“Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it’s not a problem to you personally”David Gaider
The headline quote for this article is one that I think requires some deep introspection. But even if you were to undertake the shallowest form of reflection, it is easy to see at least one area of privilege regardless of how badly you think you lost the proverbial birth lottery. For me, my mind is burdened as I try to draw a line between privilege and responsibility. Permit me to selflessly unload my burden on you.
My prior article on privilege was triggered by four distinct events. This time, a random discussion with a colleague has got me thinking about the rightness of demanding that every individual take responsibility for his or her choices, actions, or inactions; regardless of whether such a person were disprivileged, hence, arguably unable to do the “right thing”.
I was raised in a part of Port Harcourt that is now bedeviled with thuggery, cultism, gang violence, drug abuse, and other ills. While I sat on my holy chair to pontificate on the foolish choices made by many persons in the area, including persons who having seen the demonic consequences of cultism, still sought to join cult groups, a work colleague calmly broke my chair by affirming that such persons “didn’t know better” or “had no choice”. He described his experience attending a state government-run secondary school where students who had joined cults would randomly declare a day free of school activities and chase the teachers away, some of whom would jump over the fence to seek respite from the marauding juveniles. Students who genuinely wanted to attend school would end up getting disillusioned, especially after sustained episodes of bullying from their cult-affiliated schoolmates. Since the school authorities and the government could not protect these students within the school premises, many would end up joining cult groups for protection. To worsen matters, many of these youths come from dysfunctional homes lacking one or both parents, and even where parents were alive and well, preoccupation with the vagaries of work kept such parents from being involved in their children’s lives. Conversely, I grew up under the watch of two educated parents who provided guidance to navigate that era.
I would then argue that I also attended a secondary school that had its fair share of cult activities, although the level of cultism reduced after the school authorities procured the services of the Nigerian Army that sent some soldiers to patrol the school premises from 6pm to 6am each day. My colleague countered by pointing to the proximity between Federal Government College Port Harcourt and the 2nd Amphibious Brigade of the Nigerian Army situated at Bori Camp. For him, the mere fact that the school could seek help from the Army highlighted a level of privilege not available to other public schools.
As my colleague continued his argument around the lack of economic opportunities and role models to guide many of the youths I hitherto viewed as irresponsible, I began rethinking my position. A question that arose in my mind was how much of responsibility for an action could be assigned to the conscious will of a person, compared with subconscious influences and environmental factors. When a young boy joins a cult group and commits murder, can we entirely blame him without looking at the “unseen and unprosecutable” forces that could have driven him? When a young lady becomes a prostitute to earn a living, do we blame her “foolish choice”, or do we consider that she might be blissfully unaware of practicable alternatives, or conditioned to believe her only route out of poverty passes through a brothel? When a young boy, having lost his parents, turns to weed for help, do we blame his foolishness, or do we consider the lack of support platforms and mental health services for bereaved youths?
As I think about this other side of assigning responsibility, I see a clear path for abuse. We already see indicted persons try to evade justice by claiming insanity, thereby shirking responsibility for their actions. Some persons would surely seek to exploit any societal attempt to rethink the role of privilege in determining the level of responsibility that can be assigned to an individual; however, I think this discussion needs to be had.
It is easy to think that we would make better choices, but this thinking overlooks the privilege that we enjoy. Sometimes, the ability to make the right choice is a privilege subtly enjoyed. For me, I continue pondering on the privilege Vs responsibility antinomy. I cannot yet say how societies should handle this, but we definitely have to find a way if we want a fairer society. And I am relieved to have laid this burden upon you. Be grateful for your privilege.
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