Privilege and Fortune: A Confucian View
Privilege inspires guilt; fortune inspires gratitude. Both can motivate action, but guilt moves us more shallowly.
Note: If you read this trying to distinguish which side of the culture war I am on, you will miss the point. It is the final installment in a group of essays comprising The Banquet of Whiteness, Notes on Privilege, and The Upside-down Privilege Narrative in Alternative Health.
About nine years ago on a visit to South Africa I was struck by the near ubiquity of domestic servants among white South Africans. Households that were in all other ways decidedly middle class had at least one and often two or three domestic servants. This bespeaks the enormous inequality of wealth that prevails in that country, one of the most unequal in the world. It is, of course, incompatible with a healthy, just society, and it goes hand in hand with another striking phenomenon there: the prevalence of security systems, razor wire, electric fences, etc. protecting nearly every white home (and those of wealthy Blacks, Indians, and mixed-race people too).
System-wide, it is not a pretty scenario: extreme poverty creating a huge pool of people desperate to be nannies and gardeners. On the level of the individual household, though, the matter is more complicated. Sometimes these workers practically become part of the family. Is it wrong to hire them and thereby participate in the capitalist system of privilege and exploitation? Or is it one’s duty as a privileged person to offer employment to impoverished people who are desperate for it? In South Africa, as in many countries with a high degree of wealth inequality, many people consider it a social obligation to hire servants if you can afford them — even if you don’t really need them. It is incumbent upon a person of means to take care of the less fortunate.
Social relations similar to South Africa prevail in other middle-income countries as well, especially in India and Latin America. Servants are common. In the United States, they are common as well, only in the disguised form of maid services, lawn care services, day care centers, and so forth. The economic relations are similar, but the personal relations have been stripped away by anonymizing institutions.
The Revolutionary Position
A similar issue arises in the realm of philanthropy, charity, and any work that directly benefits the less fortunate without changing the system. A leftist critique of these goes something like this: “Sure, treating the domestic help well, giving to charity, housing the homeless, even walking an old lady across the street… these are all nice, but they do nothing to change the exploitative, ecocidal system of global capitalism. On the contrary, charity, philanthropy, and individual acts of kindness only perpetuate that system. Here’s how:
(1) By ameliorating some of its worst consequences, they make capitalism all the more palatable.
(2) They divert altruistic energy toward relatively innocuous goals instead of toward addressing the systemic foundations of injustice.
(3) They appease the conscience and make one’s own complicity more acceptable.
(4) They generate a codependent relationship with the needy, in which the charitable enterprise depends for its survival on the very conditions it ostensibly seeks to address.
(5) Charity subsumes local self-sufficiency, local cultures of reciprocity and mutual aid, cultural traditions and identity, and so on under the “helper’s” worldview that says in effect, “I know what you need better than you do, and can provide it better than you can.” It is an instrument of colonization and hegemony that disrespects and disempowers the very people it purports to help.
The Anti-revolutionary Position
The above critique invites a precise inversion, as follows: “All of your social and political activism, your focus on the big picture, the system, etc. is an escape from dealing with the immediate needs of the people right in front of your face. It diverts energy away from your human responsibilities, enabling you to be an unforgiving, callous person, an inattentive parent, a bad neighbor, absolving yourself of responsibility in those realms because, after all, you are busy doing the Big Important Things. It is just an ideological cover for your failure to look after your brother.” Here is the inversion of the revolutionary critique, point by point:
(1) By heartlessly failing to respond to the worst effects of capitalism, one makes capitalism intolerable, thereby justifying radicalism’s own premises.
(2) Revolutionary radicalism diverts altruistic energy toward idealistic, unattainable goals, instead of toward meeting real and present human needs.
(3) It allows the radical to absolve himself of guilt over failing to take care of his fellows, with the excuse that, after all, he is working on changing the system.
(4) It generates a codependent relationship with the oppressors: their persecution validates the worldview of the radical, whose identity depends on the very institutions he seeks to overthrow.
(5) Radical political ideologies are themselves born in the context of, and in reaction to, the dominant culture, and are still the creatures of that culture. They take the aspirations and desires of the oppressed and feed them through an ideological filter devised by an intellectual elite. Operating by them, one risks imposing a subtle form of colonization and hegemony over the very people one purports to liberate.
Fortune and Destiny
The opposition between these two positions draws on different assumptions about whether deep systemic change is even possible. When I think of the person paying his servants well, giving to charity, and fulfilling the obligations of wealth as prescribed by bourgeois morality, I am reminded of the ancient Chinese ideal of the Confucian gentleman, discharging the duties of his station with humanity and integrity. Confucian thought, as I understand it, does not question the earthly order in which there will, in the current age, always be the emperor, the nobles, the officials, the gentlefolk, and so on down the line to the beggars; therefore, it is for each person to seek the most enlightened enactment of his or her role.
Chinese thought (at least the traditional thinking that immersed me in my years in Taiwan) does not speak in terms of privilege, but rather in terms of luck, fate, fortune, and blessings. Privilege inspires guilt; fortune inspires gratitude. Both can motivate action, but guilt moves us more shallowly. Guilt moves people to do just enough to allay it, or to escape blame. The root emotion of guilt is actually fear — fear of getting caught. Guilt thus motivates hiding and denial before it motivates positive action.
