A Dissection of Privilege

Suvayu Sengupta

July 17, 2020

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Is a tiger more terrifying to a peasant than to a zamindar? Why, then, does the peasant flee at the very sight of pug marks that are months old, while his landlord traces the fresh ones, and displays incredulous audacity by prancing into the very lair of the beast during a raging gale to lodge a bullet between its blazing eyes? The tales arguably make it difficult to imagine that there could be any other reason than the notion that some sections are naturally predisposed to be more virtuous – more valiant, honest, honourable and so on – than others. But stories can conceal, and often times they do. What they try to sell as natural bias, is in fact, a product of human cunning, or privilege – a self-perpetuating system of structural discrimination in distribution of access to resources – material and immaterial.

Of the immaterial resources, the socio-psychological ones like courage, gumption, confidence, social charm etc. have come to gather some traction in the rapidly liberalising and urbanising environs of today, where there is a hypocritical claim made that individualistic and achievement oriented norms have purportedly come to replace the ascribed ones. Even if one were to understand privilege merely in terms of its material bases, it would not be difficult to imagine that the access to the socio-psychological resources, or the lack of it, is a consequence of the initial access to the material resources.

A peasant who can barely manage to provide for two square meals a day is unlikely to be able to afford proper treatment for himself if he miraculously survived a brawl with the beast, or would abandon his family to their fates if he perished in its jaws. When plagued by such prospects, it is unfair to expect anything but timidity from such a helpless character. The zamindar on the other hand, confident of his purse to be able to afford the best treatment if he lost a limb to the beast, and assured by the fact that his family’s fortunes shall remain secured even in his absence, can comfortably muster the courage to make a sport out of hunting the apex predator; and lauding such bravado is, if anything, unnecessary.

With respect to privilege, one should be aware that there cannot exist absolute privilege, only relative privilege. An urban, middle class woman is only relatively more privileged than a rural woman of modest means, while sharing their victimhood at the hands of patriarchal structures at large. But even more peculiar is a phenomenon one may call transitioning-disprivilege or disprivilege. The label might mislead one to assume it to be a situation of absence of privileges, but it can be, for the sake of convenience, understood as a transitory situation between two positions of relative privileges, without eschewing the position of under-privilege at large. While relative privilege can be understood as both individual as well as group levels, transitioning-disprivilege can be analyzed only at the level of a community or a group.

The fact that some members of the Dalit community have come to secure a relatively more privileged position than most members of their community or even those of other communities, does not, at all, militate against the other fact that the community/communities at large remain, by far, acutely discriminated against on every available social register. Again, the fact that after centuries of struggling against caste based discrimination they have been able to assert their Dalit identity in the political arena of the country, strongly enough to become a variable worth reckoning, should not tell us that they have moved away from their underprivileged past, but that they are still largely at the poor, receiving end of structured discrimination, and are therefore, transitioning-disprivileged.

A similar discussion can be held of the recent MeToo movement, wherein, women mostly from educated, urban, middle class backgrounds came forward to expose the institutionalized system of sexual harassment at workplaces. While their relative privilege gave them the gumption to protest against the crimes perpetrated against them, the lack of a similar network of privilege and consequentially greater degrees of threat would have kept poor woman from a traditionally and educationally backward community from a rural area from realising a similar strength. But when analysed from the point of sex, women by and large, irrespective of their position in the continuum of privilege is a clearly transitioning-disprivileged community, victimised in varying degrees and forms by the entrenched structures of patriarchy.

Disprivilege, thus, present a veritable answer to the often ill-conceived accusations levelled by status quoist factions against the traditionally oppressed of needlessly and perhaps even unfairly crying wolf, without acknowledging the man-eater that they had let lose upon the discriminated for generations.

Discussion


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