I've been downright lucky.
Born into freedom. Into health. Into a loving home. Into prosperity. Into intellectual literacy and conversation. Into an ethical tradition. Into so much.
These were gifts I didn't earn. They landed at my feet. All I had to do — all I have to do today — is bend down and pick them up. And they are mine.
Life Is So Unfair.
Did I miss out on some advantages? Sure. I didn't receive every advantage. I have had to work to amplify my good fortune.
But do I ever wish life were fair? No. "Fair" would mean that I have to give up a lot, in fairness to those who were offered fewer advantages. Our philanthropy has come nowhere near to balancing the scales.
There is a Spectrum Of Privilege. And I gratefully know where I am placed along that spectrum.
(If you are reading Net Cotton Content, pondering meaning in life, you are lucky, too. Our challenges are real. But let's be honest: our lives are the dreams of most of the rest of the planet. We are the living dreams of our ancestors. Just by having indoor plumbing, we live better than 75% of the kings of England. Let's check our privilege.)
An essay in a conservative campus publication, The Princeton Tory, has provoked vigorous debate on privilege. Much of it is tinged with anger and resentment — from all sides of the privilege spectrum. Amid, and fueling, the national debate, TIME reprinted the essay.
Here is "Checking My Privilege: Character As The Basis Of Privilege" by Tal Fortgang, class of 2017.
At first, I had an immediate reaction to the essay.
Actually, I had an immediate reaction to what The New York Times reported about the essay. Because that's what I read first, when I hadn't actually read the essay.
Wait. This isn't about privilege.
This is about our ability to consider another's perspective while placing our own bias aside.
That's a key to staying curious. Withholding our own judgment. Staying curious. Wondering.
Here's what I'm wondering:
- I'm wondering whether others have read the essay?
- I'm wondering what effect a different headline would have on the reader. TIME used a more incendiary headline: "Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege." As a former newspaper editor, I know that headlines are almost always written by editors who are designing the page. Does this headline alter the tone and content of the entire piece?
- I'm wondering whether we can read the essay without implicit assumptions about the writer. I found that, reading his words, it was difficult — but not impossible — to hear (read) his words as I tried to quiet my own biases. It felt like my biases had read the article before I did!
- I'm wondering how I would react if he were sitting in front of me, telling me his perspective. I think about hearing his voice and statements, imagined with me as his coach (imagining him in the chair across from me). This provides a challenging and educational opportunity. That is, to ask: could I coach this fellow? How does his attitude help or hurt his argument? What questions would I ask him to help him (and me) better understand where he is (beyond and beneath the words of an essay), where he wants to go, and what creative commitments subvert his desires?
- I'm wondering about my comment above, questioning "whether others have read the essay." I'm wondering whether that is judgmental, filled with my own presumption that others had not read it. I think so, that I am thinking, "I'll bet you haven't read the piece." I'm sorry about my having that implicit presumption; I don't like my automatically leaping to that unfounded conclusion. Where does it come from? I think that presumption is based on a personal fact: I had strong feelings about the essay, and even posted an article about it on Facebook days before I'd read the entire essay!
- I'm also wondering how my place in the Spectrum Of Privilege influences my writing here — and how it influences how my words are heard. Would all these words be interpreted differently if someone else less or more privileged wrote them? What would I think if you had written them?
- A little more playfully here, I'm wondering what is meant by "checking"? Are we to check in on our privilege, to measure its effect? Are we to check it at the door, like a top hat at the coat check? Are we to dash it against the boards, like a hockey check?
I'm not finished wondering about this. I invite you to post any wondering that comes up for you.
A Mantra For Intellectual Life
This reminds me of Robert Frost's definition of being educated: "The ability to listen to almost anything without losing one's temper or self-confidence."