My Privilege, My Blessings

Goldwin Smith Hall at Cornell University - My Privilege, My Blessings

I’ve thought a lot in recent years, especially at this season, about two somewhat similar activities: counting blessings and checking privilege.

The idea of counting blessings is far older than me. Some of my earliest memories of church services feature the chorus of a well-beloved old hymn: “Count your many blessings; / See what God has done.”

Checking privilege is a newer phrase, at least to me. It was alive and well on college campuses when I was in graduate school in the Ivy League in the 1990s. There I often heard the phrase white privilege and occasionally even the historically fraught white guilt. Over the next decade or two what I’d met in the academy infused itself into our broader culture.

On reflection I find moral worth in both activities — checking my privilege and counting my blessings — but I find some important differences too, and some risks.

One housekeeping note before we proceed: Returning readers may wonder, when they encounter religious content here, why this essay is at The Freedom Habit instead of Bendable Light. The reason is simple: I intend to be a safe space from politics. When my other themes, including faith, overlap with politics, their place is here.

Check Whose Privilege?

There are two basic versions of checking privilege.

One version is second-person: check your privilege. This might be said kindly and with good intentions, but it’s often — and easily — weaponized. When it is, it becomes shorthand for “people like you have dominated everything forever; it’s time for you to shut up.”

(A certain sort of abuser could weaponize “count your blessings” too, but in my experience that is rare.)

The other, healthier version is first-person and introspective: check my privilege. One considers one’s own privilege in a mode of sincere self-evaluation. Only this version bears comparison to counting blessings.

Definitions and Pitfalls

To check means to inspect, examine, or confirm. This suits the first-person, introspective version, check my privilege, just fine. Curiously, another definition of check fits the second-person, often-weaponized version: to stop, slow, or obstruct a thing — but that’s not how I’m using the word here.

As I understand it, in checking my privilege I am to consider, in connection with any relationship, attitude, or condition, how circumstances beyond my control have placed me in a position of advantage with respect to someone else, and how this may be unjust to that other person.

In this there are some pitfalls we should avoid.

The first is that, in a certain mood, I might do to myself as some do to others, attempting to discredit myself, suppressing reason, and slipping into ad hominem attacks on myself. But I’m not often in such a mood.

Another pitfall may be more serious. If I examine my privilege, it’s logical to explore my lack of privilege at the same time. This means considering how circumstances beyond my control have placed me at a disadvantage with respect to others, perhaps even made me a victim entitled to redress. For example, despite my many advantages, I know that two centuries ago, give or take, my people were dispossessed of land, wealth, possessions, security, and tranquility — life itself in some instances — by American mobs who didn’t like a minority religion. I don’t know enough about my ancestors who came over on the Mayflower two centuries earlier to know whether they were religious refugees from Europe too; some of those people came because their skills were needed, not for religious reasons.

In any case, I don’t find it helpful to see myself as a victim, and I want to focus here on the happier side of the coin.

If I can.

The problem is, we’re skirting the fringes of a dominant worldview which foregrounds victims and oppressors, generally not as individuals but by group or tribe. Like Karl Marx, we might rank groups and set them against each other on a purely economic basis, as haves and have-nots. But that’s less fashionable than it was, and it proved unhelpful in predicting and fomenting revolutions. More recent neo-Marxist (or post-Marxist) critical theory, via such notable moderns as Herbert Marcuse and Antonio Gramsci, prefers to divide us by characteristics where humans show less mobility, such as race, gender, and national origin. Even critical theory’s manic popularization in woke movements demotes economic disparities to a supporting role.

So we are near to the abyss. We will avoid it here as best we can, as long as we can.

A Sampler of My Privilege

I’ve kept a list for a few years now of things I’ve heard other people say are my privilege. Here’s most of it. Some of these things come up when I sincerely check my own privilege. Some don’t. Note that when I mention history below, it’s with a view far larger in space and time than just US history.

