A few words on privilege…

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 shocks…

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.

147 thoughts on “A few words on privilege…

  1. Nice piece Paul, typical of your humility and generosity.

    Yes statements made by Boris et al remind me of of Bounderby in HARD TIMES and his mean and hypocritical and lazy perception that the remainder of people-not-like-us as wishing to ‘feast on turtle soup and venison, served with a golden spoon’.
    And (paraphrasing) He looks at 100,000 other men and wonders why they too cannot make £100,000. In short – measuring others against his own baseness.

    Incidentally, I too come from a privileged background..I am from a working class family. We classically did not have much (hand-me-down clothes and spam-not-ham) but we did have a close familial upbringing, support, loyalty, and a sense of integrity, honesty, and community.
    And moreover, perhaps, a sense of equality – to treat others fairly and with respect no matter their background or accent – even in the face of discrimination and slights thrown our way as say for example, Five-children in poor clothes traipsed behind their mother on a rare shopping trip into the City.

    Now I work in Law, (from the Treasury Solicitor’s Office to a mere poor Legal Executive in Social Housing) but I have seen a little of the rainbow that is my country, from the ground to the sky.
    Privilege indeed.

  2. A joy to read. It’s a shame that the sneering starts when the privileged person begins to think “what a clever fellow I am”. That is the real sadness that makes everyone who reads it thoroughly miserable. I must admit that I have been just as guilty on occasion and equally ashamed to recall those times. Thank you for reminding me that we are all privileged if we live in Western Europe. Best regards.

  3. Read “Chavs: demonisation of the working class” by Owen Jones or “Why some politicians are dangerous” by James Gilligan.

  4. Many thanks for this, which I came across from a link in the comments below Steve Bell’s Boris cartoon in the Guardian.

    Whenever I express such sentiment to my other privileged white middle class friends I am sometimes met with incredulity.

    I’m a medical Dr, working class born but first generation Cambridge, after state grammar school. For me my position is one of absolute privilege.

    Sadly I have met a number of other Drs over the years who seem to think they are doing the world a favour by being a Dr, when they could be, I don’t know, a city worker instead. Amazing really.

  5. Dear Paul, your essay makes me curious to read as soon as possible Boris´ essay. I do understand that this is not what you wanted but thanks nevertheless! Seen from the continent he seems to be one of the rather few interesting politicians in your country. Here in Germany your mood is sometimes called “gut-menschlich”, with some irony towards people who give a lot of attention to their sentiments – sentiments that poor and less-priviliged people should get a lot of money, not from oneselfs, of course, but from the state. If you are privileged – why not enjoying it? Life is definitely not just, people arent equal and live tends, unfortunately, to be short. So, if I may give an advice: Just care for your family, serve your country and support people in need.
    Herzliche Grüße, Burkhart

    • Justice is something made by people. And it is not a binary proposition; there can be more or less of it. If people who think like you dominate, there will be less of it. If people who think like Paul dominate, there will be more of it.
      You want to be on the side of injustice, fine, but be warned: Those against you will hate you, and those on your side cannot be trusted; if they weren’t the type to stab you in the back the moment it’s useful, they wouldn’t oppose justice in the first place.

  6. Hi Paul,

    These things are really important. I am a disabled woman (and – sorry to be picky! – the opposite of disabled is not “able bodied” but “non disabled” since so many disabilities are not bodily, for example learning disabilities or mental heath disabilities like mine) but have to remember in all the work that I do as a mental health activist that I am nonetheless privileged. I was brought up in a middle-class academic household, and I have a partner who can pay the bills while I try and rebuild a career shattered by my illness. What opens doors for me is being articulate but I have to remember that this is not just some kind of natural gift, it was nurtured and celebrated by my parents, their friends and by my (state school) teachers.

    I have written about privilege in mental health and how I believe it is disingenuous to say that celebrities who can check into private hospitals, who can buy in childcare or housekeeping, and who will have jobs held open for them because they are “talent”, suffer in the same way as the general service user. I also stated my belief that there is a hierarchy of privilege of diagnosis, with mild-moderate common conditions like depression or anxiety suffering nowhere near so much stigma as personality disorders or schizophrenia. It proved a controversial post. Many people clearly want to believe we are “all in it together” but that’s certainly not how I see it.

    Anyway, I’m rambling! Just a topic of interest for me, so thanks.

    Charlotte

    • Thank you – and I’ll remember to use non disabled in the future. It’s important – and apologies for getting it wrong. Actually, since I wrote the piece I’ve realised a number of things that I messed up on. I should have mentioned transsexuality too, amongst other things.

  7. It is very difficult as a young woman from a ‘working class’ family for me to see any successful future, despite doing my BA, now on to my MA, I am still constantly rejected by prospective employers, I want nothing more than to work hard and achieve my goals, it isn’t even about money, I just want to do something rewarding. I have always been told by my father that working hard in any profession is good enough and that he will always be proud of me. Despite this I want to secure my dream career. I know that my parents both feel responsible in some way for the struggles me and my siblings face in our present and future, such a shame. I love them more than anything and whilst they did not give me riches, art galleries, museums, fancy dinners and Tolstoy for Christmas they gave me love and a place to call home in this crazy world. My Father is the greatest man I’ve ever known.

    Sorry to hear about your Father passing, may he R.I.P

  8. I was deeply moved by this piece because of the way you point out how privilege is systemic in institutions, starting from the home. It also made me realise how important it is to be thankful for what one has. In ‘Happiness Economics’ Layard writes about how we measure our happiness relative to the group we surround ourselves with. It makes it hard for this relative happiness to be situated in a wider context and put into perspective when we just take it for granted. Thanks for the perspective Paul, and the lesson in humility.

