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I haven't been writing much here lately, because Eve and I have been hard at work writing our book about polyamory. At 160,000 words, it's well north of the New Testament and a bit north of The Two Towers in size. It turns out polyamory is complicated, and we have a lot to say about it.

However, I'm taking a break from writing about polyamory because I've started seeing this meme pop up all over the Internetverse, and it's reached the point where I have to say something about it. I think it's symptomatic of the problem of privilege.

I get what it's trying to say. Really, I do.

But it's wrong.

Yes, some people are given a bad life or a good life. We do not all start from a neutral place. Take this kid, for example. He would, I'm sure, be quite happy to have been given a life that was neither bad nor good:

This photo, by South African news photographer Kevin Carter, won a Pulitzer Prize. It documents the effects of famine in Sudan, in which more than 70,000 people died. Carter later committed suicide; in his suicide note, he wrote, "I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain...of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners."

Look at this kid. Then look at wealthy heiress Paris Hilton, out doing what she does best (which is, near as I can tell, "getting photographed partying"):

Then look back at the slave labor camps in North Korea, which are used to punish political dissidents "to the third generation." People are born in these slave camps, grow up, and die (often of torture, beatings, or starvation) here, without ever knowing anything else.

The meme might more accurately say "white middle-class Westerners born into progressive democracies are not given a good life or a bad life." But to be fair, perhaps that's what's meant by "we."

For those who aren't white middle-class Westerners in progressive democracies, there most definitely are good lives and bad. Not all lives have the same opportunity for choice and direction. Not everyone can choose to better their conditions; those born into North Korean Labor Camp 15, which is believed to hold as many as 30,000 slaves, certainly can't.

Like I said, I get the point of the meme. I am a huge believer in empowerment myself; I have written a great deal about how the choices we make affect our lives, for good or ill.

But I also recognize that, to a large extent, this is a privilege--one that should properly belong to everyone, but doesn't. Not everyone can choose to make their lives good or bad. The way we're born matters; Paris Hilton can shrug off bad choices that would destroy many people who are born into a less privileged position, and just keep on keepin' on.

Yes, make choices that make your life better. Yes, move in the direction of greatest courage. But when you do, don't forget to be grateful that you can. It's not your fault that people are born into situations horrifying beyond anything you can imagine, but it's your responsibility to acknowledge that not everyone is in the same position as you are. Some people are given a bad life. If you're not one of them, you're fortunate, but don't forget they exist.

And if your response is "lighten up, it's just a Facebook meme!"--perhaps you aren't paying attention.



( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 12th, 2014 11:12 pm (UTC)
YES. Thank you. I saw this meme recently on my newsfeed and my bullshit meter went off.
Mar. 13th, 2014 05:30 am (UTC)
excellent post about something that has been on my mind for a long time. thank you for putting it so eloquently.
Mar. 13th, 2014 10:02 pm (UTC)
Not to devalue the importance of privilege awareness, but I also see a problem with the meme in terms of defining "good life" and "bad life". Research shows happiness is only 10% circumstantial. Privilege does not necessarily equal "good life".

Ideally, I'd change the meme to say "it's up to you to make it your own." Sociological constructs and assumptions about good and bad generally work to hold us back.
Mar. 14th, 2014 09:14 am (UTC)
Watch the TED talk below and consider whether you think happiness for those people is only 10% circumstantial...
Mar. 15th, 2014 05:32 am (UTC)
Research of that sort also usually assumes that 20-something American and/or Western European university students are pretty much the only people who exist.
Mar. 15th, 2014 07:32 am (UTC)
I'm not quoting everything in the 90 minute documentary. They talk about the obvious impact basic needs being met.

Hate the stats, complain about the and critique the documentary if you want, that was not my point. I still don't think privilege equals "good life".
Mar. 15th, 2014 06:56 pm (UTC)
So there's some 90-minute documentary that has no need to be named because it was somehow part of this discussion all along despite never being mentioned, and everyone happens to know what it is? Okay then.

Not having seen the unnamed documentary in question, it's really hard to comment on the point because I don't know what sort of framing was used to make that point. I suspect, however, that the "happiness is only 10% circumstantial" thing is based on at least one of the following: the assumption that the environment one lives in is fully under most people's control (and therefore, is not significantly circumstantial), that "environment" and/or "circumstances" is being defined in some specific manner for purposes of discussion/argument which only make sense coming from a position of privilege, or they accidentally ended up creating a convoluted, non-obvious tautology that amounts to something like "if you ignore the people for whom circumstances significantly impact happiness, then happiness is only 10% circumstantial".

To the best of my knowledge, the happiest people in the world today mostly fall under one of two categories - members of extreme subcultures, or members of small "tribal" type cultures which have been allowed to operate largely unchanged into the modern world. Both of these are subject to - depending on how one defines both "environment" and "privilege" - some very subtle set of environmental and/or privileged circumstances which aren't available to just anyone.

For "extreme subculture" people, these are the ones who, due to fundamental personality issues, simply cannot be meaningfully happy in the mainstream culture which they were born in. Because of this, they end up joining or creating an environment which is pretty close to perfect for themselves, for at least part of the time, since they usually can't get away from the mainstream completely. But there's a subtle and profound caveat to this - being able to create, maintain, and join such a "bubble environment" is not something that everyone is in a position of being able to do, and if it's too far outside what is tolerable to the local mainstream, there will be a constant danger of being discovered and ruined.

