I think politics in Canada (and around the world) is without a doubt becoming more polarized. With this polarization comes more extreme views. We only need to look south of our border to American politics to see what happens when polarization continues without efforts to understand the other perspective.
It’s with that in mind that I wanted to write a little bit about privilege and how competing views of privilege play out in our politics.
Let’s take for example the editorial I recently wrote on educational funding for First Nations students in Ontario. On my side of the political discourse I hear agreement that yes, investing in education for Aboriginal students is important, as is investing in a variety of supports to help bridge the gaps that exist in our society for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. I see longstanding, generational, historical, colonial reasons for these gaps, and I see hope in our society confronting those.
On the other side I was greeted with a comment, a familiar refrain from the right which, while the wording varies, goes along the lines of: “I work hard for my money, so why waste tax money on other people? I’ve done well, why don’t other people just do well, too?”
Therein lies the competing understandings of privilege.
I thought it important to explain that I don’t advocate spending tax money just for the fun of it. Instead, I see equality and inclusion as strength in a society, which sometimes means treating people differently. It means spending money on confronting the divisive society privilege creates.
Privilege is essentially inequality. It’s power. It’s opportunity. Privilege can come from birth, from a privileged upbringing. It can come from your gender, ethnicity, appearance, sexual orientation. It can determine your wealth, your education level, your health.
Does it always? No. Innate intelligence, charm, physical ability, and luck can confront privilege on an individual level. This is where we find the source of the right’s argument, the myth of the self-made-man (and yes, do notice that that term is usually comprised of the word ‘man’). Basically, we can find examples of people who pull themselves up by the bootstraps and become successful. Therefore, anyone can do it, and people who don’t are just lazy and unworthy.
This thinking drives me bananas.
Certainly we can find examples of the ‘self-made-man’ but these are the exception, not the rule. It’s far more likely that people brought up on the wrong side of privilege will stay on the wrong side of privilege because the odds are simply stacked against them, unless we as a society work to bridge gaps and remove barriers on a systemic level. Otherwise we just end up with more poverty, more unhealthy communities, more crime, more desperation, all while clinging to belief in the ‘self-made-man.’
Romeo Saganash, who was my choice for leader of the NDP, is one such example. When Romeo is introduced it’s often mentioned that he was born in the bush, went through the abusive and colonial residential school system to become the first Cree lawyer in Quebec, the first Cree MP in Quebec, and the first Aboriginal person to run for leadership of a federal party. Why is he introduced like this? Because he’s the exception, not the rule.
I once heard Romeo say: “I’ve lived my whole life on the wrong side of privilege, and I’ve always come out successful.” Romeo could easily think that everyone can do what he did. He did it, why not others? Instead Romeo is a person who understands that that is far too simplistic of a view, that empowering people and removing barriers, creating community and creating opportunity, is what is needed. He’s spent his life fighting for the marginalized.
He understands that a society needs compassion for people, not hollow, empty words about how people can confront adversity if they only chose to.
Systems within society need to be studied to find examples of privilege, so that we can work to remove them. We need to use evidence to confront our society’s challenges. An example of this is when I talk about our system of social assistance in Ontario. I’ll often hear from people that they don’t like their money sent to people who don’t want to work. Well, neither do I. But I know that the majority of people on social assistance do want to work, do want to be involved in their communities, do want to contribute. They find themselves struggling through unacceptable levels of poverty, just trying to stay housed and fed and healthy. We have a punitive system that’s meant to get people back to work as soon as possible, but doesn’t do a very good job of working with the individual to confront barriers they face. It’s all short-term fixes instead of long-term, systemic planning.
Why don’t we look at this system that’s clearly broken and try to fix it? Try to replace it with one that recognizes the costs associated with poverty and instead of leaving insurmountable obstacles in the way, provide scaffolding so that people can work their way up. The evidence tells us that there is a better way of doing things, and that confronting poverty will cost us less in the end.
But to do so we will need to build a better societal understanding of privilege and how it’s challenged. We can’t let our discourse be about us vs. them, divided, individualistic. Instead, we need to better understand the way individuals are created, and how we can help people on an individual level to confront the barriers our society creates. It’s a communal, helpful, compassionate narrative.
And it makes a better society.