Wednesday, September 27, 2006

why undeserved, why unearnt?

i decided to make the list in the previous post because i had some ideas. i found myself learning some more as i actually waded through the painful exercise.

one of the things that caught me by surprise and brought a wry smile to my face, was the fact that i could come up with more than 20 things for the list of undeserved, unearnt privileges of being well-off. it contrasts sharply with the mere 10 under the "upper caste" category!

being a brahmin is a relatively small issue in my urban, metropolitan world. i am more affected by the global caste system based on wealth, than by our traditional one based on ancestry.while the caste system of money is equally savage and brutal, i realise that im still privileged to be able to say that that is the main caste system that affects my life. because for so many people - dalits, the indigenous tribal groups - caste is a daily, life-threatening, livelihood- depriving, degrading reality still.

i, in my relatively well-to-do state, have no right to pass the judgement that traditional casteism has ended. very simply, because it has merely ended in my life. there are still many lives whose continuing suffering cannot be swept aside - their experiences are still valid and real and should not be denied.

i make this point so emphatically because it is this same sort of prosperous arrogance which prompts us to make several comfortable assumptions, like that sexism has ended. that discrimination against people of colour has ended, that violence against women isnt really such a problem any more.

so many of the things i listed as privileges actually seem so fundamental - after all that list was only about the right to live with dignity, with a sense of well-being. we all should have such lives. the point was not to go on a guilt trip.

why do i still call those privileges "undeserved" then?


the word "privilege" (in the context i used it in) is defined by the oed as:

• a special right, advantage, or immunity for a particular person or group.

somewhere, somebody is paying the price for my clean, decent, comfortable life. for my life of dignity. someone is living in such poverty that they are doomed to eating rats. in order for my city to be clean, for my health and welfare, there are people doing things like scavenging human excreta. [1, 2, 3]

there are so many such "someones" that their poverty has been institutionalised. the global and traditional caste systems combine to make them suffer in a way that almost baffles description. e m forster once remarked that a catalogue of horrors defeats its purpose. he was speaking of the holocaust. this particular catalogue of horrors is a way of life, and has been so for decades.

i worked briefly in a corporation school for girls. the children who came were mostly children of maidservants. many of them had dropped out of school at some time because their families need extra hands to work and bring home food. being girl children they were the first casualties. but they still had the courage to come back and try to learn - and it wasnt a romantic "Genius in Poverty" story either. it was a struggle on all fronts. the girls would commute by bus, rubbing shoulders with the occasional "english medium school" junta. listening wistfully to the fluent jabbering in english, wishing from their souls that they too could speak like that. for the younger ones, it was the pure thrill of being able to do something cool, for the older ones, it was the cliniching factor in getting a job. for heavens sake, a simple thing like well-shampooed hair was a Luxury to be longed for!

and after a childhood of unfulfilled wistful longing like that, they will be promoted to an adult life of continued deprivation. bonus: getting to see their children grow up in possibly worse circumstances.

what system of evaluation exists, according to which i "deserve" my life - and these people theirs? - none.

making that admission is a critical step forward. if i, as a privileged person deny that i am enjoying advantages that i havent earnt, or if i imply that somehow i have in some way earnt or merited these advantages, i am bullshitting myself to feel comfortable. and my persistent and cowardly denial is at the cost of several lives.

i am also lending my implicit or expressed support for the psuedo (not to mentioned absolutely ill-defined) standards that "elevate" me thus. i am ratifying the socio economic system which grinds other people down.


brownskinspeak

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9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

>> i worked briefly in a corporation school for girls. the children who came were mostly children of maidservants. >>

Do you agree that the current social justice system is not designed to help girl children of maidservants ?

11:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

>> what system of evaluation exists, according to which i "deserve" my life - and these people theirs? - none.

You havent earned the high life that you think you are living. Your parents earned it for you, and so shall you (I hope) for your kids. Success in life is by no means certain for children of moneyed people. I know friends who were from comparable financial backgrounds, some are doing much better than me, and others are in pretty dire straits. Their fall in status may not be so drastic that they are reduced to begging for food, but it is a very real fall nevertheless.

Ofcourse, its desirable that everyone get a fair chance at upward mobility but listing "unearned privileges" etc is not the way to go about it. Its a very short leap from "these people do not deserve the riches they have, to lets start redistributing wealth".

Sudeep

3:11 pm  
Blogger Krish said...

