Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Privilege of Indifference

In the 2005 film V for Vendetta, in the not-to-distant future, England has become a police state run by a fascist government.  The people, for the most part, live pretty regular lives so long as they stay in line, but there's a undercurrent of fear that permeates the film and adds a layer of tension that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat even during the most benign scenes.  You see hints of this fear here and there.  Pasted on the walls of a normal London street are signs reminding citizens that their strength is in their unity, and their unity comes from a common faith.  Hanging on the wall of a retirement home is a picture of the country's High Chancellor, prominently on display, like so many dictators before him, to remind the people who controls them.  The fear is subtle, and it's only the viewer who seems to recognize it, as so many of the characters seem numb to it.  But it's a very real fear.  A fear of what will happen should anyone step out of line.  Of secret police patrolling the streets at night, enforcing the government's curfew in brutal ways.  Of a message of unity, but a unity built on sameness of faith, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and nationality.  There is no room for error in this world.  No room for difference.  There is only obey, or face the consequences.

Enter V, a masked vigilante whose sole mission in life is to bring the government to its knees by inspiring a revolution among the people.  He has no identity apart from the Guy Fawkes mask and black clothing he always wears.  In one of the movie's earlier scenes, V commandeers the government-sponsored emergency channel to broadcast a message to all of London at once.

In his speech, he says what everyone knows but are too afraid to admit: "...there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there?"

He talks about how the people have lost their freedom to express themselves and object.  How intolerance, injustice, and oppression have come to be the norms of their society.  He poses the questions "How did this happen?  Who's to blame?", and while there are officials and politicians and those in power who had worked to create the systems that rule England's dystopian future, it isn't all on them.

"If you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror."

For all the terrible things that the government has done in V's world, it's ultimately the people who stood by and let it happen.

"I know why you did it.  I know you were afraid.  Who wouldn't be? War, terror, disease.  There are a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense.  Fear got the best of you..."

Fear.  Fear is what drove the people to put those who would come to cause so much harm into power.  Fear got them there.  And then indifference kept them there.

In the movie, V is battling against the people's indifference to what is happening around them as much as he is battling the fascist government ruling them.  His call to revolution isn't merely a strike at the government, but an attempt to rouse the passions of the people.  To wake them up to the truly terrible things that are happening around them so that they will rise up and fight to regain their freedoms.

The thing that always scared me the most about V for Vendetta was how realistic that future was.  How very possible that outcome seemed.

Now, it seems like the very path we're heading down.

So much has happened since Trump became President.  Already he's attacked the media, put our national parks at risk, angered our allies, given our enemies justification in their hatred of us, cut off necessary healthcare to women worldwide, put thousands of innocent people seeking refuge from their war torn homes at risk, torn families apart, given power to the dangerously inexperienced, and proven again and again he's a liar who cannot be trusted.  It's been so much in such a short amount of time, that it's truly exhausting.

I've written letters, made phone calls, gone to rallies, spoken with representatives, attended forums, and posted every speck of truth I can get my hands on.  Yet nothing ever seems to come from any of it.  Most of our politicians who oppose Trump up until now have appeared overly cautious, and the rest don't seem to care about what the people actually have to say.  As Trump issued more and more orders, and our Congress stood by and watched, it all seemed hopeless.  So pointless.

In my lowest moment, I'm ashamed to admit, I thought to myself, "What does it matter if I resist or not?"  I was stressed and not sleeping well.  My mind was overly consumed with what was going on in the world around me.  I was afraid I was becoming annoying and preachy because I wasn't letting up in my outspokenness against the President.  "Why go through all the trouble?  Why put myself through this stress?  I could just stop.  I could just ignore it all.  It's not like any of this really affects me..."

And then I realized what was happening.  I was giving into one of my greatest privileges.


