Friday, March 25, 2016

Privilege revisted

I don't know if I’m alone in judging the "white privilege" slogan to be incompetent when it isn't dishonest. I think I get what the honest folk are driving at, but as someone said a long time ago, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. No doubt it gives the lecturers satisfaction to prod their audiences into feeling guilty, but I believe they'd get more mileage from a different approach.

Suppose I were to address the folks I work with, and try to persuade them that they needed to support special support and outreach campaigns. That would hardly be a gigantic challenge—a large chunk of them are reflexively leftist, though probing suggests this is largely cultural rather than ideological. Some lean a bit libertarian, though.

I think I’d try something along these lines.

Colleagues: You are the 1%! Not in terms of money, of course. Few of us are dripping with extra cash. But in terms of intellect you are all easily in the top 1%. Philosophy, Physics, and Mathematics are the three fields at the University attracting the highest IQ—and in this sort of business, IQ matters. You are at a world-class project at a world-class university: the cream of the cream of the crop.

How did you get to where you are?

There are three factors that gave you your success and position: Heredity, Opportunity, and Virtue.

That last one probably startled you. I’ll explain it in a moment.

First is Heredity. You were born with gifts other people don’t have in anything like the same proportion. Those capacities for mathematics and analysis aren’t the only gifts worth having: I can’t compose music worth beans, for example. But as pretty much any parent of more than one child knows, babies are NOT the same. You and I didn’t earn those talents; we were born with them.

Second is Opportunity. If you were born in the USA or Germany or Sweden or Japan and a few others, you basically won the world’s lottery. You may have to spend a little time in the third world to realize how many opportunities our ancestors provided for us that we take completely for granted. Here you can find books, schools, teachers—many for free for anybody—for just about anything you might want to learn about in the world. There are even opportunities for people with physical or mental handicaps—some of you are too young to know how rare and new that is.

Third is Virtue. Don’t be afraid of the word. Self discipline is a virtue that you must have if you plan to develop any skill at all. You needed some fortitude to get here, and some wisdom in organizing your life to reach your goals. Turning raw talent into ability takes dedication and time, and hope. You had them. But recall this: you had to learn those virtues, and you have to keep practicing them. If you are anything like me, you have quite a way to go in developing them all.

Your position in the 1% comes from 3 factors, only one of which you have any control over.

You can easily find people who weren’t born with equal gifts, or who had the bad luck to grow up near terrible schools, or who have suffered some trauma that made it hard to use opportunities, or whose parents didn’t teach them virtues. Some of them come to college. Now they have the opportunity, though they may have some catching up to do. Nor you nor I nor any university can change their talents.

What ought you do to help them achieve what they are capable of?

There’s an old French phrase: noblesse oblige. You have been given a great deal: talent, opportunity, instruction—what responsibilities do you have to those less well off? I do not ask what claim they have on you—there is no agreed-on basis for any such claim. I ask what responsibilities do you have, to God or to society, to those not as blessed as you?

One answer, especially applicable to academics, is that we have a duty to help instruct others. I don’t mean just as a professor, I mean volunteering in schools and giving clear answers to people in everyday conversation. Many, maybe most, of us do things like that. (I get a lot of Is the multiverse real questions, do you?)

Another answer, that especially relates to college student who come with disadvantages, is that we can offer hope. I listed that among the virtues earlier. I didn’t mean the Christian theological virtue of hope, I mean natural hope, the companion of fortitude. Without hope, who would take advantage of the opportunities presented?

You don’t teach hope in seminars, or with youtube videos and pretty posters. You teach it one on one, just like you teach the rest of the virtues. You get to know someone, and encourage them. That easy, and that hard. Who has time? I have a family to take care of, and a commute, and the daily work. I don’t meet very many students outside our group. I do meet neighbors, and random strangers. So do you.

When I say teach hope, I don’t mean be unrealistic. I once had the unpleasant duty of explaining to an enthusiastic friend that his plan for a new career was not going to work at all, in large part because of personal failings. Look together with your friends for what they can do, and ways to do it.

Noblesse oblige, 1%. What is your duty?

Does that sound more appealing?


Let me be explicit, and fold injuries into the talent category. Physical or psychological injury may prevent you from actually using your talent. If that's fixable, it probably needs a pro.

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