content warning: political call to action.
Say you are deeply, morally opposed to capitalism on principle, but nevertheless some inconsiderate person walks up to you, presses a dollar bill into your hand, and walks away. You already have more dollars than you need, and you certainly don't want to take part in the system you despise by spending it.
But then what do you do? Hide it away in order to level down inequity? Burn it in protest of the capitalist system that distributes luxuries to the rich instead of welfare to the starving?
Writes Scott Alexander:
If, as I’ve postulated, the reason we can’t solve world poverty and disease and so on is...the capture of our financial resources by the undirected dance of incentives, then what better way to fight back than by saying "Thanks but no thanks, I'm taking this abstract representation of my resources and using it exactly how I think it should most be used"? (...)
I suggest that you give it to someone who needs medicine. Or food. Or whatever else a dollar can buy. You don't seek to destroy unearned wealth if you can dispatch it to do immediate, tangible good. That's just selfish.
Writes Jeff Kaufman:
If you think of privilege as something you have that makes you a bad person, if you know the word and know it applies to you but you try to hide and dismiss your privilege, to find axes along which you have less of it, that's only marginally more helpful than if you were to deny your privilege entirely and insist that all your accomplishments in life have been due to your efforts alone. Having privilege puts you in position where you have an outsized ability to effect change. The best response to privilege is to turn it to fixing the situation that led you to having these major advantages over others. (...)
And the way that you go about that will look different than the way that people fight for themselves, because turning privilege against itself and tearing it down from the outside are different acts.
Wait, but shouldn't I lend my voice to amplify the voices of those speaking out against their oppression? Isn't that what you'd call "giving them a dollar to buy food"? Shouldn't I stand in solidarity with the ways they choose to engage?
Well, sometimes you should.
But also sometimes you shouldn't, and we don't talk about those times nearly enough.
A predictable side-effect of structures of oppression which negate your personal identity is a compromised ability to engage with certain issues "rationally". This often makes it difficult for those directly affected by oppression to speak with people who insist on only listening to cool-headed debate. This is where the emotional privilege of distance can be most useful.
"Emotional privilege of distance" doesn't describe everyone, but if it does describe you, we need your help.
Be honest here -- can you debate this rationally? Do you feel sympathy where your friends feel personal attack? Check your emotional privilege, and honestly ask -- can you do the work of allyship? Can you (not your friend under attack; can you...) swallow your emotions and approach the issue dispassionately?
Because if so, we need your help. Some people need to be talked to, and won't react well to emotional appeals. That's on them, but we need to talk to them anyway. If you're the right person for that task -- step up! (And if you're not, please don't tear down the people who are.)
It's counterintuitive, sometimes. You can't stoke your emotions, even when they're righteous -- you won't be able to do your job if you find debate with the enemy unbearable. You can't be an accelerant -- it may be strategically useful when others are, but it's dangerous in your line of work. Where others lash out defensively for their own safety, you'll need to seek reconciliation. Where others are backed into a corner, you'll save them by de-escalating the culture-war exercises of annihilation.
But if you have privilege that allows you to do this work, it is self-serving vanity to be always returning it to the bank in order to stand by the side of your friends. Instead, you could be taking up the work that's easier for you than it is for them, so they don't have to do it.
Listen more than you lecture to people you disagree with. Think long and hard about what to say to change their mind. See if it works. (If it doesn't, you have to change.) Really understand them. Love your enemy
and in that moment destroy them—and lead them to change for the better.
Bite your tongue. It's hard, but if your friends need to be the ones to do it, it'll be harder for them. Couch your argument in words that you find vile but get your point through the thick skulls of people who wouldn't understand them put properly. You can stomach those words better than anyone else who might need to say them. Make progress by unbearably tiny steps. You can bear them better than can others.
It's often said that it's not the place of disadvantaged activists to explain themselves to people of privilege. That's right. It's ours, as allies. And we have a great deal of work to do.
Let's not pretend otherwise.