Could Privilege-Checking Lead to “Conservative” Conclusions?

Here I will use “conservative” loosely to refer to the general “personal responsibility” and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” attitudes the American right might generally support.

My foray into privilege theory has led me to ask myself what some of its implications for direct action are. That is, given what we know about privilege, and assuming that we care about people who are underprivileged, what should we do about it?

We begin again with the framework of privilege I discuss in my “Formalizing Privilege” article: that privilege is the combination of genetic and environmental factors that cause one’s success/satisfaction/power in life. Using this definition, we ask ourselves what we can do to alleviate the plight of the underprivileged. This article is not meant to be the end of this conversation, but merely an observation that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

One of the central questions in this discussion is which privilege is the “most important one.” One way we can study this topic, as with everything else in science, is to vary a single variable while holding all other ones fixed. That is, we vary one privilege and we fix all others and observe the outcome. For example, if we’re interested in how important race is (on the margin), we take people who are identical in all ways except for in their race and we see how their lives turn out.

This analysis is difficult to perform because we generally do not have people who are identical except for one characteristic, and the origins of various privileges can be very difficult to notice (and are often unobservable, especially given our current data sets). Still, I wish to present one case study and discuss its implications: that of Ben Carson, as I learned about him from the book Gifted Hands. I hope that the shortcomings of extrapolating from this data set of size one are kept starkly in mind, while the important lessons are also taken to heart.

Ben Carson grew up fairly underprivileged:

– He was a black child in Detroit

– His mother raised him and his brother (sometimes on three low-paying jobs) without his father, while at times away for psychiatric treatment

– His mother had married at 13 and had no more than a third grade education.

– His school environment was not conducive to growth and self-empowerment

– He was teased by his white classmates (and sometimes his teachers) and he at one point believed he was not smart enough to do well in school

I initially had chosen the phrase “as underprivileged as they come” to describe him, though in the spirit of accuracy I decided not to use it, since it’s probably always possible to be less privileged. Still, it comes close.

We know what ended up happening to Carson: he became one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons, and he was a pioneer in new types of brain surgeries. Given all his underprivileges, what gives?

It’s possible to attribute all of this to chance – Carson just happened to be lucky and all the steps that led to his eventual success were a stroke of luck. This is theoretically possible, but I don’t find it particularly compelling.

The other explanation is that he was able to overcome the negative aspects of his environment through the positive ones – most notably, his mother’s influence. His mother instilled in him the values of hard work and determination and always pushed him to give his best. I would give a longer description of all of the values she stressed, but it would likely be variations on the main theme of hard work, so I won’t insult the reader’s intelligence by trying to influence him or her by repetition. Instead, let’s look at what conclusions we can draw.

It appears, at least in this case, that the values instilled in a person are so strong that they may very well overpower all other external underprivileges (which in Carson’s case were many – being a poor, black kid in Detroit under a single mother who had psychiatric problems and had to raise two children). Naturally, it’s unreasonable to expect that all kids who have these influences can become as successful as Ben Carson. But Carson’s story is an interesting case study where we have a mix of severe underprivileges that are counteracted by the value of hard work.

The “policy” recommendation here becomes apparent: teach kids “conservative” values that are traditionally associated with the American right: work hard, keep your course, study in school, be responsible, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. This can be implemented either culturally (through a shift in what individuals in society choose to teach their children) or governmentally (through government edicts to emphasize hard work and personal responsibility in school and propaganda to do the same outside of school).

What I’ve done here is Type 2 privilege checking, as defined in my original article, which seeks to understand causal pathways in society that lead to people’s success. That is, I checked Dr. Carson’s privilege to see how other people could emulate him, and his story is a testament to conservative values. Do I believe that these should become government policy? No – I don’t favor social manipulation by the government of any kind, though I personally find the ethic of hard work to be empowering myself. I merely point out the conclusion from checking Dr. Carson’s privilege: if we want underprivileged people to do better, one way to achieve this is a cultural shift to the right. Do I think we should do this? Irrelevant – it’s what privilege theory suggests, and that’s all I mean to do in this article: see another conclusion of privilege theory. Of course, this doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to help underprivileged people – either governmental or voluntary. However, for people who actually care about helping the underprivileged, this is a strategy that can be put into action without relying on the power of government. As such, it might be much more realistic to implement – and increased effort on the margin would lead to greater marginal results.


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