Gratitude vs Privilege
Our parent’s generation didn’t seem to have the vocabulary of privilege while raising us, they instead used the concepts of gratitude and compassion to combat greed and selfishness. For everything we didn’t have but wanted, we were reminded of those less fortunate, to be grateful for our situation and compassionate towards those who had nothing. It hasn’t been clear to me why this has proved insufficient today, requiring the added self-flagellation and virtue signalling of privilege. Reading Hayek talk about the confused language of privilege back in the 40s is quite the revelation. This is not a new millennial problem. The Road To Serfdom is spectacular on every single page, laying out with chilling clarity the inevitability of totalitarianism in socialist systems that replace competition with control, individualism with collectivism, and distributed intelligence with central planning. Given my recent post on privilege, a small throwaway line about it by Hayek caught my attention. He talks about socialists confusing the true meaning of privilege (reservations exclusively for the nobility) with rhetoric that suited their ideology (ownership of private property). It isn’t that this painful rhetoric of privilege has suddenly become a buzzword, it’s just become more widely accepted among the younger generations?
- Cycles: I can’t tell if it’s followed a simple linear progression from the 40s to the mainstream concept it is today. Socialism itself seems to have been a hugely popular idea in the 30s, suffering a catastrophic dip when it became clear that it led to the horrors of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, and mostly dying out during the decades in the 70s of unprecedented prosperity among Western liberal democracies strengthening their free markets based on neoclassical economics. The horrors of socialism are more than 30 years in the past, too far back for anyone from my generation to take as cautionary tales. There is of course Venezuela to point at, but the bad governance, poor institutions and colonially induced impoverishment are all too easy to take as causing, and not being caused by, the failure of socialism. Perhaps it is to be expected that we have an uptick in socialism and the language of privilege as the antithesis of our status quo of market capitalism.
- Philosophical evolution of privilege: Maybe Hayek is just outdated. Maybe he was right for his time, and the immediate social justice was the abolishing of the obvious privilege of opportunities available exclusively for certain classes. As the decades roll by, our view of social justice has become more refined just as our view of genetics and environmental effects become more refined. The social sciences continue to converge, and we recognize the exclusive nature of opportunities runs much deeper than just an HR policy demanding decisions made purely on the basis of merit, or wider discrimination laws being enacted. The scope of the word privilege has expanded significantly. It isn’t obvious that larger scope automatically results in a larger follower base, like a mainstream product with more applications has more customers than a niche product, I could argue equally that a larger scope makes it a more extreme ideology that contracts the follower base, but what’s less doubtful is the proposition that fewer people now would find it acceptable to say ownership of private property entails zero privilege.
- More enlightened youth: While boomers might roll their eyes and moan about how the millennials are privileged enough to have the luxury of being more politically conscious during their youth whereas they couldn’t afford to do anything but study hard and work to put themselves through college, the fact is that the youth are more politically conscious than earlier generations. It seems counterproductive to say ‘don’t waste your time on politics, study hard’ when the real problem is whether their approach to gathering information and forming their primary worldviews is flawed or not. If inequality is an evil, and it exists, and we suddenly have the luxury of a comfortable middle class+ upbringing to devote time and resources to thinking about it, then really the natural tendency to dismiss the buzzwords like privilege on account of their suspicious fad-like virality should be set aside in favor of an examination of their benefits, fad or not.
- Practical Change: That brings me back to the original question. Whence ariseth the need for privilege as a layer above the gratitude and compassion our parents taught us? Did we decide gratitude and compassion just didn’t work well enough or fast enough to effect positive change in society? Nothing lights a fire up someone’s butt like naming and shaming them. The annoyance it causes most people, and the real damage it does to regular good people, is just an acceptable risk and collateral damage? I’m uncomfortable with such moral trade-offs.
- Generational Angst: Here’s a chicken-egg problem. Which came first, millennials being called entitled their entire lives or millennials being frustrated and ungrateful? The easy story is that we were ungrateful first, hence called entitled. But I find it disconcertingly easy to argue the converse. A great chunk of the world’s population was lifted out of poverty just as we came along to live a much more comfortable middle class life than our parents did. We are objectively better off than our parents and we’ve been made aware of it our entire lives. Whether it was a giant wave of prosperity and progress that swept them up from poverty or their own hard work and efforts is irrelevant because the only story we’ve ever consumed is the latter. So here I am enjoying the fruits of someone else’s labor, living in an age of comfort unparalleled in the history of civilization and I’ve done nothing to deserve it, because I’m too young to actually contribute to society just yet. As a species, we’ve accepted the excruciatingly long gestation period while our mammalian young absorb the collective knowledge of our culture. For 16 years we grit our teeth and let these parasites suckle at the teat of civilization, because life is long and the body of knowledge is vast and we’d rather they start contributing at a high level right from the start. Unfortunately, for the last 100 years, the pace of societal improvement has shot through the roof in a sustained burst of progress that nobody has had the luxury of experiencing over a single lifetime. It’s one thing to raise a parasite for 16 years in conditions that are a little better but not fantastically so, than when you were growing up. Raising a parasite in a veritable paradise compared to the diseased hungry unsanitary hell that you grew up in? That’s just hard to stomach. And they haven’t stomached it very well. 100 years is just me, my father and my grandfather, that means my father’s is the first generation in the entire history of mankind to raise a parasite that’s infinitely better off than he was. No wonder they hate us and call us entitled.
- Confused Neuroscience: Pride and Shame activate the same part of the brain, the Pregenual Anterior Cingulate. This is a pet question of mine. Let’s say you electrically stimulate this part of my brain and ask me what I’m feeling. Can I articulate whether it’s pride or shame? If I’d need the contextual stimuli to rationalize backwards, then maybe you show me a positive memory and I identify my emotion as pride, vice versa for shame. If this is true, then emotion is not absolute but relative, and while it’s good news that I can choose to frame it based on the bouquet of emotions sharing a certain brain center, it’s also bad news that I can be convinced to change my mind easily based on a reformulation of the stimulus as objectively shameful as opposed to respectable.