  9. I’m not sure if it’s such a good idea to tell a story suggesting all development aid is post-colonial paternalism, and then offset it with the comment ‘I’m not suggesting they were ‘right’, or that this was in any way a representative sample, but the event still shocked me.’ This seems simply slapdash and anecdotal. Why not come down on one side or the other and give evidence? I know what side I come down on. Development aid at its best helps people to help themselves, and doesn’t leave people to starve. One superficially persuasive argument against aid is that it undercuts spending and investment in the relevant areas by the recipient countries. But if I may quote a distinguished commentator on the subject, Roger Riddell, a director of the think-tank Oxford Policy Management, a former adviser to DfiD: ‘A significant number of recent studies have shown that the effects of aid on public finances have been positive…aid has stimulated investment, and even when aid has been used for consumption purposes, this has also been shown to have had a positive effect on aggregate growth.’

    • I’m not sure it’s a good idea either – but I’m not sure about much as far as aid is concerned, which is kind of the point I was trying to make. It’s the certainties I had that were shaken – and on this point I’ve have responses from people who’ve read this piece in both directions, people with direct experience both ways. I Still don’t know – but will continue to ask questions. You may well be right – I’m sure you know more about this than me.

  10. I wanted to reply to this, and it turned into such a long and rambling novelette that I gave up. But I wanted you to know that I read your words, and to thank you for them, because it improved my day. Your integrity shines.

  11. Please stop using the word “privilege”. At least in america, it’s code for “I hate this person because they are successful, and so I’m going to be a bigot against them by assuming that they never had to work for their success”.

    Secondly, you *almost* had enlightenment in Norway– when the Africans wished to be left alone. Yet you didn’t figure it out. It is government that makes people poor. Government that takes all of their income in taxes (you have the “privilege” of having a better income and thus less damage from taxes even if you pay a higher rate)… it is the government who regulates their lives to the Nth degree like those in burma.

    When you talk of Equality you talk about creating the society you saw in Burma but clearly never learned from.

    Freedom and Equality are the opposite. In equality you force everyone to be poor — and then they are equal. (except of course for the self appointed elites at the top, like you seemingly imagine yourself to be, like the poilitburo, the “central committee” and the like.)

    Equality is what existed in Russia. Equality cannot exist without totalitarianism.

    You have your head so wrapped up by the prejudice of privilege that you want to destroy the lives of the poor and the rich by doing violence against them for the “crime” of not being equal.

    And despite claiming to have a good education you lack even the basics of economics to understand this.

    You are not privileged, you are just another “good german”… another uneducated, easily manipulated, wannabe tyrant.

    Shame on you.

      • Mr Bernal, I admire and respect your character. I have never read your blog before, but by your words and your response to vitriol and plain rudeness from people like “engineer”, I think you are truly a very patient, tolerant, well-mannered and respectful man. Your words are a reminder to us all to be mindful of our position in life and spare a thought for others and to help where we can. It’s a universal message that applies not only to your target audience in the UK, but to everyone everywhere.
        Life will never be equal. That’s a fact. But yes, the rich have a responsibility to help the poor, or at the very least, be aware of this. I hope I read your article right and thank you for making such a difference in the world. Privileged as you are, so am I today to read your words. Your words are seeds of compassion you sow in your readers. Sure, there will be haters and seeds which never take root, but again, I believe there are many others whom you move and touch. Empathy is a powerful way to connect with people. Thank you.

    • Allow me to reply from an American perspective.

      Freedom and Equality are mutually exclusive? RIDICULOUS!!!

      This undermines one of the founding principles of the United States, one which gave impetus for colonials to replace a government subjected to monarchy and nobility with one of democracy. Even in the libertarian or anarchist ideals, or going further back to Locke’s state of nature, both equality and freedom exist side by side.

      Also “In equality you force everyone to be poor — and then they are equal” really?? Is Denmark poor? Is Finland poor? Is Iceland poor? REALLY???

      Is everyone in Norway “poor”?? Because the last time I checked, the fact that they pour billions into welfare and education (and let’s not forget that bane of civilized society called “socialized medicine”) is all possible BECAUSE Norway puts its energy income towards a sovereign wealth fund, not in spite of it. And everyone there seems pretty ok despite the ridiculous taxes everyone pays.

      My advice: STOP WATCHING FOX NEWS. That channel will mess up your brain worse than a chicken snake in a lawnmower. Great words from Mr. Bernal here, you just keep on keepin’ on.

    • Others have covered some of the bases. With respect to Mr. Bernal’s article, I’d just like to hazard a guess:
      Mr. engineer, you are a white male. You come from a middle class or better background, at a minimum from parents who could get decent schooling and housing thanks to government programs such as the GI bill after WW II. You are in short a child of precisely the kind of privilege Mr. Bernal describes, indulging in just the kind of “I hit a home run” illusions he refers to, having started at second or so and feeling it exceedingly important to heckle the people standing at the plate with a bat wearing concrete blocks on their feet.
      Pathetic.

  12. When I was young, I lived in germany. At the time there were two germanies- east and west. And so I learned about WWII at a young age. I wondered why the german people would let the Nazis do what they did. How they could be fooled. As I came to be older I came to understand that they were manipulated with propaganda, taught their whole lives to serve the nazi party (or for the older emotionally ruined by WWI and thus easy pickings for well crafted propaganda).

    You see, the nazis, from their perspective, were not evil. They were just trying to fight the jews who were privileged with all the money and who were destroying the country– from their perspective.

    Now, obviously a great many average germans were hoodwinked. They lacked the basic understanding of economics or even the situation to recognize what was being done with them.

    These germans were called “good germans”. EG: the simple country folk who were easy to manipulate.

    Were they evil people? Did they set out to do evil? Of course not. They set out to do good, and they thought of themselves as good people.

    They just lacked the understanding of the world to recognize that it was actually evil they were supporting.

