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June 2nd, 2020
This episode is dedicated to someone who operates the Twitter handle @NotAPart1 who inspired some thinking on these topics.
Who is going to do something about it? This is a silent question that pervades all aspects of life in a world where we coexist as a large group. It is the question on everyone’s mind when the students all look at each other when faced with a group project, and it is likewise the same question when we are all faced with vastly greater challenges. The question: who is going to do something about it? automatically carries with it a platoon of other questions as though it acts like a can-opener used to release a species of things we don’t know and have never considered.
One question that crawls out of the can is, ok, what can everyone actually do? As in, does anyone have any special ability or desire, or experience that makes them a particularly good fit for tackling this or that part of the problem? The artist of the student group pipes up, announcing their willingness and ability to take care of the design. The student always carrying a new book around signs up to write some portions. The math whiz agrees to tracking the finances of the project, and the social butterfly who asked the question decides they can handle the scheduling and communication.
This quaint picture of the group project from school contains within it a realistic definition of both Privilege & Responsibility.
First, privilege. What exactly is it?
The dictionary lists it as: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available to a particular person or group of people.
Our current cultural of the use of the word seems as though it clusters upon that first part of the definition – the “special right” part.
Peeling another layer of the onion away, we can examine what the word right means. In the sense indicated by the definition of privilege, the multifaceted meaning of the word right most likely refers to: a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way.
Mention of the word ‘entitlement’ in this definition certainly seems to resonate deeply with the common notion of ‘privilege’, considering the two words are often used in tandem or interchangeably. But notice how else the two words link up. Privilege also means advantage. And what is an advantage? Is it not some sort of opportunity to obtain something or take a particular sort of action that is somehow only available to one person or a small group due to some evolution of circumstance?
Does not the artistic student have an advantage over the other students when it comes to the design aspect of the project? Does not math whiz have an advantage over the other students when it comes to a comfortable and fluid understanding and usage of numbers?
Another way to phrase the categorization of these students, each in turn, is that they are privileged in some way that the others are not. The reason why doesn’t really matter. Sure each has spent more time and attention devoted to their particular area of expertise, but advantages come to all of us for a variety of reasons, whether they be earned or not. The earned aspect is not nearly as important as the ability to respond as it stands due to the advantage.
The artistic student has an advantage among the group and this ability enables the artistic student to respond when the opportunity comes up.
Is that not what responsibility is?
The ability to respond.
We generally associate reasonability with the concept of obligation. And while there’s a perfectly valid argument here, it’s perhaps an upside-down way of looking at how these words work. Obligation, after all, derives from the word ‘promise’ and only a fool promises to do something they know they can’t do. The majority of honest promises are undertaken because we know we can follow through. Again we return to the group of students. The artistic student pipes up because they understand their own ability and see how it can contribute. Each student makes a promise to fulfill some part because their advantage gives them confidence in their ability to respond to the task at hand. Witness how the concepts of both privilege and responsibility are weaving into one another. Each student makes a promise, and obligates themselves, to fulfill some part because their advantage, their privileged position enables them to take on the responsibility because they have the ability to respond in the way that the whole group needs.
We are all equipped with a unique perspective. Each of us sees a particular slice of the world. Each of us has the privilege of this unique perspective, and it gives us the ability to see a certain slice that is unavailable to anyone else. We have a responsibility to share it, because that advantage gives us the ability to see it by default. This is the most basic function of what it means to be a person on the planet.
What can you see that no one else can?
From that question arises billion dollar business ideas. From that question arises beautiful novels and paintings, and plays and songs. From that question arises innovations that change the game we are playing. From that question arises ideas to save lives and heal the sick. From that question arises ways to make our species stronger, better.
Your ability to respond to the situation of your life is both your responsibility and your privilege.
That special perspective and the ability it affords urges each and every one of us to answer the question:
What are you going to do about what you see?