Wednesday, December 23, 2020

What to Do with Privilege?

 I have had the privilege to think and write about privilege often. I have written about how privilege affects Indian software industry's ability to innovate. I have written about why the privileged should think about how they're part of the problem. I have looked at my privileges visible to me. I also felt guilty/responsbile and came up with a probably stupid idea of distributing my time to help others.

Today morning I came across two interesting tweets.

The next tweet requires a bit of context. New York Times had published a very interesting story about pollution in Delhi by following two kids from different backgrounds and measuring their pollution exposure. You should absolutely read the story (the reality) if you haven't.

This made me think about the book by Michael Sandel that I recently finished reading - The Tyranny of Merit. It is a book about privilege, inequities, affirmative action, and the idea of justice. 

The book starts with examination of a US college admission corruption scandal. A few rich parents had paid some people to get their kids fake certificates that would make it easier to get college admission. This was seen as highly unfair and corrupt.

But being born with privilege automatically gives people an edge. I didn't have to fake any certificate, but I grew up in an environment where I could "earn" those certificates. Conversely, people who have lesser privileges start with a disadvantage.

Affirmative action steps in there. The idea with affirmative action is to give those who didn't have the background a chance to succeed. Reserved seats (or diversity quotas) "level" the playing ground.

But affirmative action comes with lots of problems. See the replies on this tweet, for example.

Affirmative action makes those who do not benefit from affirmative action feel lots of resentment towards those who do benefit from it, especially if the former view themselves as disadvantaged in a way that is not considered as a disadvantage in the affirmative action program. For example, in this case, male candidates from rural/poor background feel that Google hiring female candidates exclusively is unfair.

Michael Sandel then questions the very idea of merit. Is it possible to have an Utopia where everyone has equal privileges? Imagine a heavy autocracy where everyone is born in the same conditions. What happens when different human beings are born with different cognitive/physical capacities? Isn't being born with better genes a privilege? Is it okay for people to use that privilege to get ahead of others?

Affirmative action is an attempt at ensuring equality of opportunity. But no matter how hard we try there are certain opportunities which everyone cannot equally have. At the same time there is a large amount of wealth inequalities that arise. And also a lot of inequalities in terms of esteem. Those who are privileged feel guilty of their success. Those who benefit from affirmative action are shamed that they couldn't "qualify" without the same.

I have thought in the past specifically about college admissions. What if everyone could access high quality of education and nobody had to miss out on the opportunity? Then we wouldn't need reservation and selection. But, we have created an artificial scarcity of seats. Why do we give universities the monopoly over knowledge like that? Why do we have professions like programming which anyone can enter and then professions like law which people are barred from entering?

It might be my pet peeve that there are regulated professions. But Michael Sandel also calls for dismantling meritocracy and ensuring equality of condition. The book, like the Justice course, makes you think and rethink the idea of justice.

Coming back to the tweets above. I think that looking at privilege as a shameful thing is useful for nobody. Giving up privileges is a waste of privilege. The right use of privilege, in my opinion, would be to use it for reducing inequities in the world. The rich family that agreed to be part of the NY Times article therefore need to be applauded. And those with privilege need to acknowledge their privileges and work towards making those privileges irrelevant.

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