This year I have begun a Masters in social work. I have spent many years flopping about trying to find my niche and how to apply what I consider my strengths in a socially constructive way. I have found that interacting with people and working with them to help pull them out of the proverbial quicksand is the thing I feel I need to do and have been rumbling towards in some capacity my whole adult life. A key aspect of social work (which I jokingly refer to as being a professional SJW) is recognising privilege and the effect that our unconscious privileges have on our perspectives and how we can harness those privileges to bring about positive and lasting change to individuals and thus the greater population.
I have known for a long time about my own privileges, or at least the more prominent ones, and this has impacted on my interactions with the world and myself, though not always in a positive way. I am a white, male, cis-gendered, heterosexual in a first world country with stable accommodation, tertiary qualifications and access to welfare to stop me from slipping too far off the ladder in times of desperation. These are pretty considerable privileges and don’t include further privileges that are not so obvious such as the moral set I was raised with, my health, my connection to family, my support network of friends, the area of my country I live in et al. The thing is, and this is a salient point I feel many have either misconstrued or ignored in their reading of social justice ideals in a post modern context, everything that separates you from other people is technically a privilege in some capacity whether or not you yourself consider it to be as such. If, for example, you were to compare my situation as someone without gainful employment to someone with a stable and well-paying job that other person is privileged. Yet, if you compare my ability to claim a welfare payment from the government because of my lack of gainful employment to someone from, say, the Middle East who is unable to find an income and has no access to such services, I am privileged. This understanding of privilege is something that many fixate on as a point of attack, as in certain people deserve to be attacked or, in a sense, oppressed because they have privileges. The thing I have felt within myself since learning the concept of privilege in this sense many years ago, which is reinforced with how it is being taught in my classes, is that EVERYONE is privileged but it’s your responsibility in society to use your privileges to assist others that are under-privileged or are in a position of undue disadvantage as a result of the privileges of others. That is to say that I, for instance, as an educated person am compelled to use what I have learned to help others who, perhaps, are struggling with something because they did not have access to that information as per the unwritten social contract. For example if you give someone directions you are using your privilege of geographical knowledge to assist someone who does not have it, which, of course, is hardly a world changing example but that takes me on to my next point.
People these days are obsessed with changing the world, especially in the western culture. There is always a concerted effort to tear down existing social structures, not always with a mind towards what to replace them with, because people have become so fixated on systemic faults and sweeping reforms since the civil rights movements of the early to mid twentieth century that they can’t comprehend the way that small changes that affect an individual can be just as powerful and even more rewarding in some cases. Imagine yourself in a forest and the only thing you have is a hatchet. You look up and you see the rain clouds growing darker and heavier and the sun is going down. You need shelter and time is running out. Now, you can use the hatchet to chop down a tree to make logs to build a house and that would protect you from the elements pretty solidly, but there’s no way you could do that with the tool you have and the lack of time given. So you have to find an alternative. Now you could use the hatchet to lop off some branches or peel sheets of bark that you can use to create a small canopy that will protect you from most of the rain and you can do this pretty quickly but it is not a permanent solution. Now, obviously the most practical solution is the latter, but it is not going to be a long term solution that resolves all of the issues ; What about rain? What about light and heat? The fact is that you don’t have the time or the capability to address all of those issues right now, but in the morning you might. This is the critical aspect of social justice thinking that needs to be developed. You may not “fix” the whole problem in one go but every little victory is a victory all the same. If you can help just one person overcome one obstacle you are making a change. You don’t need to overthrow the patriarchy or guillotine the aristocracy to do that and that’s where social workers are important. They fill in the gaps that society leaves when they are more worried about loftier ideas, which is one of the reasons I was drawn to it as a career. It’s also important to understand your own constraints because there are times that you will fail and you will be forced to prioritise some problems over others and that doesn’t always have a happy ending. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to change the big picture of course, it merely means that if you only fixate on the big picture you’re going to miss opportunities to make a real difference and are probably going to fail more often just based on the sheer scale of what you’re attempting to do. When I studied as a teacher we were told over and over of the benefits of breaking tasks down into chunks for the students and this is absolutely applicable to the pursuit of social justice. Incremental change is far more ground breaking, far more impactful, though deceptively so, than trying to blitz society into change.
Having privileges doesn’t make you a bad person. Having privileges doesn’t make you an oppressor. It’s how you use the benefits that those privileges affords you that determines where you would fall on the spectrum from “good” to “bad”. We in the western world truly are in the most privileged place of all, despite what many voices would have you think. Is it flawed? Is it flawed? Show me a system that isn’t! Of course there’s room for growth. If there were no flaws I’d be out of a job (I mean, technically I am but I am applying myself to the mentality that I’m already a social worker unofficially). There are parts of our culture that are shameful, especially around gender, sexuality, class and race relations. These can be changed, and we’re doing that but real lasting change is gradual. A two hundred year old gum tree is more solid that a thirty year old pine, but a pine is perfect for a consumerist mentality of instant gratification. Lasting and positive social change or reform is gradual. Anything worth having never came easily and you’re only putting yourself in a position to fail spectacularly if you think that a sudden and radical change in the structure of society should come easily – the assumption that waving a placard and chanting will make things go the way you want is an idea that comes from a place of privilege – the privilege of instant gratification facilitated by consumerist, capitalist social structures as well as the privilege of having previous decades of similar social justice movements to use as a template. Social justice is about justice on every level for every individual regardless of privilege and it is about attending to the needs of the individual as much as the collective those individuals create.
The old adage of not throwing stones in glass houses is more relevant here than perhaps it has ever been before, for now we have the tools thanks to centuries of philosophical, psychological and sociological theory to identify potential hypocrisy or oppression and in so doing institute changes within to negate those instances. To check your privilege is not to see yourself as innately oppressive. It is a tool of individual empowerment to see one’s flaws and improve. We are, therefore, the microcosm of our world and that is why we must be the change we want to see.