    You’re a good german and this blog post is essentially a modern rant against “the jews”. You aren’t reachable by argument because your whole perspective has been twisted- you think making people poor and doing violence against them is “good” and that giving them a job (where they had none) for less pay than you dictate is “evil”. This is not very far in politics from the nationalist socialists. They hated jews, tying “privilege” to a specific ethnicity– you hate the same people for the same reason, you just don’t mention ethnicity.

    Let’s hope your kind don’t force us to go thru another world war before you learn your lesson.

      • Thank you for your reply to “engineer”. Couldn’t have responded in such a civilized manner to such an unwarranted and baffling response to what I would consider a thoughtful and educational post.

    • Engineer, do you know why the “good germans” were so easy to manipulate? Do you know why Goebbels’ was so effective in hoodwinking so many people?

      CONFORMITY. Of course it was a complex situation with countless more variables to be taken into account, but the bottom like is that Goebbels managed to hoodwink so many because he capitalized on the human propensity towards fearing the unknown.

      Have you actually SEEN Triumph of the Will?? It’s chock-full of imagery that hearkens good, old fashioned “christian” conservative values. Hard work. Self reliance. Strength through adversity. It permeates even the most basic levels of Nazi ideology – an ideology which, let’s not forget, was rooted in a belief of inherent, incorrigible racial and cultural inequality.

      It is the SAME inequality which Mr. Bernal is referring to in his article. It’s not him that is argumentatively unreachable, it’s you! Because it’s you, not him, that (erroneously) links the concept of equality with that of poverty, which I say again is RIDICULOUS.

      If the human race is condemned to live through the horrors of yet another world war, it won’t be because of people like Mr. Bernal – it will be because of people like yourself.

    • Ah, I begin to understand! An American growing up in post WW II Germany, I’m thinking parent/s in the armed forces. So during that time you acquired an unrelenting hatred for the statist monstrosity that is the US armed forces, and projected that onto all government projects . . . understandable, but really that skews your outlook.
      Note: Yes, the above is satirical; I am presuming that Mr. Engineer in his rant against all things state manages to except the biggest state organization of all and ignore the particular government teat that his parents sucked on.

  13. Fantastic piece, but I do wish to nit pick one particularly pernicious statement – that “men don’t know what it’s like to be women”. In the hierarchy of privilege, gender as an indicator is very close to the bottom, with working class males often being the least privileged of a population (in education, in earnings, in earning potential, in work place deaths, in life expectancy, in quality of life and etc).

    • Privilege is not a ticky-box list where the person with more ticks in boxes has more privilege and therefore an “easier” time of things.

    • The hierarchy of privilege? Run that past me again? So how does that work? Who decides which privileges are more significant?

      Class privilege goes very much unacknowledged. But that doesn’t mean it’s more important than gender privilege.

      You allude unspecifically to stats about education, earnings, workplace deaths, life expectancy etc, as if your arguments are entirely objective, but there is always some selectiveness involved in *which* stats and stories you pay attention to. For instance, if you included stats on domestic violence and sexual assault in your list you might get a slightly different picture.

      In a society so steeped in gender conditioning, it’s true that someone gender-conditioned as a “man” does not know what it’s like to be someone gender-conditioned as a “woman”. (And vice-versa, FWIW). To me that’s just fundamentally obvious.

  14. Very thoughtful writing, Paul, thank you. I’ve often thought of these issues myself, but never articulated them quite so clearly. One thing that is not yet clear in my mind is – should *earned* privilege be completely uncredited?

    I see this being valid both within a generation as well as across generations.
    Within: say someone is born in a non-privileged family but through discipline and perseverance single-handedly becomes well-off and thus – from that point onwards – has the ‘privilege’ of wealth, respect, etc. Should everything that contributed to that earned privilege not count, i.e. does this person deserve to be equally respected in comparison with someone from a similar background who did *not* make a similar effort to overcome the initial unfavourable conditions? In other words, should earned privilege be dismissed in the same way that inherited privilege is usually dismissed?
    Between generations: I think it’s reasonable to assume that many privileges can ultimately be traced to sweat and well-placed effort somewhere sufficiently high “up-stream” (although there are of course many undeserved privileges that are still inherited). So if you, for example, were born almost pre-destined – as you say – for success, then surely some credit has to go to your family for using their existing wealth and education in a way that transferred well to their offspring, rather than being wasted as is the case with other rich families. Your parents would themselves, of course, have inherited perhaps 99% (both materially and mentally) from their ancestors and so on, but ultimately, I think, each generation can, to some degree, be assessed/judged for either adding or taking away a tiny bit from the ‘baseline’ with which they have initially – and without their choice – been endowed. It’s like children inheriting the parents’ house – they don’t deserve it as such, but the parent probably worked hard for that house, or at the very least added his/her work to the little that they inherited from *their* parent.

    I’m not sure if I expressed myself quite clearly. In short, I definitely agree that it is easy for someone born in privileged conditions to be successful (and hard for someone not born in such conditions), and that often no credit should be given for such existing privilege. But I personally am still not convinced that privilege cannot also mean something that is earned and that distinguish what a hard-working person has done for themselves as opposed to a less hard-working person. It’s a form of continuation law, I suppose. As long as the born-privileged ones have the clarity to be thankful rather than conceited about it, as you explain here, then I don’t think that earned privilege is something to be dismissed or ashamed of.

    I’d very much value your (and other people’s) thoughts on this difficult topic, that I don’t think has a very clear solution to it; at the very least, I agree with you that we should all have the humility to not proclaim any answer to this debate as being the ultimate & correct one.

    • Many thanks for the comment, and sorry that I don’t have time to reply properly. I largely agree, though sometimes ‘earned’ privilege is also down to good fortune (in the sense of being in the right place at the right time) as well as hard work, and the converse for people who have a hard time of it. I need to think a bit more about this though!

