A funny little thing called privilege
In the wake of the widespread BLM protests, there is a quote that has particularly stuck with me due to my being a non-black person: “I understand that I can never understand, but I will always be by your side.” It makes sense to our primal instincts to follow this quote, especially considering the massive outpour of support that many of us see in social media for this quotation and its like. However, it requires a lot more philosophical introspection to really understand why this quote has stuck within a lot of non-black people in the United States, myself included. So let’s digest the quotation.
“I understand that I can never understand…” Privilege is a funny little concept. It is that concept that prenatally determines a lot of the factors regarding how we live — of course, the implication being that we don’t personally have any choice in shaping our privilege (for those of us that at least somewhat believe in free will, this stance makes sense). Yet it is super pervasive in our lives, and many of us in the non-black population have only recently begun to comprehend the depth of our privileges.
It is important first to note that there is a difference between cognizance and comprehension. Cognizance is the elementary level of awareness, in which we are merely aware of the privileges that we possess that others may not. We know that poverty affects the black population in the US proportionally greater than they do the Asian-American population — we read it in academic journals all the time. We know that COVID-19 has plagued the black population in the US proportionally greater than they do the white population — we read it in news reports everywhere. And we know that police brutality in the US is disproportionately discriminatory towards the black population than any other population — we see it on social media. However, we already all knew this. Any person not living under a rock would be cognizant of such facts.
Comprehension is the next level of awareness of our privileges, which indeed requires a lot of introspective thinking regarding the nature of our privileges. This is the phase when it starts becoming a bit more personal — where we actually involve ourselves in the philosophical consideration of our privileges. Why are black families considerably more impoverished than I am, or at least with people of my race? There are vast socioeconomic factors that have roots deep in the racist construction of this country that make it difficult for people stemming from black-majority communities to break out of the vicious poverty cycle. Why are black families considerably more affected by the COVID-19 outbreak than I am? Many black-majority communities do not have the necessary infrastructure, relative to their sizes and densities, to hold an outbreak of such a magnitude — and further, many black-majority communities do not have access to the same federal help that other communities may have. Why are black people disproportionately at the brunt end of police brutality, relative to me? Institutionalized racism (nowadays sugarcoated with PC subtlety) has existed in vital institutions for as long as this country has existed.
But more significantly to our introspection is meta-comprehension. This is comprehension regarding our comprehension of the privileges that we have at hand — and for heuristic purposes, may be referred to as the level of awareness above comprehension. This is the stage at which we really comprehend what a ‘privilege’ is, which may seem ironic given that we should have been aware of the concept of ‘privilege’ at the level of cognizance. Nonetheless, this level of awareness represents the involvement of ourselves considerably more in our philosophical considerations, in that we start to wonder why we are not as bothered by these appalling facts as we should be, and what it really means to possess ‘privileges.’ We begin to understand that these privileges cloud us from the reality that is the discriminatory experience of being a black person in the United States; and that, no matter what we do, we can only ever unearth statistical, historical, and economic information regarding the life of a black person. Out best efforts to understand the experience of the black person can only go so high, in that we are limited to conventional sources of academic research: testimony, texts, secondary resources, etc.
However, no amount of research or philosophical introspection will actually bring about the phenomenological understanding of the life of a black person. There is an ontological (and subsequently epistemological) difference between the comprehension of what it means to have our privileges, and what it means to not have our privileges. For although I can understand the nature of my privilege — and how much of a utopian bliss ignorance really is — I will never fully comprehend the nature of lacking the privilege — what it really means to not be bestowed with these privileges. Unless I live and experience the life of someone who does not possess the privileges that I have, this will always be the case. This is simply because our phenomenological comprehension of consciousness is limited insofar as we live through one consciousness, which is shaped through schemas that are ultimately basely shaped by the life that we have.
“…but I will always be by your side.” This one requires less philosophical rumination, since it is intuitively very clear what extrinsically motivates us to stick by this quote: the illogical fallacy of America’s values. Here is the Fourteenth Amendment:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
And then here are the necessary syllogisms. Hereafter, ∏ denotes ‘premise,’ and Ç denotes ‘conclusion’*:
∏1) There exist black people who are born in the United States.
∏2) By the Fourteenth Amendment, “All persons born […] in the United States […] are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
Ç1) By ∏1 and ∏2, there must exist black citizens of the United States.
The above syllogism is very intuitive. The one below, though, is the crux of the illogical fallacy. We now take Conclusion 1 to be Premise 3.
∏3) There exist black citizens of the United States.
∏4) By the Fourteenth Amendment, “No state shall […] deprive any [citizen of the United States] of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
Ç2) By ∏3 and ∏4, no state shall deprive any black citizen of the United States of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
Again, quite intuitive. But then we see injustices to the black population all around us, perpetrated by the very ‘state’ which, by logical deduction, should not deprive any black citizen of the US of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. In light of recent events, I feel that it is most appropriate to discuss the example of disproportionate police brutality on the African-American population. Here is the oath rendered by the International Association of Chiefs of Police:
“On my honor, I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions. I will always uphold the Constitution, my community, and the agency I serve.”
Note that, since each state has their own police, each state does have their own oath which their respective police force is required to take. However, these renditions are all derived from the one above, and thus do not greatly differ in denotative substance. So here are the necessary syllogisms:
∏5) No state shall deprive any black citizen of the United States of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
∏6) ∏5 is derived from the Fourteenth Amendment.
∏7) The Fourteenth Amendment is part of the United States Constitution.