  • In racial terms I am white; hence white privilege. White people have often enjoyed — and more to the point, enforced — all manner of advantages over others. I don’t like that much of history has been this way, or that some of the present is too.
  • I am male. Historically, men have often dominated women politically, economically, sexually, etc. I don’t like this either. The phrase “equal partners” has become foundational in my philosophy.
  • I was raised in an intact, traditional family by my parents, who lived together and were married to each other. We’ve moved quite sensibly in recent years from denying (in some quarters) that this is an advantage at all to declaring that it is privilege.
  • I was born north of the Mexican border, not south of it. For that matter, I was not born in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Somalia, Iran, Albania, Haiti, Vietnam, or Lebanon. If that’s not privilege, I don’t know what is.
  • Some two billion people on earth don’t have ready access to electricity and running water. We could say I have resource privilege (my term for another’s idea).
  • I attended good schools, from public elementary and secondary schools through graduate school in the Ivy League. I had some fine teachers along the way, and a few who were extraordinary. Only 7% of the world’s adults, reportedly, have a college degree. I have two, one from the Ivy League. They weren’t handed to me on a silver platter, but I’ve heard all of this called privilege.
  • The Democratic Party’s philosopher-in-residence, Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, has written that being cisgendered (meaning the gender I perceive matches my biological gender) is also privilege. I am conscious that in crucial ways my life is less traumatic than the lives of those who lack this privilege.
  • Some have said that being heterosexual is also privilege. (These might be fighting words if I spoke them.) Certainly I have not faced in my life the varying degrees of ill treatment which governments, societies, families, and other institutions and individuals have visited on those who are otherwise.
  • All my life I have enjoyed what some call Christian privilege. This is not the dubious honor of being oppressed and slaughtered with my whole village for my faith, which happens in the world even now and happened to my ancestors too. It is — I am told — merely the minor good fortune of getting time off work for a Christian holiday or two.
  • My parents had an educated, competent relationship with the English language. (My mother also taught Spanish.) I’ve heard this called privilege. I’ve also heard that spelling, grammar, and other aspects of literate English are tools of white supremacy.
  • I’ve heard it called privilege to have a disposition to rational thinking. On a related note, I spent my childhood and youth in a time when mathematics was almost universally hailed as a powerful, international tool for mastering the world, not a tool and symptom of white supremacy, as critical ideology now has it.
  • I’ve read that birth order is connected with privilege, so . . . middle child privilege? No doubt we could analyze this.
  • Likewise athletic ability, of which I had barely enough to enjoy playing high school basketball for a small school in a sparsely populated western state. That ability is long gone, but for a while, though it never came easily, I had more of it than some (and much less of it than others).
  • I’ve read of short person privilege, so there ought to be tall person privilege. I’m 6’2″.
  • For part of my life I enjoyed what I’ve heard called “hair privilege,” though not so much lately.
  • Significantly, I have enjoyed the privilege of high expectations on multiple planes. I was not expected to be perfect, but to do my best, to get up after each fall, and to learn personal responsibility. More help was available than I was willing to accept, and I have been surrounded by people who cared about me and acted accordingly. Notably, no one towered over me and told me I was destined always to be a victim because others in my tribe were oppressed in the past (which they were), and thereby taught me to hate other humans. Nor — in my early years — did they teach me that I was an oppressor by virtue of sins committed by others of my race.
  • I live in a state where the hysterical aspect of our collective response to COVID-19 prevailed less than elsewhere. Is this red state privilege? (Again, my term for another’s idea.) Far fewer small businesses died in my state than in many other places. Less damage (though plenty) was done to the educational and social health of schoolchildren. It was never illegal in my state for a store to sell garden seeds during planting season. My state’s government didn’t force elderly COVID-19 patients back into their nursing homes with uninfected seniors, killing thousands. We didn’t flood our streets with violent criminals released too early for whatever reasons. And to my knowledge we didn’t arrest people who, for example, defied lockdown orders and kept their businesses (Minnesota) or churches (Canada) open, or posted something somebody didn’t like on social media.

I could add more of my own, which I haven’t heard from others, but this long list is sufficient for today.

As you see, I’m up to my eyeballs in privilege. Perhaps you are too. I wouldn’t call myself woke in the current popular usage — people who are woke in that sense must think me quite the opposite — but I’m conscious that these and other circumstances have given me advantages some others have not enjoyed. I was conscious of this back when woke was just a verb and privilege was primarily associated with wealth and high birth, neither of which I have experienced.

Counting My Blessings

A list of my blessings, as I see them, would overlap my list of privilege to a degree and would be very long indeed. But I won’t bore you with that. Instead, let’s talk about where that counting leads.

