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  • Writer's pictureEABH Newspaper Club

Some Quick Thoughts on Privilege, Inequality, and Merit

While it is undeniable that the economic pie grew substantially under the capitalist models of production of the past centuries, it would be ignorant to omit the rampant inequality of its division. In 2021, the richest ten percent of individuals accounted for 76% of the global household wealth and 51% of all income. With these unprecedented levels of wealth discrepancy and the rapid flow of information in the digital age, one’s realization of their privilege or disadvantage has never been such an easy task, for there is constant exposure to the lifestyles of different socioeconomic groups, especially of the wealthier ones due to a culture of ostentation in social media.

Admittedly though, class consciousness requires more than the virtual unveiling of peoples’ realities: the realization of your position demands active engagement with societal layers other than yours. An upper-class teenager in the United States might know that he lives in an unequal society because he saw it on the news or the internet; however, if he lives in a secluded wealthy neighborhood and attends a high school of the same social status, he most likely does not understand his privilege to the fullest extent. Perhaps, a homeless man begging by his door would bring the necessary eureka of his socioeconomic condition. In other words, an unfelt truth barely constitutes a fact to the human mind, which impedes the uniformity of social awareness across the board.

Once one comes to terms with his privilege, there are two possible subsequent paths: guilt or ignorance. It is fairly common for people to feel guilty that they have an unfair edge over others, oftentimes because they feel like they are not deserving of it or because they believe that whatever they achieve will not be as laudable as the accomplishments of the underprivileged and marginalized in history’s eyes. Alternatively, one could simply ignore his headstart and live under the illusion that there is such a thing as a meritocratic social organization, which neo-liberals tend to appeal to and defend on various occasions. Oblivion towards privilege is a rather popular choice because it involves little to no confrontation with your identity and self-awareness; hence, more and more people appear to be fierce believers in the idea that everything you achieve in life derives solely from your efforts (or your parents’), which is very in line with the traditional conception of the American dream and the self-made man, for example. While I abominate this sort of proposition because it invariably produces a limited conception of the application of one’s wealth, favoring only the maintenance of the unequal status quo, I find it particularly curious that people would want a full-blown meritocracy. Why? Because if you have failed to succeed in such a system, if you are at the bottom of the social ladder and enjoy a worse standard of living than others, there is nothing to comfort you from your “failure.” When you cannot blame the state of your life on pre-existing conditions, reality can be a really hard pill to swallow. In other words, it is very easy to want a meritocracy when you believe you will do better than your competition, but the rules of the game only seem fair until they act against us.

If meritocracy may bring despair, is guilt a preferable response to privilege? In some ways, yes. Guilt implies punishment, which can be interpreted as social reparation and the diligent use of wealth in this case. Feeling guilty about your advantage may prompt you to try to make things fairer for the next generations. There is also the notion that the human capital that was invested into privileged individuals should be reinvested into society through widespread change in a modern social contract – molded after Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth. Notwithstanding, when one already has the socioeconomic conditions, there are little incentives within the capitalist system for him to pursue anything else; most people born in wealth will invariably lie in idleness; hence, chances are that the majority of people will do little to none in terms of societal retribution. Another explanation for the upper-class quiescence comes from Hegelian dialectics, which asserts through the concept of “masters and slaves” that those in superior positions accommodate because subordinates can perform their tasks for them, thus leading to the stagnation of the elite and the comparative development of others. Therefore, while guilt towards privilege could offer more socially optimal outcomes, it remains unlikely that those in positions of power and wealth will choose such paths.

The illusion of merit and the path of societal guilt are naturally arising responses to privilege; they are part of the human psyche. In times when the predominant narratives often demonize billionaires and the wealthy, it remains crucial to have a fair-minded approach to how their socioeconomic affects their behavior. These people are not evil; they are humans. Hence, if we are to evolve into a society that values fairness, equal access to opportunities, and an equitable future, we must understand how they think to encourage narratives that reinforce philanthropy, discourage idleness and unnecessary luxury, and engage them in meaningful contributions to society.


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