It's true, a lot of what's happening won't directly affect me.  I'm a white Christian with a good job, insurance, and tons of people to support me in case something goes wrong.  I'm not an immigrant, I'm not a refugee.  I support Planned Parenthood, but I don't personally need it.  I'm straight and will have no problem someday getting married.  I haven't had to fight every day of my life for basic respect and recognition as a person.  When I get pulled over, my only worry is how much the ticket will be.  I've never been wealthy, but I've never had to worry about being able to eat a meal or having weather-appropriate clothes when I need them.  I can afford to buy tampons and pads, and have never had to choose between them and food.  As a kid, I never had to worry about whether my parents would be home when I was out of school, or if they'd been taken during an ICE raid.  I don't have to worry about being treated differently if I move to certain neighborhoods, or of being seen as "other" simply because of how I look, dress, or pray.  The fear of a bomb dropping on my home at any moment is not my constant reality.

I am very privileged, and most of my privilege comes from pure luck.  I was lucky to be born into the life I lead.  I was lucky that opportunities were more easily provided to me than to others.  I've worked hard to get where I am, but I know that under that hard work is a foundation of privilege that has propelled me further in life than those who started without it.

I also know that many of the privileges I take for granted today came at a price I never had to pay, because others paid it for me.

Once upon a time, my Irish heritage would have made me an outsider.  I would have been seen as "other".  I would have faced open hostility and socially accepted discrimination.  I would have been seen as an invader, an unwelcome immigrant encroaching on the American people's rights and privileges.

At one point, my Catholic faith would have made people suspicious of me.  My faith would have been considered a threat, a looming foreign religion that threatened to undermine this country's political systems and beliefs.  I would have been labeled a Papist, loyal to Rome over the U.S., on a mission to overturn Democracy in favor of Papal rule.

Not to long ago, my sex would have barred me from certain roles outside of the home.  I would have been a commodity, something that could be put up for market and sold to the highest bidder.  My husband could have beat me, raped me, insulted me, and it would have been my place to take it.  I would not have been able to have a voice in the political world.  My silence and body would have been valued more so than my mind and voice (unfortunately, this is still the case in a lot of ways).

But it's different for me than it was for those that came before.  Why is this?  Because those that came before didn't have the privilege of indifference.  They had to march, rally, fight, and even die for the basic rights our country is so proud of boasting about.  The rights they fought and worked so hard for are what led to the privileges I am now able to enjoy.

Suffragette's March on Washington, 1913
Women's March on Washington, 2017

Privilege in-and-of-itself isn't necessarily a bad thing.  We can't always control the privileges we're born into.  But we can control how we respond to them.  How we use them.

Do we acknowledge our privileges?  Do we abuse our privileges?  Do we hold our privileges above the rights and well-being of others?

The United States is a country of great privilege, but often we confuse privilege for freedom.  When a marginalized group begins to push back, demanding the freedoms we lucky ones all already enjoy, we get angry and defensive.  We claim they're taking away those freedoms (because for some reason, there's not enough freedom to go around I guess?).  They're taking away our rights.  The truth of the matter is, what is really at stake are our privileges, not our rights.  Many of our privileges depend on the oppression of other groups.

We are privileged simply because we aren't them.

To ignore that fact not only is an injustice to those we exclude from our freedoms, but it spits in the faces of all those who fought for those same freedoms so many of us now take for granted.

Caring about the well-being of others, being willing to sacrifice some of our privilege so that others have a chance to gain any are what we as Americans are supposed to do.  We don't have a great history of following through with this ideal, but it's part of the ideological foundation of this country.  People come here, from all over the world, from all walks of life, because they believe in the promise the United States offers.  The promise of freedom and prosperity.  The promise of life, acceptance, and peace.  These are the promises we so readily advertise to the rest of the world, but seem to always have a hard time living out.

We need to do better.  We need to do more.  We need to care more, and sometimes that means marching, and rallying, and fighting, and annoying your friends on Facebook.  We need to talk to each other more.  Have dialogue instead of arguments.  Uphold the truth, even when it's inconvenient.  Those of us with the privilege of indifference need to recognize that we might have a choice to stand up and speak out against injustice, but so many others don't.  For so many, the fight for their rights is their constant, everyday reality.

We need to hold ourselves accountable.  We need to hold our government accountable, or face the consequences of a powerful few dictating the lives of millions.

As V would say, "People should never be afraid of their governments.  Governments should be afraid of their people."

If we let our own privileges stop us from fighting for those in greatest need, then we are contributing to the very oppression and discrimination so many of our ancestors fought to undo so that our lives might be just a little bit better than theirs.  

Erin B.