[Note: See previous discussion here if you have not before.]
Having briefly introduced the subjected of privilege and presenting some introductory critique of it, I thought it would be worthwhile for us to spend a bit of time discussing exactly what we mean by privilege when we talk about it. I would like us to compare two ideas. First, I will discuss what we mean when we talk about privileges, especially as it relates to dealing with children and teenagers and young adults who are still in a state of some dependency upon their parents or other adult figures. After that we will discuss and critique what is meant by privilege when this term is used in a sociological perspective. In doing so, we will frame what is meant by privilege and also examine the flaws that this perspective has, as a way of introducing further discussion of the subject and further critique and evaluation.
If you remember growing up, you remember privileges. From what I hear and see, children today have more privileges than we did growing up, but the general idea has remained constant. If you lived in a neighborhood where it was possible to compare what was allowed by some parents and not by other parents, you knew the range of privileges and how they could be removed. For example, some parents were okay letting their children wander all over creation as long as they didn’t get in trouble while other parents wanted to know exactly where their children were at all times or there would be serious trouble. My family belonged to the latter category, and if a parent or grandparent was not readily available when being invited to play video games or sports at a neighbor’s house, one had to evaluate the hassle it would take to find said authority figure to ask permission as well as the odds that one would be home before one was viewed as missing, and the amount of spanking or some other sanction that one would get if one was missed and searched for. Being a rather independent-minded person disinclined to ask for permission and a slow learner, I found out that I was frequently more optimistic about my odds of avoiding trouble than ended up being the case, and also found myself to have far fewer privileges than most of the other young people that I grew up around.
Was this unjust? Is it unfair for some children to be allowed to run about at will while others are treated to high degrees of severity? No, not really. After all, every experience in parenting amounts to an experiment. Knowing the temperament of one’s child, how they learn best, and the sort of lessons one wants them to learn, parents and later on other authority figures like teachers and employers seek to provide incentives and punishments to guide behavior into appropriate channels. Being a fairly stubborn person myself, set in my ways and highly resistant to change, I have tended to notice that life has provided more sanctions than someone who was quicker on the uptake would receive. But at the same time I reflect on such matters and do not consider it an injustice that an imperfectly socialized person as myself with rather strong views and a disinclination to shut about them or moderate them should attract more negative scrutiny than the average person. If I have not always been quick to act upon the claims that authority figures and society at large has made on me, I can recognize that being somewhat restive and rebellious with regards to such matters is not a consequence-free position to take. And as was the case when I was a child occasionally being dragged from the ear from my neighbor’s house by someone who was upset not to know where I had been, I accept the risks and potential repercussions of the way I choose to live my life, regardless of whether it is easier or harder than it is for others.
When we look at the question of justice in how parents raise their children and how they deal with those children as they become older and more equal and more set in their ways, parents have a great deal of leeway in the sorts of privileges that they give to their children and teenagers and young adults. These privileges will differ from one family to another and from one child to another based on a variety of factors. Throughout life there will be business and churches and schools and other institutions that will be understanding to some people and not others for matters of attitude and approach, and the wise and discerning person will understand what attitude and approach works best in getting one’s way or at least in avoiding the worst of repercussions for one’s behavior. This is not a process that stops when one is young, but rather is something that continues on when one is older. It is worthwhile to examine how much of the trouble we find is due to the prejudices that are in the mind of others, how much is in the attitude and approach we bring to them, and how much is do to the interaction of the two.
After all, not every question of differential treatment is a miscarriage of justice. As we have seen when it comes to the privileges that people receive growing up and in institutions, a great deal of the treatment we receive is based on the attitude that we have and not on the identity we have. It is possible that these two may be correlated in that certain backgrounds may not provide the sort of subtle life skills that allow other people to smoothly handle the ropes of institutional politics and interpersonal communication with ease while others find themselves continually hampered by hostile bad feelings that lead to the paranoia that the world, or at least a substantial portion of it, is out to get you when they simply may not like the bad attitude that you bring and may not have had anything against you had you brought a better attitude and a more positive approach to the situation. The extent to which personal responsibility and factors out of one’s control play into such matters is not an easy one to determine. And those who want to label everything as privilege and prejudice tend to do a poor job at examining what they could have done better themselves to avoid activating whatever negative feelings are present in the mind of other people in the first place, which only tends to make matters worse.