Archie, our black lab mix, is a remarkably handsome guy (I think). He has soft, silky hair; a long, elegant muzzle; and thoughtful, soulful eyes. He barks ferociously when anyone comes to the door, but then within a minute decides our guest deserves his warmest, deepest attention.
We serve Archie the very best dog food and dole out a treat whenever we leave the house or whenever we sit down to eat (no fattening human food for this guy!). He’s never missed a meal. Archie has three human housemates, all retired. He doesn’t get left home alone all that much. He has a roomy yard enclosed with an invisible fence. But no day goes by without a romp with us in Elmwood Park.
A marathon napper, Archie has his own couch and pillow. He even has his basket of toys. Surely, Archie’s life is better than that of the vast majority of dogs on this planet. Heck, Archie’s life must be better than that of many – most? – humans.
Why does Archie have such a good life?
Mostly, because of how fortunate my housemates and I are in our lives – how privileged.
Awhile back I took part in a three-day workshop at a nearby campus. In one exercise, our facilitator had each participant list ten words that describe his or her identity – each word on a separate slip of paper.
Here is what I wrote: white, male, hetero, US citizen, honest, Green, non-car owner, partnered, nonviolent, privileged.
After we all compiled our lists, the facilitator had us crumple each slip and drop it to the floor. But first, we were to reflect on what our life would be like without that particular trait. So, for example, as I crumpled my male slip, I was to consider how my life might be different if I had been born something else.
Then the facilitator asked us to reclaim all the slips – except for those traits we wished weren’t part of our identity. While I’m ambivalent about a couple of my traits, I left none on the floor. For a moment, though, I considered shedding privileged.
Ours is a world where so many have so little. It’s a world where affluence often ultimately comes at the price of others’ impoverishment. Affluence also comes at the price of denying future generations resources and opportunities. Affluence takes an enormous ecological toll. My privilege is far from sustainable.
Rightly or wrongly, my rationale for keeping the privileged slip went like this: by US standards I consume little; as an activist I focus on what I think of as essential issues (anti-militarism, anti-imperialism etc.). So, I told myself, my privilege is partly justified since I try to leverage it for the greater good – how could I do my work without this pricey computer etc., etc.?
Sure, I may be kidding myself. We humans have an enormous capacity for denial and self-indulgence. Because I’ve had many years of schooling, I may even succumb to such delusion more than most.
Further, thanks to the advantages I’ve had (through little effort or merit of my own), I may well have an exaggerated sense of entitlement. You might call this “more-ism”: the more you have, the more you think you should have. There is a corollary: “less-ism.” Often, the less you have, the less you’re aware you deserve. In other words, over- or under- empowerment.
One reason I cherish Archie is that I see in his eyes and in his body language that he’s calculating and pondering and sorting things out. If only I could enter into his mind for just a short time! I’d love to know what he thinks; how he thinks.
I’m sure Archie has more-ism. I doubt he ever questions the unruffled ease of his life. He never asks who built or bought that couch he’s made his own. Nor does he ask who pays the vet bill. Surely, Archie never wonders whose labor produces the food that magically keeps appearing in his bowl twice a day.
In Archie’s case the obliviousness is innate. The sadness is that we humans can go through life no less oblivious