It has become almost platitudinous to say that a sinner never sees sin. The subjugating conquistador never forgets to give thanks to God, nor does the capo fail to attend church on Sundays. It is not them who have labeled themselves as sinners. It is us, in posterity or in present, who have unequivocally tossed them inside a pit marked “Evil: Enter Not” for fear that a hand will rise from the depths and grab each of us deep into the cesspool of iniquity should we linger too close.
It is easy to compare ourselves to them from our perspectives gazing down from above. We are privileged, we think, to live free from sin. We shudder to imagine a situation in which our positions would be reversed, yet we will never condescend to so much as take a step down from our elevated pedestal into our psychological Tartarus.
The constant flourishing of a banner of universal love is nothing but an excuse for our unwillingness to fully understand others and enter the pit. We assume that all of humanity shares one viewpoint, one single modus operandi: our own, gazing serenely from our pedestals, all the while forgetting that each of us are never the most qualified person to make other people’s decisions or interpret their thoughts for them. That person would always be themselves.
We mentally classify groups based on overarching quality, then proceed to forget about the individuals which compose it. Evil is not uniform. Trying to understand Hernán Cortés and Al Capone in the same vein is not only ridiculous, but impossible. The belief that money, caring parents, and a strong academic background launches a person towards success does not necessitate that every unsuccessful man had none of the above.
We cannot lump Evil into one huge grouping, just as we cannot lump Everyone Else into another, and just as we cannot separate the Privileged from the Unprivileged. The point I wish to make clear is that privilege does not exist. Privilege, like Good and Evil, is something we as a society have chosen to construct in order to reconcile ourselves with our unwillingness to empathize.
The concept of privilege necessarily suggests the comparison of the value of one life to that of another. We create a world for ourselves where every one of us stands on pedestals of different heights, add a meter for wealth, subtract a yard for race. Viewing our position of the world in comparison is supposed to allow us to better understand it, to better love all of mankind. But rather, it discourages us from taking a step away from where we stand. Understanding privilege is predicated upon staying put on one’s own pedestal and observing the world from there.
We treat what we deem as less privileged with false pity, the type one would use to speak to a cripple whose condition was borne from birth. It perpetuates a system in which the “less privileged” are encouraged to shame themselves for their very existences, and in which the “more privileged” can toss some pity at the less fortunate and claim to fulfill a commitment to compassion. The recognition of privilege is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that the very consideration of privilege creates it.
This need to be compassionate is not a natural phenomenon. We must remember that our primary responsibility is not towards the betterment of the world, of which we mean little and know little. It is to the betterment of ourselves, of which we know everything. The act of shaming both others and ourselves does little to improve each of us as a person. White people should never feel the need to apologize for the color of their skin; that in itself is ridiculous.
Our self-assured need to be compassionate is juxtaposed with our inability to fully comprehend the depth of others’ lives. What results is the creation of privilege, which ingrains unfairness into our society and offers a convenient conduit for an unnatural need.
Another hackneyed truism rests at the cornerstone of the free world: that all men are created equal. We as a school are obsessed with turning the world into one of complete equality, but what if the world is always already so? The marginalized understand better than anyone else the feeling of oppression; they require neither advice nor pity from those who do not understand them. The marginalized have their own ordained roles in our greater humanity, shoes which no others will fit. Perhaps they should be proud of it.
I don’t see privilege. I see a world where everyone stands on a pedestal but does not look up at the person to his right, nor down at the person to his left. Every pedestal is raised to the same elevation, because the height of the pedestal is determined by the height to which we place ourselves. Our self-worth should never be computed in relation to that of others. Privilege is not compassion. Privilege has simply never existed.
And maybe when we discover that we are all equally privileged, that no background is more valuable than another, and that attempting to love humanity is futile, perhaps then we may no longer feel the need to rank ourselves in comparison to others. Only then can so much as attempt to observe from others’ perspectives, to stand in their places, and to begin to understand just one tiny bit more about mankind.
But never try to steal their shoes. Yours will always fit best.
Featured image courtesy of wikimedia.org
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