    • ‘…I think it’s reasonable to assume that many privileges can ultimately be traced to sweat and well-placed effort somewhere sufficiently high “up-stream”….’

      I disagree. If we’re talking about power and wealth, they can more often be traced back to violence, domination and exploitation – the idea that they are usually a result of someone’s ancestors just being hard-working enough is a myth.

      Of course it’s impossible to generalise completely about every situation, but at a very fundamental level capitalist economics means that most profit is made by exploiting someone else’s work.

    • I’m not sure it’s a problem we currently need to worry about. If discrepancies in earnings ever threaten to become tiny and minimal or zero rather than monstrous and grotesque, and this causes problems, then perhaps we can worry about rebalancing again.
      But I’m not convinced it’s a problem. We (the privileged first world) are not in a society of great scarcity; everyone could be reasonably well off if we felt like making it so. Is there not room for rewarding productivity and excellence more simply and directly, with respect and admiration from one’s peers? Money turns out to actually be a poor motivator for non-rote tasks, why rely on it? On what actually motivates us I suggest checking out the following RSA Animate video:

  15. Well isn’t it refreshing to have somebody articulate what you’ve been struggling to express for a long time. It kind of needs to be voiced from this side of the fence, too (a fence that, incidentally, you seem to be straddling rather well, I might add).
    How do you fancy running the country? …Nope?
    And herein the problem lies (not to presume your response *too* much, there – you may well be more than happy to!) But I always say those who want to be politicians (or perhaps more accurately, those who want power), by very definition, ought *not* to be in power, and those who would be good at it, well, I wouldn’t wish it on them, and can certainly see why they’re not generally drawn toward the prospect. I admit, I partly get this perspective from being daunted by the Oxford Union debating society (which seemed to be a sort of huge game of dressing up for wannabe MPs), that I found profoundly disturbing as a concept, (a la, ‘I’m just going to go and learn how to fight for a generic cause I’ll figure out what the cause is that I care about later’). Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there were many people who did very good things within that particular club (a club which I knew nothing about whilst at the high school I attended prior to university). One can only hope there were at least a few folks who viewed the prospect of power with similar levels of integrity and humility, but it is worrying to think that this *truly was* (and no doubt still is) the ‘play house’ for power.
    Anyway, thank you again for a great piece.

    • Thanks – and you’re quite right I have no desire to run the country at all, for a vast number of reasons, not least that the whole process of politics seems to be soul-destroying. Our whole system is messed up completely.

  16. I think it’s interesting that acknowledging how lucky, how privileged, you have been in life has become taboo. It’s as if the unquestionable doctrine of meritocracy and a desperate wish for it to be true, now, forces people who have achieved to pretend that they definitely started out on an equal playing field, and that they travelled through life without a single serendipitous event staining their hard-earned path to the top. As if accepting that the occasional connection or lucky break devalues every achievement.

  17. A thoughtful and insightful piece. I think the commentator from across the Pond has got his wires badly crossed. You talk of equality of opportunity not absolute equality – two entirely different concepts. The feckless exist at all levels of society. It’s only the consequences that vary. Not everything the ‘haves’ have is earned through hard work and diligence and not everything the ‘have-nots’ don’t have is because they can’t be bothered to work for it. Privilege is exactly the correct word to use. Privilege (and patronage) is alive and kicking in modern Britain. As far as I’m concerned anyone who can’t see it is living in cloud cuckoo land not Britain (or indeed, the USA).

  18. Thanks for this piece of work which spoke to me. The inability to put ourselves in another’s situation should be recognized. We cannot imagine to be in the shoes of the poor or the people in power(I don’t think I can comprehend the stress of making policies affecting the entire population), we can only be in our own shoes and try to listen to others with open ears and heart.

    This article seems to talk about the cognitive weakness in which the poor have to spend more bandwidth worry about other things.
    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/books/scarcity-why-having-too-little-means-so-much-by-sendhil-mullainathan-and-eldar-shafir/2007116.article

  19. Just want to thank you for this piece of writing. While scrolling thru the comments, I think there are some who misunderstood the point of your article. I am one of those who I imagine “earned” my privileged life (tho I am nowhere rich by my country’s standard). I came from a lower middle class family, born to a lowly educated father and an illiterate mum, muddled my way through the school system, met a good man, married him, went to grad sch and hold a stable job. I was previously a tr and I am deeply aware of the cultural capital that avails to those who come from more privileged background, my own children amongst them. My children had their own room since the day they were born, have tons of toys and books, get chauffeured ard to wherever they want to go by their father and eats out at restaurants with us. At a tender age of 5, my son’s taste buds is cosmopolitan, knows pasta for Italian food, sushi and udon for Jap food etc. My greatest worry for them is that they do not realise that they are privileged and feel a sense of entitlement to all that they have, not knowing that that it is really the luck of the draw that they are born into this family where they have a father who wd do anything to give them the best he can. I worry that my children will grow up to look down upon their grandparents, to see them as uncouth and uneducated, not realizing that their grandparents were denied the opportunities that were made available to them by their parents and society in a different time. I fear that my children will take their success for granted or believe that they have “totally earned it” without appreciating that their success was premised on many other factors and those who are worse off than them are not necessarily less hardworking or intelligent.

    Thanks for sharing so candidly abt your perspective and know it truly resonates with me.

    • You don’t have to refuse your children good living if you can provide for them. Simply make them to work for the things they want – if they are small – make them to help at home for pocket money, when they’re teenagers – ‘suggest’ finding a weekend job themselves. They will quickly learn to appreciate what they’ve got.

  20. Love this. Thank you for such a brilliant piece. They always say, “the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know”.