Gratitude, on the other hand, inspires the desire to pass forward the gifts one has so undeservedly received. It arises from another Confucian virtue: humility — the recognition that, but for an accident of fate, I could be the beggar, the servant, or the prisoner. Embedding the Confucian view is a broader, “social” humility, which recognizes that human beings are not the deliberate architects of their own society. A transhuman intelligence casts us into roles in a play we did not consciously author.
Humility says, “I did not earn my station.” Even if you worked hard for it, did you earn the capacity to work hard? Humility is a side effect of seeing things as they truly are. The humble also refuse to blame themselves for circumstances beyond their control.
Privilege means something like, “Special advantage granted by an authority or power system at the expense of others.” No doubt, we live within a system of privilege. But to reduce all advantage to privilege replaces gratitude with guilt. One cannot be grateful for what one has taken and not been given. (The robber, though, may be grateful for an unexpected opportunity to rob; the hunter for a deer unexpectedly crossing his path.)
Even the most oppressed among us can still access gratitude, for at least we have experienced life. Everyone who is alive has something to give. I often think of these famous words of Viktor Frankl: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Paradoxically, it is often the least fortunate who are the most generous. Perhaps their poverty attunes them to the preciousness of what remains: breath, life, senses, love. Their example can pierce the tendency of affluence to forget how quickly one’s blessings can disappear. The truth, though, is that sooner or later they all disappear.
The Confucian Synthesis
At first blush, concepts of fortune and blessing seem devoid of political or social critique. As such, Confucianism could be said to be an enabling ideology of feudalism: the social order is ordained by heaven. But I hesitate to consign a tradition as rich and nuanced as Confucianism to a ready category (an enabler of feudalism) defined within Western political thought.
No doubt, Confucian teachings have been used to justify an unequal social order and authoritarian systems. One might even argue that (ostensibly) Communist China runs on a Confucian operating system, despite having repudiated it as a feudal ideology. However, at its more esoteric levels Confucianism’s teachings of humanity, integrity, and humility, and the associated conceptions of fortune and blessing, have a potent and revolutionary political import.
It derives from the “social humility” I mentioned earlier — the recognition of an order and intelligence to human affairs beyond the understanding of human beings.
What if there were some kind of karmic necessity for every possible life situation to coexist on earth, so that the karmic path of each person, and the human drama generally, might unfold toward its completion? So that every drama may be played, and every story may be told?
Inherent in this idea is an evolutive implication: that once the drama has played out, once all its stories have been fulfilled, the present order becomes no longer necessary. It holds the potential for a turning of the age, and indeed that concept lurks within traditional Chinese thought as the millenarian ideal of the Tai Ping, (太平) or supreme peace, and the Da Tong (大同), or great unity. Granted, the ideals of the Tai Ping and Da Tong often took on a messianic cast in the hands of dynasty founders and revolutionaries. Yet radical social change was inescapably part of such ideals: witness for example the call for egalitarian land reform in the Zhouli (a Confucian classic) and in the writings of the Confucian/Taoist sage Mencius. In the Book of Rites, one of the earliest texts that mentions the Da Tong, Confucius himself describes it as a society in which “The aged are cared for until death, those in the prime of life are well used, and children have all they need to grow,” (老有所終，壯有所用，幼有所長) and in which “No one throws away valuable goods; nor do they keep them for themselves” (貨惡其棄於地也，不必藏於己).
I’m sure everyone reading this was hoping for that level of detail. What these classics suggest is that right conduct on the level of personal interactions between the privileged and the oppressed, between the fortunate and the unfortunate, is foundational to a changed society.
In South Africa, a man from the townships told me that the reason his people acquiesce so readily to the economic status quo is that, after five hundred years of colonialism, they have almost no self-esteem or independent identity left. They hardly dare believe they deserve better. No longer embracing ubuntu, the young generation in particular fills the void left by the destruction of their traditional culture with consumerism, individualism, and addiction.
The great American orator and abolitionist Fredrick Douglass wrote:
I have observed this in my experience of slavery, that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom. I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceased to be a man.
Any act of forgiveness, generosity, courage, or love is a political act. It disrupts the psychology of passivity and confirms to receiver and witness their intuition of human worth. It establishes a morphic field that brings those virtues to social and political expression. It violates the world-view that underpins an exploitative, unjust society. After all, what kind of life experience generates the fear, the insecurity, the desire to dominate and control that motivate our politics, economy, criminal punishment system, and so on? By offering people exceptions to this kind of life experience, we erode the foundation of our system.
I am not saying that acts of forgiveness, generosity, courage, or love are substitutes for political involvement. These qualities must animate political involvement; without them, we reinforce the foundations of the system we are trying to change.
As we practice the Confucian virtues and enact them in life, the age-old dramas that define the human condition enter a new chapter. Their roles no longer fit who we have chosen to become. The political and economic system too will be ripe for change then , to offer new stories and new roles to accommodate the enlightened human being. A Tai Ping, a Da Tong, a more just and flourishing society is possible, but systemic reforms alone will not create it. It can only come to be when we align with it in all our relations.
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Help! I’m an ant. I’m still trapped inside this computer. I write all of Charles’ essays while he is asleep.