When it comes to privilege, I’ve been dealt a pretty great hand. I’m a white, cis-gendered, middle-class male. And I aim to be conscious of the many ways in which this benefits me. But recently I’ve been thinking about a particular privilege that hadn’t previously occurred to me: the privilege of being able to choose whether to fight injustice.
I have this privilege because I don’t experience injustice first-hand. I try to listen to others, to empathise, to get a better understanding of how lucky I am to be in my position. But ultimately I don’t need to worry because the system is looking out for me. I don’t have the same fear of what might happen to me in a jail cell, or walking home from a party. For others, these aren’t abstract matters of “injustice” but the urgent reality of a son killed with impunity, or a traumatic experience that will never go away. For someone in my position, it’s more likely to be a topic of conversation, or an article read from the comfort of bed on a Saturday morning. If I want, I can choose to engage. But I can also choose not to. I can opt-out.
I don’t think it’s wrong that I have this privilege. It’s not as if it’s something I can control. “One can no more renounce privilege,” writes Michael S. Kimmel, “than one can stop breathing.” However, I can control what I do with this privilege.
But what should I do?
Another injustice I haven’t experienced first-hand is global warming. It’s another one I’ve experienced second-hand, from meeting people from Pacific Islands, or reading about how the water supply is changing around the Himalayas. But again, I have the privilege to step away from this issue, as it isn’t as immediate to my own personal experience of life. On this issue, however, I feel compelled to again ask what should I do, because doing nothing feels increasingly wrong.
There’s a paralysing disproportionality between the magnitude of the crisis and the possible responses. When Pakistani grave diggers are excavating mass graves in anticipation of horrifying heat waves, is there any action at all that begins to match how awful the situation is? The difference between making an attempt, and not trying at all, seems too small to even be worth it. When there’s virtually nothing meaningful I can do, it’s tempting to opt-out: to unsubscribe from human suffering and instead busy myself catching rare Pokémon.
And it’s so tempting. It feels so good. As I write this, I’m at home on holiday with my family. There’s a delightful absence of time pressures, of urgency. I sleep in. I play games. I tinker on the piano. I wish that all my life could be thus. And, weirdly, if I wanted, it all could be. Something like this could be my life.
And yet, I have to recognise that this option – to opt-out, to change the subject – is only available to me because of a massive amount of privilege. Simply because I got dealt a winning hand, even if global warming increases the cost of food, I’ll be able to eat. Even as sea levels rise, I’ll have a home, and the land I was born in won’t be threatened. If drought leads to wars and mass displacements, because I’m a white Australian, I’ll still be secure.
Global warming will be uncomfortable for me. But it will never affect me like it will affect so many others. And so it will always be possible for me to stop worrying, turn up the air conditioner, and turn back to whatever book my mum has recommended. Yet if I’m serious about fighting injustice, I have to recognise that opting-out is a cop-out, not just because it’s the wrong choice, but because so many people don’t even get to make a choice. For so many people, fighting injustice isn’t something they choose – it’s the default option. It’s the only option.
In her essay White Privilege and Male Privilege, Peggy McIntosh argues that ‘to perpetuate privilege and oppression, we don’t even have to do anything consciously to support it. Just our silence is crucial for ensuring its future’. We can’t choose whether to have privilege, she reminds us. But we can choose ‘to be just part of the problem or also to be part of the solution. That’s where our power lies, and also our responsibility.’
So I ask myself what it means to be ‘part of the solution’. I think it means never being too attached to my own comfort. It’s OK for me to live well and enjoy life, but if I’m not willing to experience discomfort or risk then it’s going to be a lot harder for me to be part of the solution. After all, those people who clearly are part of the solution are in some pretty risky, uncomfortable situations.
This is relevant to how I approach work. If I want to be part of the solution, I can’t just do work because it’s convenient or pays well. I have to consider relocating, or accepting a lower salary, or working for free, if that’s what it takes. And I have to remember that even being able to relocate, or work for less, or for free, is a consequence of my privilege: such action isn’t a sacrifice, but more like paying back a debt.
It may also be necessary to break the law, or support others to do so, even if this means a risk to my security, job prospects, or social standing. After the hottest July in recorded history, it’s increasingly clear that the Government isn’t going to do what’s necessary. Australia well may need to see a mass movement using civil resistance before the injustice of climate change is addressed; this movement won’t be possible unless I, and others like me, are ready to opt-in, to use their privilege for good.
These are some of the things I’m thinking about when I wonder what I can and should do. Ultimately, there is no grand moral theory about what to do in a situation as unique and horrible as the one facing us and the world today. But for someone like me who has the immense good fortune to be able to choose whether to act, there’s only one choice I can live with. I can’t choose whether or not to be part of the problem. I already am. But I can try to be part of the solution. I can join the struggle alongside those who never had the option of joining. And that’s the very least I can do. I can opt-in.
Image: Andy Wang
Joel is a writer and campaigner based in Canberra. His background is in community organising and collaborative management. He likes to write about books, relationships, and social change. You can find more of his writing at http://scitnecessitas.com/