I’m a hugely privileged person. Almost all the advantages that can be bestowed upon someone in our society have been bestowed upon me. I was brought up in a family for which money wasn’t really an issue. I lived in a nice place – in leafy, privileged Cambridge – and went to very good schools. State schools, as it happens, but in Cambridge the state schools are remarkably good, and Hills Road Sixth Form College, where I did my A Levels, can compete at an academic level with pretty much all the ‘top’ public schools in the country. I went to Cambridge University. I’m male. I’m white. I’m straight. I’ve always been able to find jobs. I’m married, have a child, have a great job, own a nice home, I’m able-bodied, not suffering from mental health problems and reasonably healthy. I tick almost all the right boxes – and have all the advantages.
Many more advantages, indeed, than some people seem to want to acknowledge. I grew up in a remarkable family – one of the reasons I felt compelled to write this piece is that tomorrow is the memorial for my father, Martin Bernal, who was himself a quite remarkable man – academic, author, folk singer, campaigner etc.. He died in the summer, and over the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about what I got from having him as a father – and indeed from having so many interesting people around me so much of my life. It was and is an immense privilege. I grew up in a household where we were expected to read, to learn, to question. We were listened to – well, most of the time – and were given a huge amount of freedom, and included in fascinating conversations. I was instilled with confidence and with a sense that pretty much anything was possible.
These kinds of things matter – they add a huge, extra layer of advantage to the more tangible ones that wealth so directly provides. They open doors for you – doors that are generally already pretty much ajar to the privileged but shut, locked and bolted against anyone else. They make it far, far easier to take advantage of opportunities – and when you add it to the safety nets that wealth and connections provide they make life much, much easier.
And yet, somehow, a great many people who are privileged seem to forget this – indeed, they seem to think exactly the opposite. They convince themselves that they have made successes of their lives from raw talent and intelligence and that everyone else who hasn’t succeeded must have failed either because they’re too stupid - as the recent speech of Boris Johnson seems to suggest – or too lazy (as the whole ‘strivers vs scroungers’ agenda supposes) or because they’ve made terrible decisions, can’t budget and so forth.
I understand some of where they’re coming from. There’s no doubt in my mind that intelligence plays a part in all this – but the part it plays is vastly overstated, and what exactly ‘intelligence’ means is much harder to describe or measure than people seem to think. I know I’m intelligent by the kind of standards that Boris uses – I have a degree in mathematics and a PhD in law – but I also know that this ‘intelligence’ hasn’t been the most important thing in the way that opportunities have come up for me. I know for example that having the words ‘Cambridge University’ on my CV make people more willing to read further. I know that my family name has made some people in academia more interested in what I do. More than anything else, though, I know that society is ‘designed’ to let ‘people like me’ succeed.
Three events in my twenties put a lot of this into context for me, and have changed the way I’ve looked at things. The first was when I was an accountant, working for one of the biggest accountancy firms in the City of London, in the late 80s. The height of Thatcherism, when greed was certainly seen as good. We’d had a good ‘busy season’, but after a merger of firms I found myself denied a promotion – as did everyone else in my cohort, or so we were told. When I found out that this wasn’t true, and that one person (who happened to have very good connections) had been given this promotion, I was outraged, and started digging around to find out what was going on. I asked all my contemporaries what had happened to them – had they been promoted, what ‘rating’ had they got, how much were they paid and so on. I soon found something much more outrageous than my petty jealousy about having been denied a promotion: every single woman was paid less than every single man. To put it another way, the best paid woman was on a lower salary than the worst paid man. Now this wasn’t anything to do with merit – I’d worked with most of the people, and I knew very well that however you decided to measure things this could not possibly be right. What made it even worse was that when I confronted the partner (male, public school and Oxbridge) about it, he said ‘why do you care, you’re a man’ or words to that effect. That this made me even angrier – and meant my leaving the firm was inevitable – seemed to be close to incomprehensible to him.
