Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Understanding Privilege and Power

The Complexities of Privilege

Inequality is characterised by the uneven distribution of rights across the population.

These rights amount to what kinds of social power a person can have. A person's social power is determined by the amount of respect they are offered by society and how easy it is for them access certain rights. These rights vary greatly, whether it’s about having greater accessibility to education, healthcare, economic stability or easier access to jobs, legal protection or safe and acceptable housing.

Inequality becomes visible when we realise that equal access to things we consider basic human needs and rights is not awarded to everyone equally. On the global stage, it is clear that the standard of living and the basic human rights awarded to people living in the developed world is much higher than those living in less developed countries. Today, in 2015, people across the world still face famine, genocide, starvation and disease on a large scale; while in the developed world these challenges are not something most of the population have to ever face. This is just one obvious example of an unequal distribution of physical well being, but the same can be said for further basic human rights such as physical safety, freedom from persecution and physical harm or freedom to practice religion. The list goes on, and it’s a list we’re all familiar with in comparatively economically and socially privileged west.

However even in the West, while we like to think that we live in an equal, meritocratic society, George Orwell highlighted a sentiment expressed in Animal Farm that still feels relevant; "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." Some members of our society, due to circumstances and accidents of birth, find it much easier than others to access the attributes that allow a person to improve their quality of life - and as a result those people are naturally in in a more powerful position based on a variety of attributes and circumstances, whether they are aware or it or not. We consider certain people who are more powerful agents in society to have more privilege.

According to Michel Foucault, “power is everywhere and comes from everywhere”  This expressed the notion of privilege as being in constant flux and negotiation. Foucault uses the term ‘power/knowledge’ to signify that power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and ‘truth.’ This means that it is a society's cultural norms and values which determine how privileged a person is within that society. A person who is very privileged in one social and geographical setting may find themselves in a less privileged position somewhere else; privilege is not an unmoving, permanent fixture – which sheds a positive light on the notion of privilege, as it means inequality can always be challenged, combated and reduced.

We often mistakenly understand power as being made up of a binary opposition; “us against them” in a kind of master/slave scenario where one group of homogeneous people are against another minority group. Racism is characterised as the domination of one race over others, sexism is the domination of one gender over another.

However, people are complex; society is even more so. It’s reductive to put people into convenient little boxes and imagine allocated power to be based on this dialectical, “master/slave” kind of basis. All women are not the same. All people of a particular racial group are not the same. We can't imagine social power as being all or nothing; everyone has some social power.

Gender, race, religious views, ability and sexual orientation are all obvious ways in which people are discriminated against within society; it is not entirely unfair to say that being a Caucasian, able bodied, heterosexual man awards a person a large amount of privilege in Western society. However, we need to recognise that more nuanced attributes determine a person’s position on the axis of power; education, class, age, income and location all play a part in allowing a citizen social power.

For example; despite the prevalence of sexism in Western society, a University educated, upper middle class white woman arguably enjoys more social power in the West than a working class, black male who has never been educated past high school.

There are a variety of combinations of types of privilege which give us our place on the axis of social power and it is important that we recognise these within ourselves and within our society's value system in order to better understand our own impact on the world around us, and empathise with others. The arbitrary system of value which decides what gives a person privilege (e.g being heterosexual rather than homosexual and/or able bodied rather than disabled) should and can always be challenged; as it benefits the few and not the many.

- Hailey Maxwell

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