To the religious eye the scope of God’s blessings is comprehensive. Notably, counting one’s blessings leads directly to gratitude — primarily gratitude to deity. While we may have many things for which we should thank our fellow mortals, for the believer gratitude to God is not just a nice personality trait. It’s obligatory. In my segment of Christianity, a well-beloved speech by an ancient king named Benjamin includes these words:

“If you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another—

“. . . If ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.” (Mosiah 2:19-21)

We can never be more grateful to God than we are blessed by God. We can never fully repay God. And we can scarcely count our blessings conscientiously without acknowledging God.

(If my atheist friends are clever enough to find coherence in atheism and to act morally without believing in God, as many of them do, I’m sure they can come up with something to thank for their blessings, something greater than we are individually. But I’ll leave that to them. God help us if the best they can find is government.)

The Sin of Ingratitude and Vice Versa

Meanwhile, to the religious who believe in sin, ingratitude is a big one. It’s a major character flaw.

Two millennia after King Benjamin’s speech (again in my segment of Christianity) came this observation, ranking obligations of gratitude with obedience itself: “In nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments” (Doctrine and Covenants 59:21).

In his minor classic The Seven Deadly Sins Today, Henry Fairlie approached the matter from a different angle. He explained that “there is ingratitude in all the sins.”

“Pride cannot see anything for which it ought to be grateful. Envy is unable to be grateful for what it has. Anger never stops to think that perhaps it has reason for gratitude rather than for ire. Avarice is never grateful for having just what it needs. Sloth has not the energy to be grateful. Lust feels no gratitude to those with whom it lies. But it is in Gluttony that we can most clearly find this meanness of spirit, and feel most immediately the cutting off of all community, simply by the inability to be thankful to others” (p. 170).

Apart from the sin of ingratitude and the ingratitude in all sin, gratitude itself can be perverted, like every other virtue. In my religious tradition there is a dark, ancient scene in which places of worship are closed to the poor, and the rich gather weekly to pray from a tower. Their prescribed prayer is an absolute horror:

“Thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee . . .

“And again we thank thee, O god, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.” (Alma 31:12-23).

That’s not where counting my blessings should lead me, and it doesn’t. By contrast, genuine gratitude resembles reverence, and reverence is good for both soul and society. In Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, Paul Woodruff writes that reverence is necessary for community and even for justice, and is a defense against hubris.

Similar but Different

As I suggested at the beginning, I find both concepts, checking my privilege and counting my blessings, to be morally useful, though not identically so. It helps to view both activities as first steps and consider what steps likely follow.

A Crucial Shared Function

The sincere, first-person checking of privilege and the counting of blessings serve a common moral, cultural, and civic purpose: they invite us to a sense of obligation. This is a crucial counterpoint to the sense of entitlement which seems to invade every prosperous society and prosperous segments in poorer societies. These two activities can also counter, in different degrees, the celebration of victimhood which now pervades American culture.

What I mean by a sense of entitlement is not the conviction, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, that all people are entitled to life and liberty, and to live in the manner which makes them happy, so far as it respects others’ similar rights and is consistent with an orderly society. “Pursuit of happiness” is the Declaration’s phrase. Such a conviction has a unifying effect, as we affirm that everyone else’s basic rights are equal to our own.

By contrast, a sense of entitlement is divisive. When so poisoned, I care only for my own rights. I shun my duty to acknowledge, honor, and defend others’ rights. I believe that others owe me something I don’t owe them, that the world owes me a living. Unlike my first-person checking of privilege, second- (and third-) person privilege checking fairly wallows in a sense of entitlement mixed with envy. Lacking what it sees or thinks I have, it feels entitled to what I have and believes my claim on it to be unjust.

My entitled self may believe I deserve a first-rate education at no cost to myself, or worse, that I deserve first-rate credentials without bending the effort to earn them. I may believe I deserve the employment of my choice and, if I don’t get it, society should provide for my needs. When employed, I will always believe I’m entitled to higher wages or a higher salary, irrespective of my economic value to my employer.

Beyond economics, a sense of entitlement poisons emotional relationships too, but that’s a topic for another day.

There seems to be a limit to how much entitlement a free society can survive — how many people in it claim a right to take whatever they want from whomever has it, or claim a right to dictate to other people how they should act and live (for the benefit and convenience of the entitled).