    Never stop with your generous humility. xx

  21. Well-written article, but some food for thought:

    1) I would argue that calling for humility on the part of the privileged needs to be a little more defined. I am all for being a little less sure of ourselves, and being cognisant of the fact that our success stems from an unknowable blend of merit and privilege and that we have nothing to boast about. But having no convictions on issues because we cannot be in the other person’s shoes is really a false modesty. Chesterton articulates this quite well in his book Orthodoxy:

    “Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert-himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason… The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping: not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.”

    To give an example, we have no issues with the authority of parents over their children within the family unit, but paternalism writ large on society is seen as problematic. Is it not possible that there are those who truly do not understand what they need and those that do? That on an issue-by-issue basis, there are those in society who are akin to ‘children’ and those who are akin to ‘parents’?

    2) Perhaps what we need then is a lot more empathy from those who would set themselves up as ‘parents’. They should be more convinced about their ideas of the world to the extent that their convictions move them to action. There are many who can discuss these issues from comfy armchairs, but there are fewer who are willing to take action to make a difference. I do not imply that you are one of these, but I know far too many privileged people who are armchair critics of privilege even as they continue to wallow in it on the excuse of ignorance over the right course of action. To act on one’s convictions is a commendable act of integrity, even if one’s convictions are immoral. Yet for those who walk their talk, they need the humility to recognise at some point that their ideas might be based on flawed evidence or thinking. That their identities cannot lend their ideas legitimacy. This is the kind of humility I would advocate. Not a humility that claims ignorance of others, but a humility that enables one to adapt his convictions where they are wrong as he lives them out on a daily basis.

    • Very interesting – thanks. I would raise a couple of points though. Firstly, it may surprise you know that I actually would raise a question about a parent’s authority over their children. I write about children’s rights from time to time – and those rights include rights in relation to their parents. In terms of privacy, for example, I argue that children have a strong right to privacy from their parents.

      This kind of right – indeed all kinds of rights for children – are recognised in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which suggests rights for children related to their maturity, and measures that maturity not by their chronological age but their capacity….

      …which brings me to my second, more important point. Isn’t it patronising to start with to equate people from the various groups discussed with children? Women aren’t ‘children’ in relation to ‘parental’ men. Nor are any of the groups concerned here. To make such suggestions is already making a big assumption, isn’t it?

      I agree that humility needs focus – but that focus shouldn’t itself come from a paternalistic or patronising position, should it?

      • I think what i was trying to aim at with the parent-children analogy are that lines of authority exist in society, and often times for benign and good reasons. As such I was not equating particular groups with children on a literal basis, but on the analogous basis of figures in authority and under authority. At the risk of stereotyping, being from an Asian background, I have noticed that in Western cultures there’s a cultural tendency towards individualism, and authority is viewed suspiciously. As such there tends to be a much more vehement rejection of anything vaguely resembling paternalism. On the contrary, Asian cultures are probably overly accepting of state (and familial) paternalism, and need to be encouraged towards more independent thinking. My previous comment sought to address that there is a delicate balance between respecting authority and respecting the rights (and views) of the individual. That humility/empathy towards others and authority are not paradoxical, but should rather be bedfellows. Of course the fact that democratic systems have produced very few role models of humble authority beggars the question of how democratic these systems truly are.

      • Ah, now I understand you more. I like that way of putting it – that humility/empathy towards others and authority should be bedfellows. That makes a lot of sense to me. Thank you.

  22. A well written and well thought out article. The only piece of the argument I find lacking is that fails to point out the sense of entitlement that seems go hand in glove with those who can’t quite grasp the concept of how privileged we are. I see a direct correlation between the two and it seems to affect most people at every level of privilege. With any privilege only the person who earned it seems to value it’s worth, and those who are born into it feel entitled to it.

    Just an observation.

  23. I used to state very proudly that I put myself through college. On my own! I never received grants or loans or help from family. I went to a private college and work my way starting with mowing lawns. I loved it and got an excellent education in and out of classes.

    Then I went to Argentina and realized that what I had done would be impossible there. Student housing, student jobs, professors with posted office hours, and many, many systemic things to help students were non-existent there. What I achieved by my “self sufficiency” was really bought by others who had prepared the system. I was swimming in the system so deeply that I didn’t see what I was breathing until that experience. My pride turned to shame for my ingratitude.

    Now I see that as definition of grace. The opportunity was given to me freely by others. I had to work to take advantage of it or it would be worthless to me, but that’s what God is calling us to do.

    It is good to read things like this and step back to notice what you can’t see when you’re in the middle of it. Thank you for another perspective.

    • I feel exactly as you are, since I’m a hardworking female and appreciate hard work and having aims in life more than anything. And then I met people who did not have half of the opportunities I did. It shamed me. It is SO EASY to judge others and forget all the help we had to have to get where we are.

  24. I used to state very proudly that I put myself through college. On my own! I never received grants or loans or help from family. I went to a private college and worked my way starting with mowing lawns. I loved it and got an excellent education in and out of classes.

    Then I went to Argentina and realized that what I had done would be impossible there. Student housing, student jobs, professors with posted office hours, and many, many systemic things to help students were non-existent there. What I achieved by my “self sufficiency” was really bought by others who had prepared the system. I was swimming in the system so deeply that I didn’t see what I was breathing until that experience. My pride turned to shame for my ingratitude.

    Now I see that as definition of grace. The opportunity was given to me freely by others. I had to work to take advantage of it or it would be worthless to me, but that’s what God is calling us to do.

    It is good to read things like this and step back to notice what you can’t see when you’re in the middle of it. Thank you for another perspective.

  25. Americans have a phrase (I heard it often to describe George W. Bush) that sums up the attitude you describe: “born on third base, thinks he hit a triple.” Sorry for the baseball analogy but I think you can figure it out.

