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Posts Tagged ‘privilege’

The Danger of Being Swept Along

January 8, 2011 2 comments

Do not allow yourself to be overcome by evil, but rather, overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

I have been thinking a lot lately of the way in which American culture (maybe just consumerism) shapes the way in which many of us conceive of happiness and the default life we seek to live: more things, more comfort, etc. To live life unreflectively is to live life in this way. (Although I am sure this way of thinking/living is pervasive across society and particularly the well-off, I am speaking here mostly of myself as a white male from a comfortable background. I speak as one who is privileged, as one who already has comfort, support, education, etc.). I have nothing profound to say on this topic, but the writings of Pedro Arrupe (superior general of the Jesuits from 1965-1983) have challenged me to keep thinking about this theoretically and practically. A couple short passages:

In a talk on racial discrimination and inequality in America, Arrupe quotes a 1949 instruction from his predecessor as superior general John Baptist Jannssens. In the passage Jannssens describes the situation of the lower classes and concludes by juxtaposing this with those who are well-off socially and economically: “and at the same time [to be in this lower class is] to behold…the very people for whom one works, abounding in riches, enjoying superfluous comforts, devoting themselves to liberal studies and fine arts, loaded with honors, authority, and praise” (“Interracial Apostolate” in Pedro Arrupe: Essential Writings, 156). Comfort, time for study and leisure, honors, authority, praise: to what extent are these my highest desires if I am honest with myself?

In the context of doing “works of justice,” Arrupe describes the need to have “a firm resolve never to profit from, or allow ourselves to be suborned by, positions of power deriving from privilege, for to do so, even passively, is equivalent to active oppression. To be drugged by the comforts of privilege is to become contributors to injustice as silent beneficiaries of the fruits of injustice” (“Men and Women for Others,” 179). It is precisely this “being drugged” that I am trying to understand more fully. One way in which this manifests itself is the way in which we compare ourselves to others. It is incredibly easy to look around and see others that have so much more than I have. Seeing others with more has two effects on me: sometimes it strengthens my desire for more – I want that too; other times it ideologically comforts and soothes me – at least I do not have as much as some people. It is easy in this case to ignore my privileged existence and sooth myself with the knowledge that as a graduate student and future professor in America I am not “rich.” Of course, if I take a more global perspective  and recognize that compared to the world as a whole I am at the top economically, socially, and in terms of education, can I be described as anything but rich?

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