For small tribal cultures, well... there's a lot going on with this, and it would take far too much space to cover it all. So, I'll just go over a few key points: 1.) In the past, people who simply could not be happy in the tribe's culture due to fundamental personality reasons usually died fairly young, one way or another - which provided the bonus of other people not having to deal with those who were chronically unhappy. 2.) In the modern world, they don't have to die, they can leave for some place which better suits them and come back to visit occasionally - which is another bonus. 3.) Living in a tribal culture which has been allowed to operate mostly unchanged and unmolested in the modern world is a privilege of sorts, and a fairly recent one at that (outside of a few specific exceptions, like the Amish). You normally can't really join them, you have to be born into one, and creating a new one is going beyond even what extreme subculture sorts can reasonably do.

And for the people whom the mainstream culture that they happened to be born in is at least "good enough"? Is not the "circumstances" of birth a major factor here? Is happiness being treated as a binary condition, where you either meet some baseline level or you don't, so only "good enough" matters, and being "among the happiest" or not is an irrelevant non-issue? It may sound like I'm quibbling with semantics, but that's the point - how you define and utilize terms like "happiness", "circumstances", "environment", "privilege", and what you choose to exclude as being likely irrelevant, probably makes a huge difference in what kind of conclusion one would reach.
Mar. 16th, 2014 07:07 am (UTC)
If you want to look it up, it's called Happy. They claim the barefoot, beaten rickshaw driver with rain in his "house" is just as happy as the privileged American.

I don't know their metrics to evaluate that, you can go to the studies and researchers and debate with them if you'd like. They don't talk about the things you do here, but I don't know that they'd disagree.

I didn't bother mentioning the title because no, my point was not necessarily about happiness. It was about semantics, just as you come to in your last paragraph there. I was more just offering it as a point to consider and am not here to argue anything, so sarcastically attacking my comment rather than asking for info/title if you're actually curious is kind of unnecessary.

Nice ideas with your cultures though.
Mar. 14th, 2014 01:55 am (UTC)
Thank you so so so much for this post. Yes, the word "We" has to be specified who "we" are. Otherwise I feel angry (I came to this post through More than Two site which I recently found.)
Mar. 15th, 2014 08:56 pm (UTC)
And once again I crush on your brain. Thank you Franklin.
Mar. 16th, 2014 11:20 pm (UTC)
NO. Just frimping well no.

Do NOT be grateful. Except for life, you haven't been given jack.... Well, maybe SHE has (Paris). We in relative wealth and prosperity, we who are in a position to read internet memes.. we are NOT privileged. Even thinking so labels us as the "other" and our condition as somehow deviant. WE are oppressed boys and girls. The difference is that you and I (and Paris) are oppressed so lightly and so gently that we barely even notice in the over-stimulation of our prosperity.

The starving child on the ground? The enslaved in the prison camp? These are not the ones to whom nothing has been given. These are the ones from whom everything has been taken. This is not the default natural state of man from which we should be glad we have escaped, but the result of unspeakable crimes. Their oppression is neither light nor gentle. This is not a crime of neglect, but of active hostility of man against man.

Yes we should be aware. Yes we should act, but not out of some anemic and unfocused guilt that we are free and prosperous. Instead, let us take our prosperity up as a weapon.

... And then let us rage.

Mar. 17th, 2014 05:56 am (UTC)
I like that you have a lot to say about polyamory. And I refer clients and friends to your material all the time.
Dusty Hu
Mar. 27th, 2014 04:34 am (UTC)
I think this post is possibly the best I've ever read, you said it exactly how it needed to be said, and I think I hear you. I hear you saying that privilege has a lot to do with responsibility. And responsibility is something that We, as a world have fallen short of meeting Our responsibility to the world, the responsibility that cannot be ignored or separated from life lived as a human being.

That it is ALL OUR responsibility to first make sure that every single human being that is born into this world has food, clean water, is clothed and housed with a bed sleep in. Because it truly does not take much to provide this most basic sense of privilege that all human beings must be at least offered. There are some things that we might be able to justify shirking Our responsibility -- the being willing to fight against an oppressive regime or go to war to fight for another's freedom, however until every county and culture is at least offered the most basic nutrition, water, shelter and a place to sleep, we are failing, and that is not OK.

If the people who are free to exercise the freedoms and liberties that we are afforded, fail to meet the responsibility of first making sure that every human has food, water, clothing and shelter, and if not then only because the denied the no strings attached offer for food and water, then we do not deserve the life of excess we live.

It's not that Paris's life is wrong, her life and any life similar could very easily be right, but only after every human being has been provided clean water, food, basic shelter from the elements including clothing.

Until that responsibility is met, we are ALL failing, and there is no excuse,

keep writing your book, and keep writing these truths so that more people awaken to realize these responsibilities that are Ours, to many people living their life asleep, is what enables the hell others are forced to suffer, going through life asleep is not living, it's dying, and as a world we must fulfill our responsibilities so that we may live, and in the past there were many reasons we could not come to this realization, but there really aren't any more valid reasons. It is important that awaken

Keep up the good work Franklin

excellent post, thank you for writing it

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