  26. Wonderful article Paul. Another proof that empathy does not depend on ‘class’ you belong. We need to educate our children to be more human, more compassionate – try to help them to understand why is important to understand others. As Hermann Hesse said: “To hold our tongues when everyone is gossiping, to smile without hostility at people and institutions, to compensate for the shortage of love in the world with more love in small, private matters; to be more faithful in our work, to show greater patience, to forgo the cheap revenge obtainable from mockery and criticism: all these are things we can do. ”

  27. Reblogged this on Life- A Masterpiece Crafted with Love and commented:
    Sharing this article because I shared the exact same thought a few days ago- though the knowledge of the privileged might seem more extensive than that of the less privileged, it isn’t. They would not know what it’s like to be underprivileged. And hence, humility should be one of the characteristics the privileged should strive for.

  28. I literally just wrote a short status, which I left to float around the often vapid facebook (not meant to sound elitist, as it’s a service I subscribe to willingly), about this not 2 weeks ago regarding my own feelings on this topic and my own case. If I wasn’t fundamentally against personal blogging because my credibility extends only as far as my socially perceived intelligence, relevant education, sphere of influence, and would likely achieve nothing more than the fleeting classification of “warm anecdote to think on,” I would have elaborated.

    But I digress, there should be no other approach to privilege other than humility and daily audits of your character. As with many things in life, the resistance of auditing for any reason is a show of insecurity and manufactured opaqueness. Things grow corrupt in the darkness when left to their own devices. Moral degradation is inevitable without the overbearing light of humanity and ethical obligation to guide you back to emotional transparency, and eventually the kind of self actualization that encourages charity, understanding, and saint like patience that (previously and articulately mentioned) ego driven societies that value individualism, and scepticism of anyone that has power over you are less likely to develop. Plus cynicism is quite common in a society that “empowers” you to be anything you want, which tends to be an additional catalyst for entitlement.

    With that said, I’ve long been guilty of cynicism, being a product of the very society I describe, often due to my disappointment of my peer’s lack of appreciation for their own privilege, rather than an underestimation of my own or some sort of irrelevant and erroneous perceived adversity. But I digress again. This ethical blog confessional and the high caliber of philosophical consideration and conscientiousness in the correspondence above resonates deeply with me. Much more than I could articulate in this already lengthy and metaphorical diction heavy response.

  29. Excellent piece.
    For my own experience I spent most of my life thinking I was merely a human being.
    Then I came to the realization that I was a white man, with all the privelige that this entails.
    This revelation is the first step on an important journey, I think.

  30. “Men don’t know what it’s like to be women”. It would be lovely to read a blog post about “trans identities” that kept this in mind.

  31. And what did you do in the end with what you discovered ? Did you improve women’s chances to succeed in the Company that employed you ? What did you do to change the system you describe ? Did you help the disabled and the poor ? That interests me more then anything else …

    • Well, I tried my best, talking about it a lot and causing the bosses a lot of embarrassment, then leaving in a way that they did not like. They did change their ways, a little, so I’m told. Not much, though, sadly.

  32. A nice post indeed… right to the point. Many people tend to fall into the so called “privilege comfort zone” until they forget that not everybody have the same luck and status as they are. Their superiority complexes subsequently worsen without them realizing how sarcastic and egoistic they are in the eyes of those surrounding them. Their search for fame or recognition somehow blinded them from the reality of life… the reality that no one can live solo throughout their life journey. Let’s hope that the honesty in humility will eradicate such an issue in them before their subconscious pride slowly eat them up.

  33. Dear Mr. Bernal,
    Thank you for your thoughts. I am from an Asian country and we pay women the same wages we pay men, so I was also shocked when I learnt during college in the US that men and women were paid differently on the same job. It is an insult to women who are our mothers. While I am not white I have a comparatively comfortable life too. I agree with you that we do not have the right to judge others because we cannot know were they are coming from or what they have been through. Even a sibling does not share the exact same experience. We should approach another person with cautious optimism, meaning well and be understanding with an open mind. And indeed, do what we do with the capacity each of us has to offer. I wish you the best on your noble endeavor, Paisit

  34. I read this post yesterday on a friends wall and was very touched by it, so much that in the morning I am still thinking about it. But probably not in the way Paul intended.
    When arriving in the UK 10 years ago I was for shock too. First I was shocked to learn that in Britain it’s a poor taste to celebrate national patron’s day, and now not only is wrong to be proud of being English but is also wrong to be educated, successful and from a good family…

    I am sorry, but either the world going bonkers or is it the socialist/ communist ideology still brainwashing people? I lived in communist block most of my life and I’ve seen it how very damaging this idea is for countries, for people, environment, for tradition and morals. Thus I just can’t agree with your message.

    I was amazed how you used the situation in Burma, Africa or women at workplace to justify the benefits culture. What one has to do with the other?
    I am not Boris fan, but if he said people are in trouble because of lack of responsibilities and laziness – he was right!

    For God’s sake – he was talking about Britain, not Burma. There are jobs here, there are free schools and free health care. If you want to do well for yourself and your family – you can! Why all the Eastern Europeans and not only them, who are coming here without speaking language, knowing system, having friends or family for support somehow manage to find jobs and make a living without relying on state? Well maybe because in those countries your life its own responsibility. While in modern Britain people expect state to provide for them, take care of them and take responsibility away from them. And Pauls is saying – poor them, they don’t work, they eat unhealthy food, they can’t manage their kids nor their spendings but it’s not their fault. Their just less fortunate. No they are not. Apart from very few cases of serious illness or disability they are just lazy. It’s fundamentally wrong and demoralizing for them and for their children. In most cases the reason for families living on benefits for years or even generations is not luck of opportunities but lack of self-discipline.
    Please stop coming up with more excuses for laziness and opportunism, the emperor is naked and it’s time to stop pretending we don’t see it.
    Agata

    • I’m interested that you read so much into my post – I didn’t say ‘poor them’ at all. Indeed, that would be just another form of a patronising attitude, just as much of an attempt to suggest that I know what things are like when I don’t.