There is another dimension of danger. The entitled tend to prey on people who have a healthier sense of duty. The sick cells in the social organism don’t stop at demanding the right to coexist. They actively attack the healthy cells. Those who feel a sense of duty to family, community, employer, society, nation, and world — we might say, those who successfully made the transition to adulthood in their attitudes and behavior, not just their bodies — become victims of chronological adults who feel entitled to remain children in other ways.

I certainly do not advocate a society where we neglect the genuinely needy or where no one helps anyone else without compulsion or hope of reward. Quite the opposite. I’m simply saying that checking one’s own privilege and counting one’s blessings are both valuable antidotes to the poison that is entitlement.

I also believe gratitude counters another common malaise, resentment. First-person privilege checking may also, if it avoids the abyss.

Two Attitudes Diverged in the Wood

If the only thing checking my privilege and counting my blessings did for me as a citizen and a member of society was inoculate me against a sense of entitlement, both would be valuable. But I don’t find them equally valuable.

I find counting my blessings to be the superior, more powerful form of introspection, because it readily points my thoughts to deity. Understandably, others may prefer first-person privilege-checking because it does not involve deity. It works perfectly well in the absence of religious faith and devotion, or even the absence of God from the entire universe (a condition which some posit with great faith and conviction). In fact, if you get too deep into privilege and try to involve a god, you can end up blaming and resenting him/her/it.

That said, if your worldview doesn’t permit you to count God’s blessings to you, by all means choose the first-person privilege-checking I’ve described.

Downstream from Blessings

If you can count your blessings instead, choose that — because, again, the next step is gratitude, ultimately to God. Joy, humility, and a healthy willingness to forgive are desirable byproducts, when I am both glad of my blessings and aware of their source outside me.

Other good things follow: compassion, even generosity, including the desire and the effort to share my blessings with those who lack them.

Some of my blessings, such as the financial means to own a home and two cars and to send my children to college, are such that if I give something to others, I have less of it myself. Gratitude and compassion move me to some sacrifice in these matters, but even if I forfeited all such blessings, I couldn’t provide them for very many others. The math simply doesn’t work.

Other blessings, such as growing up in an intact family with a solid commitment to education, are entirely undiminished by anything I may do to bring such blessings to others. There is no fixed sum of available happiness, for example, such that my having an abundance prevents your having an abundance. I don’t feel guilty for having such blessings when others lack them — but I would do what I can to help others enjoy the same blessings and to mitigate the negative consequences for those who don’t.

Downstream from Privilege

Where counting blessings inspires gratitude, first-person privilege checking seems predisposed to foster guilt. I have privilege others lack; I should feel guilty. I personally may have done nothing to deprive any other person of the same privilege, but the fact that I have something and another doesn’t tends in a privilege-based view to prove injustice, whereby I have benefited from the deprivation of others.

It gets complicated. The matter of ranking tribes in terms of their relative privilege is dynamic and complex. Those who do it seriously can scarcely keep up.

My sense of guilt, in turn, makes me more prone to seduction by power- and wealth-seeking factions who would divide us. In my guilt — or, if I’m on the other side of the calculation, my sense of victimized entitlement — I am prone to favor the use of sweeping, even comprehensive government power to fix things. I may justify, even vote for, almost unlimited government power, if its stated aims are to impose justice and to transfer wealth and opportunity involuntarily from the privileged to the victims. Never mind that power grows at the expense of freedom and makes me more prone to further manipulation and control. Never mind that surrendering this territory to government makes the humane virtues of charity and generosity less prevalent by making them less possible and less obviously necessary.

Even in a relatively free society, for those who aspire to comprehensive power, counting blessings and the consequent gratitude to God are unwelcome in two more ways..

First, they don’t require government power. I may join others in acting in gratitude, to spread blessings far and wide — but I do it freely. I don’t need government compulsion, regulation, supervision, or funding. If government wants anything, it wants to be needed.

Second, in an authoritarian society rulers prefer to avoid inclining their subjects toward any rivals, especially God, in gratitude or any other kind of devotion. Whether the authority is a dictator, a monarch, or a pervasive administrative bureaucracy led by a doddering elected figurehead, all such feelings should be — must be — directed toward the state. Counting blessings violates this; checking privilege is more compatible.

Thus gratitude tends toward individual freedom, and a privilege-based world view tends away from it.