Ç3) By ∏5, ∏6, and ∏7, the Constitution mandates that no state shall deprive any black citizen of the Untied States of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
∏8) By definition, the police enforce the law of the government.
∏9) In order to enforce the law of the government, one must either be a part of the government, or represent the government.**
Ç4) By ∏8 and ∏9, the police are at least representative of the government, if not part of the government.
This is a pretty significant finding that has pretty large ramifications in social contract theory. But that is a topic for another time.
∏8) The police are representative of the government (state police are representative of the state government).
∏9) The Constitution mandates that no state shall deprive any black citizen of the United States of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
∏10) The Police Oath ensures that police officers must abide by the Constitution.
Ç5) The police must not deprive any black citizen of the US of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
The conclusion could not be more intuitively obvious. It is hypocritical for the United States to unwaveringly flaunt their priority for equality if the country does not actually carry out measures to ensure that equality. By its own Constitution, which is the very document that subsists the existence of the country, the United States declares that no police officers should deprive any black citizen of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. And yet, videos and reports of unjustified police brutality on black citizens abound — without due process. Now how does that make any sense to anybody with even a shred of rationality?
This logical inconsistency can only be resolved by one of three options.
Option 1: We sustain the hypocrisy.
This is quite evidently the worst option to enact. We are human beings, differentiated by other animal species through our ability to conduct rational operations. If we forego our reasoning capabilities, we may as well relinquish the relative power that we have built for millennia as a dominant thinking species. This will undoubtedly regress the United States into a country of chaos, anarchy, and lawlessness.****
Option 2: We revise the Constitution.
This option calls for a revision of the Constitution to be more appropriate with the contemporary context. This would mean eliminating all clauses that purport to uphold ‘equality’ in the Constitution, as well as any piece of legitimate legislation. Instead of purporting to uphold ‘equality’ and its derivative concepts (democracy, equity, freedom), America would instead become a country built on social hierarchy and status***.
To put it bluntly, this option would effectively reverse two centuries worth of American, as well as world, history and progression. The United States of America was built on the principle of creating a democratic society that would be much more friendly to the gradual introduction of social equality than was 18th century British society. The abstract notion of ‘equality’ forms the bedrock of the entire society — and with that, everything that US citizens stand for (democracy, equity, freedom). Yes, this country was also built on significantly prejudiced foundations too. However, this is more particularly due to the failure to understand what equality really entails — equality is equality for all, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or any particular characteristic of identity. Now that this particular fact is more clear than it has ever been in the racist history of the United States, it would be absolute folly to repeal all that we have done in the historical progression of equality. Not only would all interconnected pieces of legislation that connote ‘equality’ have to be repealed and replaced by a political structure that does not connote ‘equality,’ the United States would have to conclusively convert the pervasive progressive mindset that has led to the creation of today’s US citizens. Essentially, we would have to try to enforce the bigotry (as well as any negative personally characteristic) present in 18th century colonial America in today’s relatively progressive population. A tough task to do, especially considering that the majority of the world’s population is moving towards increased human rights and equality rather than the other way around.
Option 3: We revise the current political climate.
The logical inconsistency is that the Constitution purports that police should not commit acts depriving citizens of life, liberty, and property without due process of law — and yet, they are. If we can’t change the Constitution, we should then change the fact that the police are committing these senseless acts. This is why we must stand for change until such acts of discrimination perpetrated by the police are gone. How we go about doing this is a different question. But the important part is that everyone who purports to uphold the values of the United States (that is, everyone who is a US citizen), must logically support the implementation of equality, particularly through eroding the racist foundations which our police institutions are built on.
Of course, there are many other reasons why we should support the Black Lives Movement. But this is a logical defense of “I will always be by your side.” For if we don’t resort to reason, what shall we resort to? Lawlessness? Chaos? Animality? Whatever it is, it is not the ‘state of nature’ which Rousseau describes as peaceful — for that world assumes the rationality in humanity. Rather, the state which we will revert to is more akin to that of Hobbes’s vision: one in which humans are always violently entangled with each other over necessary survival, much like many animals today. This world will ensure that man’s life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’
And this concludes my investigation into the introspection of the quotation: “I understand that I can never understand, but I will always be by your side.” Know that for you to contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement, you do not have to completely 100% understand the philosophical discourse regarding the matter, and that there are many reasons not enclosed in this article which may compel you to support the quotation — and subsequently the movement for equality. However, my hope is that by reading this article, you will have a much more thorough understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of what is going on — and the philosophical justifications behind what we should be doing.
Please note that the information discussed in this article is meant to be in addition to all the information dispensed throughout social media. Please inform yourselves thoroughly in this time of crisis — the last thing society needs are lawless uneducated bigots to flaunt their opinions and wrongly represent what America stands for. Of course, educating yourself is only one aspect of supporting BLM. Please consider donating to appropriate organizations, signing petitions, supporting businesses owned by black people, and educating others. Let me know if you would like to further discuss the philosophy behind this movement.
*Please excuse me for improper academic language. Since a lot of my articles contain more or less amateur philosophy, a lot of the terms I use will be made up by me.
**This is perhaps the weakest premise of this article. However, this premise is intuitively clear in that, at least in the United States, there is no precedence for the outsourcing of executive powers. Plus, by extension, any outsourcing of executive powers would mean that those bestowed executive powers would prima facie represent the government.
***The argument for whether this is the case today is yet again a topic for another day. But this sentence purports that America would be more hierarchical than it is today — akin to the Ancien Régime.
****This also brings an interesting topic of discussion for a future article.
Originally published at https://maisondesagesse.blogspot.com on June 5, 2020.