Thursday, October 30, 2014

Privilege and Karma are like Captain Mal Reynolds: They Do Not Exist...And They Are Also Totally Real


I was reading a discussion about privilege on the internet between people who subscribe to that particular theory and people who don't.

It probably comes as no surprise that communication was breaking down.

Talking about privilege, I think, is a lot like talking about the Buddhist concept of karma in that in order to have a productive conversation on the subject, everyone involves has to be able to wrap their head around the paradoxical fact that something can not exist, and at the same time be totally real.

Let's a less political or religious example.

Consider Captain Malcolm Reynolds.

Mal Reynolds doesn't exist. He was never born and never had a childhood. Nothing happened to him between the Firefly TV show and the Serenity movie because there is no 'him' for anything to happen to. He's nothing more than an actor with a different name saying words a writer put together wearing a costume someone in wardrobe designed on a set a production designer built.

At the same time, people have a real experience of Mal. The writers in the writer's room asking "What should Mal do here?" are asking a real question. The tailor measuring Nathan Fillion's inseam for Mal's costume is having a real experience. The worldwide assembly of fans and self-proclaimed Browncoats who were inspired by Mal's "thrillin' heroics" and were broken-hearted by Firefly's untimely cancellation are feeling real feelings and having real experiences.

The THING is not real. The EXPERIENCE is.

Syrio Forel is neither alive nor dead. Nothing happened when Arya fled the scene leaving her Dancing Master facing off with the Kingsguard knight. There is no Arys Oakheart or Syrio or Arya or King's Landing. Words on a page and the images they conjure in our imagination is all there is.

Yet the exeprience of Syiro is absolutely, unequivocally real. We have opinions about him. We have feelings towards him as a character. His existence touches our lives.

Concepts like 'privilege' and 'karma' fall into this same category. They are things that don't exist independently of our ability to experience them. We can't measure them, take pictures of them, or carry them home in a bucket. But we CAN experience them and they do have an effect on us, the people around us, and the world.

We need to understand this contradiction if we're going to have meaningful conversations about these concepts. We also need to embrace it if we're going to work with them effectively.

People who ONLY take the position that they don't exist struggle because their lives and those of the people around them are affected by these ideas. They are cutting themselves off from something that is a reality of human experience. And yet they continue to reject it because they can't see, touch, hear, or smell it like people denying the existence of elephants just because they've never seen one in real life.

People who ONLY take the position that these concepts are real struggle because they start to believe that privilege is something that exists in the world of reality instead of the world of ideas, concepts, and explanations. As a result they burn themselves out. You can't 'smash the patriarchy' or 'exterminate racism' any more than you can 'win the war on drugs' because your opponent does not exist to be fought. It's heartbreaking watching good people exhaust themselves to tears swinging baseball bats at ghosts.

Things don't have to be real to exist.

Things don't have to exist to be real.

Only by making peace with this contradiction can we hope to have meaningful conversations,  take effective actions, and find lasting peace of mind.

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