      What I would say, though, is that the idea that there’s this huge ‘benefits culture’ is deeply misleading, propagated by the politicians, egged on by the media. I don’t believe it – and the evidence when it’s examined doesn’t support it. There are cases, of course, but they’re far, far rarer than is presented in the media. I’m not excusing laziness and opportunism at all: I’m suggesting that it doesn’t exist to anything like the extent that we’re regularly told.

  35. Hi Paul, no you didn’t say it directly ‘poor them’ but I think you’ve implied this by saying:
    “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.”
    If not the above reasons then tell me what in this country prevents people from succeeding or at least having decent live on their own expenses? As I mention above – free schooling, free NHS, students loans, system pretty close to democracy, no prejudice at work…this is not third world to talk about poverty.

    And I disagree with you that the ‘benefit culture’ is a problem created by politicians and Daily Mail.
    It is a huge problem in your country and you either don’t see it because of where you live (I can imagine that in Cambridge it may not be as visible as other part of the country) or because the white middle class guilt phenomena is preventing you from it.
    I am not from privileged background, I had hard time here arriving with just 2 luggages and my son, speaking very little English with no network or support and I had even harder childhood living in communist Poland. Maybe because of this I don’t share your view nor your guilt.
    Quite frankly I am amazed by the widely spread feeling of entitlement here.
    E.g. I live opposite big estate in London and during school holidays I feel like the only person living there. It is completely empty until I get to the station. Don’t tell me that this is unique and that this is not a problem. There must be few thousands people living there, where are they? Why aren’t they going to work??

    Don’t get me wrong – it’s nothing wrong with being humble but feeling guilty because you have a good family?? The society needs their elites, needs high culture, needs direction and examples to aspire to. Otherwise there will be not much more than Big Brother, Jeremy Kyle and X Factor.
    In my country the elites were eliminated – first by Nazi and later – even more brutally by Soviets. And that allowed communists to occupy my country for so long and what’s worse brainwash a big part of our society.
    i think as a nation you’ve achieved a lot and you should be proud of being British, cherish your heritage and your traditions.
    Don’t let the political correctness or what I call soften version of marxism, twist things.

    • I think you may be slightly missing the point – and you’re certainly not the ‘target audience’ for this piece. It’s not an attempt at an analysis of the lives or issues of the people that you’re mostly talking about: rather, it’s an analysis of the attitudes of the people who talk about them. It’s also not about guilt at all – I don’t feel guilty for having the background I have or the upbringing I have, I feel lucky. That’s qualitatively different – it implies a need to understand and be humble about it, not be guilty about it. I’ve been discussing this with many people, as you can imagine, and have had it pointed out to me that many of the major religions, and many of the most important philosophers, from Jesus, Buddha and Lao-Tze to Socrates , have placed huge emphasis on that idea of humility.

      I’m not sure if that helps, and I do recognise your perspective – it’s a strong and important one – but it’s not really what I’m arguing against.

      • Not sure how to understand “you’re certainly not the ‘target audience’ for this piece”?

      • What I meant was that I wrote it primarily to address the people who use their privilege without acknowledgement or understanding – people in my own position, or Boris’s. I aimed it at them, if you see what I mean. I don’t get the feeling that you do that at all.

  36. I agree with Agata’s stand point! It is very much a piece of a “socialiste de salon”, a philosopher without any guts who had all the chances to succeed but in the end probably did not because of his misplaced feelings of guilt. Or his so called feelings of guilt serve him as an excuse for not succeeding as well as he could have amongst the other priviledged. I strongly believe that when you are as priviledged you have the responsability to succeed and then with what you have achieved to spread the “good” around you, to take action also against injustice when you can and to actively help the persons in need around you. Without using the stupid excuse that they do not want to be helped for not giving nor doing anything in the end! It is all pretty naive and full with self pitty in the end… A pity so many people approve of this.

  37. Probably much too philosophical for me then! The brain is a wonderfull invention of nature but I am not certain it was intended for such a use. Again what did you do with what you discovered and all that humility you feel now Inside this huge World with all these huge differences nobody can exactly understand nor control? Now that you “understand” how privileged your are how do you act? Are you going to make a difference in this world ? Do you for instance pray for all the persons in need of help or do you support them by some action? You feel really lucky, that is great, but then… I really would like to know. Did you change something in the upbringing of your children, in your Relationship with your Partner, did you become more charitable ? What moral values are you spreading around ? My opinion is probably very close to Joel’s although less diplomatic! Action is the word otherwise your humility is just useless.

    • I’ve changed a lot of things on a practical level – for me, it’s action on a practical level that really counts, not prayer, not just signing petitions, clicking on stories and so on. I don’t get it right all the time, to say the least (!) but I do try. I try to support my family – I was a pretty much full-time father when my daughter was born, and always try to do my share at home. But, and it’s a big but, the main thing is to always be ready to realise I’m doing it wrong.

      Does that make sense? I’m a little sick today…

  38. ok I understand. Listen I do not intend to be nasty with you, but I am a white female and I did not go to Cambridge or any other nice important University, just to a local one because my parents did not want to spend that kind of money on a girl (who anyhow is supposed to get well married..) I had to fight a lot, I have been sexually harassed by male clients and superiors, even though I am not a top model and I do nor wear mini skirts, I have met a lot of very dishonest people in my life, very envious ones as well, amongst which associates and employees , I have met judges and prosecutors since I had to do a lot of litigation and battle around to get where I am ! And I am proud of my success in my professional field. So even if I am not a white male from Cambridge I also feel provileged, and women definitely can have a carreer, it is just a bit harder I guess, we need to be strong and couragous to get there. But, then with success comes greater responsibility, you have to work on being a good parent as well as a good partner , listen to the people around you, help them and share, change the injustices you can see around you. I was so angry when I read you discovered that women were less paid then men in your company and that you left because it made you angry. Something should have been done by you! I have now my own buisness where women get very well paid and they can continue their carreers even after they have had kids, and they can continue at 80 or 60%

  39. And I am engaging into charitable work on top of my busy agenda as an entrepreneur now that the kids are grown up without making any publicity about it. It is not interesting to critize other people that are not humble enought (like that Boris figure I do not know at all) , against whom you probably also feel some envy, it is interesting if you try to make a difference, a little harder then just from inside your home and that you transmit moral values around you also. People are losing their moral values all over the World! So… let us get on with our short lifes, since life can be shorter then you think, and make something good out of them, with prayer or without prayer, for me this blog has not been an eye opener, thanks! Do not spend hours and evenings wasting your time.

