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Time Out - Advantage and Privilege

Hi everyone! Blog posts have been delayed because what I had wanted to write about -- a quick discussion of power and how it expresses itself in child welfare -- seemed really inadequate given some things that have come up in the past two weeks. Nothing bad, certainly, and nothing earth-shattering. But, it very much resulted in some conversations and experiences that really pointed to a need to take a few steps back and talk a little bit more background on this whole thing.

Let's start with Zootopia, specifically the realization by the filmmakers that animals come in all shapes, sizes and circumstances, and that a city built around accessibility for all. Granted, it's a Disney film, and it doesn't look like the filmmakers did an exhaustive and comprehensive imagining of what full access looks like (for example, I think all of the characters in the film are able-bodied), but for a film explicitly about prejudice, it does dedicate time to thinking about what equal access is.

And disability is a great sphere to look at this because in many ways, it is something that touches everyone. The aging process degrades our physical and mental abilities over time; accidents and debilitating illnesses can strike anyone; and then there's just plain variation.

There are two thoughts that I want to dig into before going further. First is the idea between privilege and advantage. The second is the tension between societal pressures and natural pressures -- or in other words societal selection and natural selection.

Let's tackle the second one first.

Natural selection is the bedrock of understanding Darwinian evolution. This is too short a space to talk in full about Darwinian evolution in full, but the particular aspect of it I want to address is that natural selection is not purposeful (link to other common misunderstandings). Darwinian evolution is sometimes reduced to the jingo "survival of the fittest" which leads to all sorts of intuitions that are misappropriated. More accurately, Darwinian evolution talks about "success" in terms of organisms passing their genes to surviving organisms, rather than the societal notions that we humans have mapped onto the idea of "success" and "good."

Human societies have radically loosened all kind of natural pressures. It used to be that when your teeth feel out, death was not far behind. Enter cooking/stewing and later, dentures, and the field of dental medicine. It used to be that certain diseases would basically result in certain death. Enter medicine, sterile protocols, disinfecting practices. It used to be that losing a limb, breaking certain bones equalled death. Enter splints, agricultural practices that didn't require such aggressive hunting, and societies themselves to take care of each other.

But in constructing these worlds and environments like cities, roads, urban planning, exurb design, etc. we are explicitly constructing living environments which depend on automobiles, which trade speed and distance for terrain management. There is not a whole lot of terrain that an able-bodied human on two legs can't negotiate. But we expend a lot of money and a lot of planning around cars because that trade-off is something many societies have decided is worth it. Think of the time and expense spent on repaving roads (and your own internal groans when it's a major throughway) and you can see how big of a societal investment cities and societies and put into vehicles.

It's not always like that. When I visited Ireland and while driving around was a little dicey (homg, driving standard transmission on the other side of the road and shifting with my left hand), it wasn't until we visited Cork that I was like "OK NO THIS IS TOO HARD AND CRAMPED AND JUST WHY" so we parked the car for the day and just walked around.

Copyright Irish Examiner Ltd.


We also took a ferry to the Aran Islands where we couldn't have a car, so just rented bikes and pedaled around all day. It's possible to not put cars at the center of society and cities (or perhaps not personally-owned cars), but once you've made that investment, it tends to lead to other investments that capitalize on that.

So point is that natural selection is not the same as societal selection and that these selections are conscious decisions that have consequences that radiate out pretty significantly. Which brings us back to the first point: privilege and advantage.

It's hard to talk about these sorts of things because they hint at deep structures in human society, most pertinently, what is "average" and what is "fairness." "Life's not fair" is a common expression, but when looking into the construction of large societies, fairness is a pretty big deal. And it's no accident that these two ideas - that of fairness and that of the average - are fairly linked.

In discussions of both privilege and advantage, we are confronted with the idea of "privileged or advantaged compared to what?" And it doesn't help that these words also strike a chord with a lot of connotative meaning. "Well," we think, "if someone is privileged or advantaged, they must have an easy life." Which. There are all sorts of difficulties wrapped up in that. But it often comes down to things that can't be helped; things that can't be chosen, much like we can't choose the parents we're born to, any more than we can help the genes running around in our cells. And these have implications in both societal and natural selections.

