Open Thinkering


Cashing in on your privilege

Earlier this week I came across Seth Godin writing on the truth about admissions to elite universities. I’m not sure where he got his data, but it would be difficult to argue against his central point:

What would happen if we spent more time on carefully assembling the pool of ‘good enough’ and then randomly picking the 5%?


It’s difficult for the picked, for the pickers and for the institutions to admit, but if you don’t have proof that picking actually works, then let’s announce the randomness and spend our time (and self-esteem) on something worthwhile instead.

Entrance to many professions and walks of life is far from being the result of a strict meritocracy. I think we’d all accept that.

Thinking about this further, I remembered a Twitter conversation I’d had with Mozilla contributor Stefan Bohacek. Over a series of tweets he took issue with a short post I’d written entitled $1 for the X, $9,999 for the expertise. In it, I’d quoted a (probably apocryphal) story about Tesla and Edison.

Well I just totally disagree with what the person is saying. Just because you cashed in on your privilege and spent a few years in college, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should make more than people who didn’t. Salaries need to be completely rethought. Do sports player and actors deserve vastly more money than teachers? If I want to have a comfortable life, I have to become a brain surgeon or start my own company? Who is going to bag our groceries and cut our hair once everyone is a lawyer? I agree — value is hard to measure. But the way it’s usually measured nowadays is completely wrong.

I still have reservations about salaries being centrally controlled via some kind of planned economy. However, the phrase ‘cashing in on your privilege’ has haunted me these past few months.

The phrase has stuck with me and been nagging at the back of my mind as it explains a lot of what I’ve seen as a teacher, as a parent, and as an participant-observer in our society. It’s the reason why, even as a political ‘centrist’  I oppose private schooling and believe that inheritance tax should pretty much be set at 100%. Like the proverbial goldfish noticing ‘water,’ privilege is something that’s not usually observed by those enjoying it.

But the thing is, we’re all privileged in the West / global north. I was struck this week by some research Mozilla has been doing in Africa about mobile phone usage. There’s many excellent (scary) points in that report, but something that stands out is how careful people have to be about their data plans. Yet here I am walking down my local high street, able to get a free wifi connection via around 40% of shops I walk past. I don’t think twice about some of the things that people have to obsess over.

It begs the question: what would it like to do the opposite, to divest oneself of privilege? Would it be a life similar to elf Pavlik, someone (intentionally) moneyless and stateless for the past five years, working for the good of the world (and most certainly not profit)? Would it be to spend as much time as one is able volunteering to help those least fortunate in society? What about reverse-tithing your salary?

I have no answers here, only questions. In my head I’m a lot more radical, consistent in my views, and morally upstanding than I actually must appear to others. Perhaps we’re all like that, I don’t know. What I think we all need to do is to think carefully about what constitutes privilege. We’re always going to be less well off – financially, socially, emotionally – than others, but then to another group of people, we’re the ones who are well off.

Final point: it’s easy to give money. What’s really missing in the world is time, attention and care. There are thousands and thousands of people out there who didn’t have the parents or the education to build networks of people they can rely on and use reciprocally to build cultural capital.* That’s why I was so impressed with Bryan Mathers when I interviewed him recently. He’s providing a bridge for young people to do things they’re good at but otherwise wouldn’t have been able to achieve due to the obstacles unwittingly placed in their way by society.

So I’ve no real conclusion other than I’m going to try and find ways to help others in non-material ways. I’m not sure what that will look like but feel free to ask me in a few weeks/months what I’ve done to further that aim. Please.

Image CC BY-NC Dave Wild

* Listen to this excellent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed.

4 thoughts on “Cashing in on your privilege

  1. Hi Doug,
    Some interesting points in here but two in particular I’d comment on. Sorry if this is a waffle….

    The first is related to inheritance tax being 100% (which would consequently remove the privilege(d) ). I’ve told my story a couple of times of having grown up in a particularly rough area of Liverpool (Kensington), and attended, what was at the time, the 18th worst school in the country. Privilege was not something we seen too often. But if anything, that’s what has driven me to do something about it. I am a minority amongst my earlier school friends for having a decent job and the things that can afford. But much of that is so I can give my kid(s) a better start that I had – to not grow up in a terraced street (although I still love that street and the house my parents still live in); to not go to school were the ‘norm’ was to misbehave and where working hard was actually very difficult; to not have to struggle to make ends meet; and largely to help my kids do the same for when they have kids. My parents couldn’t buy me my first car – I learned to drive in my 20s, took a loan out to buy a car and wasted some extra loan money, ultimately putting myself in a rubbish financial position for the coming 5 years. I couldn’t buy a house early enough so couldn’t get one in the boom. I’ve learned my lesson and coped with it. But not everyone can do that and I’m very lucky with everything I’ve got. But the main point is I want my kids to not have to worry about all that because I’ve worried about those things for them. Isn’t that what parenting is?

    But on the flip side, this leads me on to the second point – Your final point… “it’s easy to give money. What’s really missing in the world is time, attention and care”. You hit the nail on the head. We were happy kicking our football against the old power station in the road (although the neighbours were not). Trips to disneyland were a million miles away. The privilege of money doesn’t matter if I’m happy and can spend time with my family, but of course the privilege of inheritance is not independent from the time, attention and care we can spend whilst we’re here – they’re not mutually exclusive. And we can help other people too – when I was younger I volunteered at the same youth club I attended previously.

    Of course education shouldn’t be for the rich/privileged, but if I can do it, many others can, and are. We can break down those privileged doors if we knock loud enough.

    Thanks for making me think.

    1. Thanks Peter! I live in a reasonably-affluent area and realise that my kids, apart from me chewing their ear off, won’t experience poverty and people living under-privileged lives on a daily basis. I think the clash of going from that kind of world into university made me (and it looks like you, too) the person I am today.

  2. Quite reflexive, in that you’re able to examine our own lives in a broader context, using the perspectives of how others might perceive us.

    There’s actually a lot of privilege throughout Africa. Including contexts in which people get a lot of care, attention, and time. Among those of us who’ve spent time in different parts of the continent, it’s a common thing to say that we gained more from spending time with Africans than we could ever repay. Much of this has to do with what’s valued in hyperindustrialised contexts. Between free WiFi (with the dependency on devices it might imply) and a deep three-hour conversation over tea with someone I just met, I’d choose the tea. Maybe because I’m a humanist living in a transhumanist world. Water is appropriate for fish. Many of us in North America feel like fish out of water.

    Really nice that you discuss the main dimension of privilege, that it’s invisible to those who hold it. It’s one of the most important lessons in sociology, and your citing Thinking Allowed can help spread this type of insight.

    It’s also important to note that privilege doesn’t take anything away from success. The “invisible knapsack” concept isn’t about lack of effort for those who hold privilege. It’s about not having to overcome certain obstacles. Is life so easy for straight college-educated able-bodied “white” men that we deserve no credit for achieving anything?

    When it comes to global privilege, there seems to be a lot of guilt involved. The main reason life can be so tough in other parts of the World is probably that things are controlled from this one. According to Wallerstein’s version of Dependency Theory, Global Inequalities have more to do with the World Bank and structural adjustment programs than what people perceive as lack of “modernization”. So we’re all responsible for everyone’s plight. Kipling and other British colonizers talked about the “White Man’s Burden”. But a key is in recognizing that people have a lot to offer.

    1. Something I didn’t put in the post is a recognition that everyone wants to better themselves and their families. The trouble is that this, in an individualistic and materialistic market-based system, leads to a dog-eat-dog world.

      Really appreciate the thoughtful feedback and comment, Alexandre. More thinking to do! 🙂

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