  40. From one Paul to another…nice piece of writing!
    However, if all the privileged realise their their good fortune and use their advantage in some ways to lend a helping hand to the less fortunate, then the world will be so much better for it.
    As to your experience with the Africans, I think they realised that there are no aids without strings attached. In the end it’s their corrupt governments which benefited and the poor people remains exploited.
    It’s just as patronising for the Americans to promote their brand of democracy to the chinese without realising that the majority of the population are not well educated and economically positioned to benefit from the elected government model. It would probably result in more corruption as can be seen in many of the democratic 3rd world countries! It would definitely make for a more peaceful world if the Americans keep their self- righteousness to within their own borders.

  41. I really enjoyed this piece. Your insight and humility is to be commended. It restored my faith that at least somebody is listening.

  42. I’m reading the Great Gatsby at the moment, and the very first lines talk about a piece of advice from the protagonists’s dad; ‘Whenever you feel like criticising anyone, just remember that all people in this world haven’t had the same advantages you’ve had’. This is very much becoming the modern school of thought on the internet (and so it should), but I do also agree that it does make one ‘the victim of not a few veteran bores’ also, haha

  43. Well written, but I am left wondering what the author’s point is…… That privilege brings undeserved reward? That sex is a factor in pay awards? That negative stereotypes are bad? Or that life is unfair? None of these is really surprising. ….and probably as much a result of the human condition then any particular political agenda or social bias.
    My view is that privilege is relative, by and large living standards for most people in the UK (excluding top and bottom 5%) are as close as makes little odds, and everyone can find some “unfairness” affecting their lives (even Boris)… it is just that some are more vocal than others.

  44. Paul, thank you for this.

    This is exceptionally well written. A few friends and I are working on starting a charity to support kids in orphanages and enable them to have more of a life rather than be treated as refugees. The idea is to help them have access to a small percentage of the resources we take for granted. I’ve shared your note with the whole group.. as I think posts like this are great reminders…

  45. Usually read all the comments and then decide not to say anything because my view is not as important. However, having just read an article on the increased usage of foodbanks in this prosperous country, I wish, on this occasion, I could summarise the most salient points of your article into a few sentences that would catch the attention of those less fortunate. Problem is, they would never read it.

    • I, for one, would be interested to read your summary. Maybe together we can work out how best to foist it on the poors.

  46. Well, now that you’ve got that off you’re chest, what, exactly, do you propose to do about it?

    The fact is that you do come from a “privileged” background. One that was created over generations and generations of your predecessors’ hard work and love. You, apparently, have maintained that tradition in order to pass it on — with interest, as they say — to your own family.

    That is nothing to sneeze at and, most certainly, nothing to rue.

    We Anglo-Saxons are wont to worry over the causes of poverty, but we really should focus on the causes of wealth, for poverty is the natural state of man and all beings. Why do some break out of it and learn to live comfortable lives? And why wouldn’t we celebrate it instead of feeling guilty?

    • Who said anything about guilt? I’m afraid that’s your reading, not mine. The point of the piece isn’t guilt but humility and understanding which are qualitatively very different. You seem to have missed it somewhat… and also missed the point that ‘our’ success isn’t entirely (or even substantially) of ‘our’ making.

  47. Hey Paul, as your Burma connection (privileged in all the same ways as you except for being female), I still remember the day I came home from a day’s work the Embassy and you told me you’d spent the afternoon in detention for taking a picture of the big Orwellian signboard opposite my house that promised that ‘Anyone who gets riotous destructive and unruly is our enemy’ or words to that effect. And how the Burmese captain who had interrogated you had taken your entire biodata and been particularly interested to know which University you’d been to and what degree you’d studied. And then told you that if you did it again, he would kill you. Which when we relayed that to some Burmese friends, they said ‘oh that’s just what all Burmese parents say to their kids, don’t take it personally’. Have a good 2014 and keep blogging!

  48. […] “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.” A few words on privilege… – Paul Bernal’s Blog […]

  49. […] https://paulbernal.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/a-few-words-on-privilege/   Reflecting on the year, I’ve learnt to focus on the need of a community before thinking of jumping in to “help”. I’ve met so many people: fellows, musicians, Venezuelans.. who have triumphed against insurmountable odds to get to where they are now. I have so much respect for them. How do we get increase access and opportunity to make their lives just a little easier? […]

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  53. “With great privilege should come great humility”
    I almost cry reading this, thanks Paul for your humility. Most people fail to appreciate the unfair advantages they have, its rather unfortunate that they think poor people are lazy, foolish and all the that.
    There’s just one question I have always asked myself, and today am not sure what is the right answer…. “Is it true that with hard work, anybody can move from poverty in its most barbaric forms to Greatness?” That I doubt…

  54. Thank you for this wonderfully honest and real piece of writing that quite brilliantly articulates how I feel about my own identity as a white, mostly-straight, man with a wife and children and a “good job” and a fantastically supportive, thoughtful and reasonably affluent family behind me.

    I imagine that I would really enjoy breaking bread with you, and talking about the ideas in this and how best to effect change without it just being my shouting into the wind on the internet.

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