This post originally appeared in the weekly column, “Denim Spirit,” published in The Finger Lakes Times (NY):
“It ain’t over till it’s over,” Yogi Berra quipped. LeBron James could have said it too before the NBA finals last year, when all the talk was about the inevitability of the Golden State Warriors.
We love it when the presumed invulnerable, privileged folks get defeated. Actuality, it does not happen that often, which may be one of the reasons Presidential Campaigns hold our attention for so long – it is almost always a contest between two highly privileged persons and one of them is going to get their comeuppance.
Privilege is a tricky kind of power, and the blinders we wear often prevent us from seeing our own.
I once attended a weeklong training event intended to educate select leaders in a variety of churches about abuse, specifically sexual abuse and harassment. It was stunning. The trainers, two women, labored for three days to get the hundred or more ministers and bishops, mostly men, to recognize our power. Stubbornly, most of us resisted acknowledging his or her privilege.
Toward the end of the third day, the trainers gave us an inventory to fill out. It was a list of twenty or thirty resources that indicated the arsenals of power at our disposal. There were obvious things like income level, race, and gender, and less obvious things, like where one lives and body size. I was particularly aggrieved at having to check “tall male.”
“What the heck?” I complained as we were revealing the measure of our power. “I can’t help being tall,” I whined. I was among the preponderance of men objecting to our power indicators.
One of the trainers came over and asked me to stand up. She was a particularly petite person. She stood about three feet away looking up at me and then said, in an agitated voice at my resistance, “I was raped by a man your size. Do you really think your size does not matter?”
I don’t know about the other men in the room, but in that moment I understood what they had been trying to show us all along. Power, which they defined as the resources at your disposal to exert influence, is morally neutral.
Like money, power just is, and in and of itself is neither good nor bad. Power is distributed in ways that we may or may not have anything to do with – accident of birth, social network, access to education, neighborhood, etc. Moral agency has to do with how we use our power, and what we do with it.
The abuse of power, wielded by people of otherwise good will, often takes place when we do not recognize our privilege.
That is as true for ordinary people as it is for elected officials. Using our privilege to protect our own self-interest to the detriment of everyone else involved, while acceptable on the Serengeti Plain, is abuse of power among human beings. Men, unaware of our historic and current advantages in commerce, for example, can unknowingly contribute to discrimination against women. Whites, often willfully unaware of the privileges that come with our history of social and economic dominance, feed the course of racism.
Living without consciousness of our privilege, and using it primarily for our self-interest only, and knowingly or unknowingly against the benefit of those with less privilege, indicates personal moral corruption. The only thing worse is the willful use of privilege to protect self-interest against the benefit to the common good. When it is conscious and willful, it rises to the level of evil.