Here’s the thing: growth requires mistakes and consequences. We want X, we try Y, but Z happens instead. Okay, so we go back and we try again, but accounting for the new information that we received, right?
And those mistakes and those consequences, those can be really horrible! Like sure it takes some skinned knees before we’re really comfortable running as toddlers, right? But also, maybe it takes getting fired to learn what’s not going to fly at work. Maybe it takes being broken up with to learn how to negotiate reality with a partner. These consequences suck, they’re painful — but that’s why they work. They disincentivize us from making the same mistakes over and over. Mistakes teach us that certainty is often more precarious than we can see at the time.
Which is why privilege is so problematic. Look, if we’re hard-wired to try to avoid consequences then that’s what’s going to drive our behavior. Most of us learn to avoid consequences by making mistakes — but some of us grow up with privilege, with people who are doing their best to shield us from consequences because they love us and don’t want to see us suffer.
But do you see how that immediately and permanently becomes a learning disability?
Here’s the thing: we’re all privileged in some way or another. Sometimes we work hard for these privileges, sometimes we’re born with them, but always it’s ultimately the same thing: privilege is the freedom not to pay attention to something. This means ignoring consequences for your own mistakes, and it also means simply not understanding how to see the suffering of those who lack your privilege. Their experience is in a category that you simply don’t have.
Confronting your privilege means choosing to pay attention to things that you would otherwise ignore. It requires learning a new sort of literacy, a new way of interpreting the world, and once you grok it you can’t lose it.
It changes you.
You’ll start to notice a whole new language of euphemism and falsehood everywhere you go. You’ll start to see the systems that reinforce each other, preventing those trapped within from escaping. This isn’t just a metaphor, exactly, it’s an active process.
There’s a phenomenon that happens when you first understand feminism, for instance: you start to see misogyny everywhere. When you study racism, especially in American history, you start to understand the ways in which the entire civilization around you was built on white supremacy.
When you grok intersectionality you start seeing fractal combinations of these things, though, and maybe it’s there that a larger insight hits you: any certainty you have is contingent upon your mental models of reality. But any one of your mental models could at any time be invalidated by a larger, more powerful model.
Do you see it? This is what it looks like. This is higher consciousness — this is participation in a dynamic system where certainty isn’t merely difficult to come by it’s actually a contradiction in terms: you’re aware, now, that you’re untethered in the world of ideas. Anything, on some level, could turn out to be true — and you’d have no way to know it until you had no way to deny it.
So how do you use this knowledge?
Do you remember Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, based on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King? How did Merlin teach young Arthur? He “transformed” him into animals. In the movie this is literal, but in the book it takes place in the imagination — it’s a form of “guided meditation”. Merlin uses the animals to teach Arthur that it’s possible to look at the same reality from many different perspectives — this is an important lesson for someone who is going to be a king, but it’s great for the rest of us too. After all, we live in a society.
As a king, Arthur could choose to focus his attention on anything he wanted, to ignore anything he wanted. Merlin’s wisdom was in teaching the boy who would gain this privilege to gain control over his attention, to manipulate his reality tunnels, because this is what’s necessary for civic function. The king can ignore anyone he wants to — that’s what it means to be king. A good king chooses not to — that’s what it means to be a good king.
This is the key insight: privilege is blindness. The more information your reality tunnel can filter out without causing you personal consequences the more you need to make a special effort to understand the lives of people who lack your privilege.
Ultimately, we participate in a society, and that society is dynamic and changing all the time. What our society values is constrained by what our society can see. That’s why it’s so important to talk about this stuff, to continue to try to work through it even when we lack the terms and concepts that would make it easier.
That’s why we have to #findTheOthers and get organized, because there are always new layers to pull back. Remember: faith is a choice. The opposite of faith is certainty, because certainty denies the possibility of choice. But once you’ve grokked the model you’re free of it — or at least you have the toolkit you need to root it out when you find it.
So that’s it. Certainty is only possible when we lock down our perspective and close ourselves off to new information. Growth is only possible when we embrace the consequences of our actions and learn from our mistakes.
Privilege is a mechanism for exchanging growth for certainty, and while a bit of privilege makes for a more comfortable life it’s important to use it wisely.