Now, Now...why is this self induced guilt?..I don't think anyone is scavenging for your city to be clean..he is doing it because he is unable to find anything better..now, I am not getting into the argument on why is he not finding anything better...I don't think he does that for your sake...he does that for his own sake...Now, I am sure he wouldn't want his son/daughter to do the same thing...n I can with reasonable sureness say that, with him working and earning a living, his son/daughter might not be forced to do such things when he/she grows up.

And let me come to your another point..whether you like it or not, men can never be equal..yesterday it was caste, today(as you claim) it is wealth..tomorrow it might be something else..I don't think equality is any great quality to be desired. I would rather be an unequal and enjoy the fruits of my labour, than be an equal and share my labour with a guy who hadn't laboured..Let us take a world of equals(this is simply unacheivable..but atleast for the argument sake)..do you think Men will live in peace ever after..the secret desire for all men is to compete..and to be unequal in the higher sense..n there can never be equitable growth..just because men were never born equal...else we would have been robots n not men...I dont think we are made in a assembly shop by the God Foreman!![;)]..Equality is as halo as the God itself!(as a matter of fact, I am not sure of the gender of God..n if at all it can be living being)...There are many illustrations of being a notch up the rest..one such is english medium education...one such can also be constructed as well shampooed hair..I know a lot of people who still think Shampooing is injurious to health(I am saying literally- not figuratively as you had written)...the worst possible mistake that one can make is, to assume that one had to deserve something to have it....now how can you pass a judgement on whether someone deserves it or not..if he had earned it, then he has it..thats it..there isnt anything called deserving..atleast Nature doesnt think in terms of deserving..else even sheeps would be blogging now!![:P]

2:19 am  
Anonymous onebrownwoman said...

I just wanted to say that this post is both articulate and thought-provoking. I think it's difficult for people to view privileges as unearned - particularly socioeconomic issues. I think it's complicated because we assume that unearned means no one did anything to get to a place of privilege - and this is not always the case (eg. my family worked hard for this, etc.) I think the problem of privilege comes in how you are seen after this point of 'success' and how others will continue to be silenced and invisible because other factors keep them from rising past institutional oppression.
So yes. I agree. The list was great. Keep writing!

2:55 pm  
Blogger m. said...

anonymous: er, do i actually leave scope for doubt about that?

sudeep: Ofcourse, its desirable that everyone get a fair chance at upward mobility but listing "unearned privileges" etc is not the way to go about it. the more unconscious we are of just how much we take for granted, the less chance there is of our rectifying injustice. its not being benevolent to allow that a downtrodden person also have their breaks - (s)he is as entitled to justice as we are.

Its a very short leap from "these people do not deserve the riches they have, to lets start redistributing wealth".
equal poverty isnt the same as distributive justice. that sort of false equation perpetuated by capitalism neednt be considered the only way to think.

krish: now, I am not getting into the argument on why is he not finding anything better. maybe you should? and do read the posts by annie ive linked to. theyre an education.
also, im aware equality isnt everything. liberation is a better goal.

onebrownwoman: thanks :)

9:19 pm  
Blogger Krish said...

Well...This is just an academic argument.I say this at the onset.

Liberation is better goal..agreed...but have you ever thought about the metrics of such??? I had been taught that, that which cant be measured, cant be valued and that which cant be valued, cant be improved...

Liberation in itself is a good goal..but you cant even think of liberation if repression isn't there...you only know that you are repressed when you see the "liberated"..I mean only when you see men's so called liberated state, you think Women's repression...if for everyone is repressed in the same way, you wouldn't have an iota of an idea of what might be liberated state..its like 4 blinds trying to describe an elephant.

1:39 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

krish mere bhai, what the f does "4 blinds trying to describe an elephant." mean? :D

3:31 am  
Blogger m. said...

krish: that which cant be measured, cant be valued ... what a ridiculous assertion! dyou mean to say that your life is of no value to you because you cannot "measure" how alive you are?

3:53 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi M,
You being a priest/ poojari caste, 'unearnt' privilege is the mildest way of putting it. Let me suggest stronger words: 'ill-gotten', 'usurped', 'robbed', 'hoarded', 'hogged', etc with patently unfair means like 100% quota in priesthood and education and near 100% quota in other lucrative positions. This is not to offend you but to bring you to down to new earth.

You have listed out your privileges in 3 different headings. It seems you are surprised to see different number of items in different list. Please look them closely. Don't you think all these privileges origin from one single reason and have to be listed under one single list of 'unearnt' privileges?

You say, "i am more affected by the global caste system based on wealth, than by our traditional one based on ancestry." Why? Are you being looked down as 'impure' or 'dirty' in the global caste system for your 'brown' skin?

More later.

One more indian

9:31 pm  

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