Likewise, a guilty view of things tends to distort both reality and expectations. If I have the privilege of mathematical literacy and observe that others don’t, I may be tempted to embrace the idea that mathematical rigor — getting the right answer — is a form of white supremacy (for example), and that all such requirements and expectations of the unprivileged or underprivileged in our schools should be relaxed or abolished. This sort of bigoted condescension toward the unprivileged harms all of society, privileged and unprivileged alike.

Perhaps genuine gratitude is possible, as an outcome of first-person privilege checking, but it feels somehow wrong to be grateful to whatever persons or forces deprived others of something so I could enjoy it.

Tending Toward Virtue

I will grant that first-person privilege checking (if it can be limited to first-person) resists moral decay in society. But gratitude does more: it actually makes people more virtuous. There’s research. As David DeSteno wrote in Wired,

“When we studied the act of giving thanks, even in a secular context, we found it made people more virtuous. In a study where people could get more money by lying about the results of a coin flip, the majority (53 percent) cheated. But that figure dropped dramatically for people who we first asked to count their blessings. Of these, only 27 percent chose to lie. We’ve also found that when feeling gratitude to a person, to fate, or to God, people become more helpfulmore generous, and even more patient.” (Links in original.)

What Shall We Do?

People see things differently. You may see the replacement of blessings-counting with privilege-checking as social progress, precisely because it proceeds without God. As you’ve realized by now, I see it otherwise. I also see that ingratitude has become part of our cultural curriculum, and I find that dangerous.

So what shall we do? I’m certainly not suggesting that complacency or inaction is an appropriate accompaniment to gratitude.

If we can, let’s count our blessings and welcome the humility it inspires. Let’s open our eyes to see that we harvest crops (sometimes literally) that we did not plant. Or, as a former president of one of my alma maters put it, we drink from wells others dug and warm ourselves by fires others built.

Thus aware, let’s do our best to share our blessings with others — to plant more crops, dig more wells, and build more warmth-giving fires.

If we cannot count our blessings, let’s at least check our privilege — our own, not others’ — and try to feel grateful, not guilty, for having good things and for what others have done to our benefit. Even if we cannot avoid some feelings of guilt for what we have and others lack, let’s be more reluctant to allow and empower government to seize everyone’s blessings, skim its robust percentage off the top, and spread the rest around. We’ll be more moral and more effective if we eliminate the middleman and spread the blessings ourselves, and we’ll establish, not undermine, freedom in the process.

We’ll also be better able to resist some things.

We can resist the destroy-to-build-back-better factions. What they haven’t mastered or achieved, or haven’t shown themselves competent or committed to teach or understand inside their utopian theoretical constructs, they like to define as unjust. Math, punctuality, English, blessings, gratitude, history, monuments, more. These things are too hard-won over too many centuries and millennia for us to allow them to be blown up in a single decade.

We can resist a zero-sum view of the world. Referring back to my long list of my privilege, as others have identified it . . . most of it is not zero-sum.

Don’t feel guilty for having a happy, intact family when others don’t — as if there were a limited supply of happy families, and your having one prevents someone else from having one. Find ways to help others have the same blessing, er, privilege. Failing that, find ways to help them compensate for its absence in their lives.

If one person is better off financially than another, don’t use the force of government to take from one and give to the other. Economic freedom creates wealth on an unprecedented scale; it’s not necessary to assume that one person has a dollar because he stole it from someone else. Realizing that, we can take the healthy and prudent step of suspecting the motives or wisdom of those who say otherwise.

What if I dutifully check my own privilege and discover that mine is vastly inferior to some others? What if I feel entitled to that plot of land in Missouri? Never mind the injustice of seizing it from the current owner, who is not the party guilty of taking it from my ancestors! Never mind there’s an orphanage, farm, soup kitchen, or elementary school on it now!

If I feel that way, I might want to consider what I heard religious leader Clark Gilbert say:

“Focus on where you are headed and not where you began. It would be wrong to ignore your circumstances—they are real and need to be addressed. But overfocusing on a difficult starting point can cause it to define you and even constrain your ability to choose.”

Even in unprivileged circumstances, if we hope to escape them, counting our blessings seems to have an advantage over checking privilege. But do whichever you can. For the good of your soul, if you acknowledge having one. For the sake of free society and civilized culture, which are otherwise destined to shred themselves.

Image of Goldwin Smith Hall at Cornell University by Will Barkoff at Unsplash.