The second was in Burma – I was visiting the country in 1991, soon after leaving my accountancy job, at a time when the government was at its most oppressive and repressive. I had got in on a semi-diplomatic visa (through connections(!)) and was able to visit much more of the country than the usual tourist packages – travelling up to Mandalay and being shown around the place by a group of young Burmese people, introduced to me through my connections. They’d never met me, but I had never encountered such welcoming, interested, open and even happy people in my life. I had three or four days with them and it changed my outlook on life forever. I had been feeling rather sorry for myself and depressed – but when I looked at these people, living under one of the most repressive governments on the planet, with little opportunity for any of the things that we take for granted, and found that they were able to be so open and welcoming I thought I was being ridiculous. If they can find a way to be happy and interested, how can I possibly be so selfish and self-indulgent myself? When I found out after I returned to the UK that pretty much everyone seen talking to me in Burma – and that would have been most of them, since Burmese military intelligence had spies everywhere – was taken in for questioning after the event, my respect for them grew even more.
The third was a year or two later, when I was helping out with a ‘peace conference’ for children, in Lillehammer in Norway. We had kids from many, many countries, each with an adult accompanying them. One afternoon, our hosts, Redd Barna Norway (their version of Save the Children) arranged a session for the adult chaperones from the African countries. There were about 30 of them, from memory, from all over Africa. The question the Norwegians asked was ‘how can we help you?’ It was all very well-meaning, but when I saw the faces of the audience, I was surprised – and when I heard the answers they gave even more so. It wasn’t ‘give us more aid’ or ‘send us more machinery’ or ‘give us training in medicine’ or anything like that. It was, instead, simple and unequivocal: leave us alone. We don’t want your aid – and we don’t want your multinationals taking over our country, your arms companies selling weapons to our governments and the various opposition groups. Leave us alone. The hosts were shocked – but every single one of the representatives said the same. I’m not suggesting they were ‘right’, or that this was in any way a representative sample, but the event still shocked me. Our patronising paternalism was not what was wanted – and we had to think all over again.
What does this mean?
When I read about Boris’s speech, and when I think about all the patronising, elitist, offensive stuff that this government and pretty much every government I can remember have said, it makes me angry. Things like accusing poor people of not knowing how to budget, how to cook, how to feed their kids, how to make good decisions, or of being lazy, stupid etc. Suggestions from ministers that they could easily live on the amounts people get in benefits. Suggestions that people don’t try hard enough to get jobs. Suggestions that they don’t work hard enough. They all make me angry – and they make it clear to me that most of those speaking don’t know how privileged they are – and what the consequences of that privilege are.
For me, there are a few things that I try to remember. The first is the most obvious – that I’m deeply privileged and deeply lucky. The second is that I still don’t know quite how privileged and lucky I am – because so much of the privilege is hidden and built into the system, so much that those who are privileged can’t see it. Until I asked, I never realised that all the women were being paid less than all the men. Until I went to Burma and met those Burmese people I didn’t realise how it was possible not to feel sorry for yourself for the smallest thing. Until I listened to the African people at the conference, I didn’t realise quite how many assumptions I was making about how to solve the world’s problems.
That, in the end, is the most important thing. Whoever you are, however intelligent and enlightened you are, you don’t know what life is like for other people. You don’t know how things are for them, how hard it is for them. I don’t know what it is like to be really poor, for example. I’ve been poor – but I’ve been poor and still known I have family that would support me in the end, that I have the kind of education and experience that can help me out, that I’m healthy and so forth. Men don’t know what it’s like to be women. Straight men don’t know what it’s like to be gay in the society we have today. Able-bodied people don’t know what it’s like to have a disability. White people don’t know what it is like to be black. Wealthy people don’t know what it’s like to be poor.
There’s an old saying: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. There’s a degree to which it’s true, and it certainly seems that the current lot of powerful people are thoroughly irresponsible. I’d like to add another – though it’s deeply wishful thinking. With great privilege should come great humility. Those of us who are privileged – like me, and like Boris – should be able to find that humility. To know that we really don’t know what it’s like to live without our privilege. We can try to imagine – but we’ll never really succeed. And we should know that we’ll never really succeed – and be far, far more willing to listen properly to those who do know it. Most of all, though, we should know when not to talk as though we had all the answers. We should know when to shut up.