Advantages are real - both in the world of Darwinian natural selection and in constructed human societies. It is real, explicit and has, to lesser or greater degree, natural or social benefit. Privilege is when that advantage becomes invisible.

For instance, it's easy to see that being born blind would have difficulty against all sorts of natural selection pressures - that it could heavily influence whether that person would get to pass on their genes successfully. That goes towards other attributes like general sickliness, various blood disorders, or any other defect that would tend to cause a person unable to pass on genes. And that bolus of naturally selected pressures (which includes human proclivity to certain physical features as attractive -- e.g. disease/disorder free) gets wrapped into the human notion of average.

And it's against this notion of average that we map our ideas of fairness, privilege, and advantage - and it creates very different pressures outside of natural selection. We see this in the care we provide to our elders, we see this in the care and rights afforded to those who are infertile, we see this in many many different ways because we have decided that human society should operate differently than just bowing to natural pressures. And in doing so, we both advance and fracture our ideas about fairness. (Indeed, it's actually really interesting that there is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that folks being confronted with their advantages are more willing to accept that others outside their group are disadvantaged rather than see themselves as advantaged. It's more complicated than this, but invisible advantage is a thing.)

Accessed from thefeministwire.com

Let's return to disability again, not just because of the reasons covered at the start of the post, but also because it's an area where we cannot talk solely about the medical/physical realities of bodies and abilities or solely about the social prioritization or construction of ability -- but we have to talk about both. We have said that those who are injured or infirm or otherwise disabled shouldn't just get shuffled off into the middens to rot. We have invented prosthetics, created ever more advanced mobility technology, life-prolonging procedures like portable oxygen tanks. So we have extended life -- and then not made the additional changes needed for folks to participate as widely in human life as possible.

A person with the use of their legs is advantaged over one who does not. There are certain natural terrains that are more accessible to one than the other. The human question then comes -- well, how significant of an advantage should that be in society? There are some issues that seem pretty clear. Like, yeah, being in a wheelchair shouldn't mean that you can't use public restrooms, or enter buildings that every citizen should have access to, like the hospital, the library, city hall, etc. But what about things like sports? Our sense of fairness has led us to separate these two individuals if they were to want to race. (It's an especially interesting question of folks who receive prosthetics that are better than human anatomy...what then?)

Lots of ink, both fiction and non-fiction grapple with the idea of human fairness in an unfair, inhuman world. Suffice it to say, I don't have all the answers, but I would at least propose a certain vocabulary for the blog moving forward.

As mentioned above, advantages are real - both in the world of Darwinian natural selection and in constructed human societies. It is real, explicit and has, to lesser or greater degree, natural or social benefit. But, advantage can't be helped in the great variance of human existence cf. Harrison Bergaron. Where we look to in our discussion of social justice, then, is where those benefits are comparatively large and pervasive, like in disability. (Have you ever noticed that traffic lights are harmonized virtually world wide - that green lights are always at the bottom when vertical and to the left when horizontal? How ridiculous would it be otherwise for red/green colorblind drivers?)

Privilege is when that advantage becomes invisible. Like in that traffic light example above. I'm pretty sure this whole thing was discussed in my Driver's Ed. class oh so many years ago, but I didn't have to know it because I can see green and red distinctly. Not so, for others. But a more relevant example of how I'd like to distinguish between advantage and privilege is this: planning a group outing, I've selected a restaurant that is not being wheelchair accessible and I have to be reminded of this fact by my wheelchair-using friend. Oops. Able-bodied privilege - whereas had I known about it and thought about that advantage of mine, I could have still gone ahead of picked that restaurant because I am a jerk. (Having privilege or being aware of advantage does not at all mean that someone is nice or awful! Surprise!)

And on that note, I'll leave you with a cute video.

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