The Power of Privilege

The Power of Privilege

When I started my blog, An Animal-Friendly Life, it was loosely inspired by Mohandas K. Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth, in which the Mahatma recounted various ways he attempted to live a truthful life, and what he actually meant by that. I liked the way Gandhi organized his autobiography around a central concept like truth, and I was inspired by how he reflected on its nature. What does it mean to live truthfully?

Similarly, I wanted to explore what it meant to be live an animal-friendly life. What were the implications of the vegan path down which I had embarked? As with living a life in pursuit of truth, being animal-friendly is not a destination — it’s a journey. And, to paraphrase Gandhi, your mileage may vary.

On that journey, AAFL ended up focusing on contextualizing events and animal-related stories in the media. In keeping up with that daily grind, I wasn’t often able to take much of an opportunity to stop and ponder the big picture at the blog. But, with this monthly column for The Better, Jason has privileged me with the opportunity to break free of my usual format and weigh in using more of an essay form, sort of what I had originally envisioned in the first place.

I don’t use the word privilege lightly. Privilege is central to the inception and evolution of animal protection. The privilege of being born and living in a modern civilization, such as it is, means that we no longer require animals for food, transport and so on, which provides us a relatively new perspective on nonhuman animals that allows for equal consideration, to even be able to consider animal rights and veganism.

While privilege typically conveys a sort of unfair advantage — it’s often tied to elitism — another way of looking at privilege is to consider it an opportunity: The opportunity to do good.

For instance, you are privileged to have the education, time, financial means and resources to be able to take time out of your day to read and understand what I am writing. I am privileged to have the education, time, financial means and resources to be able to take the time to gather my thoughts, compose this, to rewrite this, to produce what will hopefully have an impact on your thinking.

I don’t have the space to fully break out Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and to discuss its merits and flaws, but I think it’s fair to say that our basic interests in eating, sleeping, excreting and so on must be satisfied before most of us will consider the needs and interests of other beings, though occasionally we will deny our own needs in order to help those in apparently greater need (altruism is another subject entirely, though not unrelated).

In other words, once we’ve satisfied our more basic interests, we start seeking to satisfy other interests that may not have even occurred to us when we were more concerned with, say, finding our next meal. Some look at Western civilization and see as luxuries what many of us consider basic comforts. For thousands of years now, people in more socially developed civilizations have been in the rather privileged position to deeply consider moral issues, and our perceptions of morality have evolved along with our own standard of living.

It does seem that many of us engage in pursuits that have apparently little value, and I’m not solely referring to people who spend more time shooting videos of themselves doing stupid stunts for YouTube than helping others whose basic needs are still being denied. Obviously many of us squander our opportunities to make the world a more compassionate place, filling our free time with and spending our money on meaningless junk. But some are called by their conscience — awakened perhaps by other privileged people who have taken advantage of their opportunities to educate us — to leverage their position to do something meaningful with their lives.

And that’s why I’m an activist. When I examine my needs, frivolous pastimes plunge way down the list of priorities. I don’t mean to suggest that compassionate people can never take a break and give their minds a genuine rest, but I do believe that filling one’s life with so much distraction that one is blinded to moral obligations is a major problem for so many privileged people in the world. For me, knowing that I’m in a position to effect positive changes in the world, I feel obligated to do what I can in that regard.

To someone dying in Darfur, this column might seem surreal. But in the context of our own society, it is incumbent on those of us in privileged positions to seek out injustice and to leverage all the opportunities we have to educate others, raising awareness about Darfur, urging the reduction of activities that contribute to global warming, to help them widen their circle of compassion, encompassing as well nonhumans held captive in factory farms to be converted into food for still more privileged people.

Privilege is what freed many activists throughout time, including Gandhi and William Wilberforce, to consider the plight of others less fortunate than themselves. They got involved because they could. They weren’t necessarily the wealthiest, most elite people on earth, though some certainly were. They were simply people who became concerned about an injustice, and had the wherewithal to act in accordance with their conscience. And, if they were anything like you and me, they were compelled to act.

Like our activist predecessors, we are in a position to influence other privileged people, to enroll them into our cause. In other words, privilege affords certain people the ability to effect change within their sphere of influence on behalf of those that do not have a voice within that circle, whether nonhuman or human, who are for various reasons excluded from consideration. We simply cannot shift the fundamental outlook or paradigm of a society without engaging those in a position to influence that society’s attitude toward animals. As more people care about others less fortunate than themselves, elements of wholesale change start clicking into place.

So privilege is not necessarily a dirty word. If, as privileged animals ourselves, we can use our position for good, to speak on and act on behalf of oppressed animals, then we are obligated to do so.

Why? Because we can. If not us, then who?

Eric is the publisher of An Animal-Friendly Life and co-founder of the Boston Vegan Association.

Originally posted October 23, 2007

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