In other words, they are so focused on providing a pleasant athletic experience that they are overlooking health concerns.

Children in less-privileged nations don’t have the option of this kind of oversight. The Army News Service reported how one boy in Iraq died in 2004 when playing soccer because unexploded ordinances had been buried under the soccer field before the field was built. In a U.S. Federal Credit Union blog, Julia Eagleburger, a 15-year-old American soccer player who traveled to South Africa to play soccer against teams there, wrote about her experiences. The fields she played on were made of dirt, and some of her opponents were barefoot. Another writer, Sharon LeFraniere, described her visit to Subsaharan Arica where a local soccer field had goal posts made from tree limbs lashed together.

Meanwhile, more and more children in this country, while thankfully being spared the possibility of exploding on the soccer field, are developing MRSA (skin eating bacteria infection) at a much higher rate and being exposed to carcinogens in the artificial turf infill. So this is a good example of how privilege, while providing the ability to avoid one kind of negative experience, can lead to another negative one, arguably less of one.

It can’t be that my neighbors are just concerned about their children’s athletic skills. One of the greatest soccer players ever, Pelé, grew up playing and honing his skills on dirt fields. He didn’t require the even and ball-friendly surface of FieldTurf to become the best soccer player. But when one is privileged, one seeks out the best support mechanisms possible because one can, regardless of the drawbacks that accompany them.

Visual Impairment

Over time, choosing not to see can lead to weakness in our underused muscles of perception. This kind of visual impairment is brought about in part by the competitive experience factor. When you’re privileged, more opportunities exist for you and so you feel compelled to take them. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal when you’re taking just one or two of the many choices. For example, if the people around you are dressing in the latest clothes, driving luxury cars, building 3,500 square foot homes, and taking two-week trips to Hawaii, then the simple decision to build a big house doesn’t seem so extravagant.

But eventually, a person loses the ability to see beyond the experience of one’s neighbors. If everyone around me is creating a gigantic carbon footprint, then I will likely fail to see that it is a giant footprint and that it is out of scale with the rest of the world. So I will thoughtlessly, blindly, leave my giant footprint wherever I go, missing how the large carbon footprints around me are crushing the possibility of a healthy future for my own children.

The Full-Scale Disease

Privilege makes us feel immune to what our privilege gives us the resources to understand and react to. In a sense, then, this privilege operates like an indolent disease, one that won’t kill us right away, one that is not nearly as cruel as the disease of poverty or cholera or genocide. But one that because it is so curable and treatable is perhaps a form of negligence. And perhaps the world should hold us accountable for spreading it. And perhaps we should be prevented from securing insurance to cover it and funding to pursue it.

If we were talking about smoking, the tobacco industry would argue that we had continued to indulge in our habit despite the warnings plastered all over every carton. Are we complicit in our own disease? Perhaps the highest price of privilege is our own addiction to it, no matter what the cost.

©2007 ProgressiveKid

Eyeglasses by Colin Hoffman, 2006, Creative Commons license.

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