Throughout time, our settled norms of political discourse adopt philosophical notions that are simply considered unchallengeable by the majority of humanity. A few hundred years ago, the idea of divine kingship was a well-accepted worldview, alongside the idea that only kings had the right to rule over countries. A few decades ago, it was also widely believed that certain races were superior to other races and that God had chosen one race (or a religious group) to rule over the entire world. Of course, some unchallengeable notions soon found their challengers who brought down entire belief systems alongside innumerable supporters. Nonetheless, the notion of systematic privilege is a unique mode of reasoning that managed to survive and adapt to new societal conditions; therefore, it is necessary to unpack the core of the argument.
First, it is important to examine the mode of reasoning upon which historical discrimination functions. For the most part, the justification for any historical discriminatory event is the simple logical approach that considers one category of human beings superior or inferior to another category of human beings. It is important to notice that individuality is alien to this type of approach and that the strokes of characterization are intentionally broad.
Second, I hold that the modern notion of “socio-economic privilege” operates through the exact same mode of reasoning and justifies its position through the same logical process. A certain race or class is believed to be superior or inferior to another class; therefore, one class is said to be privileged while the other class is labeled as underprivileged. Of course, different societies in different time periods have reached different conclusions in respect to the latter observation. Some believed that these differences in human categories are beneficial to the polis. Others believed that they ought to maintain the status quo. Others still (United States being among them) believed that these differences ought to be eradicated or minimized. Regardless, the key is the logical structure of reasoning upon which the observations of diverging categories were established in the first place.
I firmly reject the entire logical approach of human categorization, which has been used to solve the problem of human diversity. Painting a diverse society of individuals into distinct social groups and treating them with the expectation that they will all behave in a certain uniform manner, despite a radical spectrum of individual actors within each group, is inconsistent with reality of human experience.
The reason why it is inconsistent with the reality of human experience is because true foundation of human diversity is human experience. Experience is what makes each and every person individual. All of our views and beliefs about life, alongside our philosophies and the personal goals that we set to accomplish in our careers, can be traced to specific combinations of unique experiences in our past. However, a careful observer of human nature will be right to notice that on many occasions our physical or tangible experiences may be identical. For example, several million Soviets experienced exactly the same policies of political oppression. That does not mean that all of them responded to their tangible experience in the same way: Some emigrated, some became hateful of all communists, some planned to retaliate against the government by spreading banned literature, and others planned to overthrow the government.
In order to clearly visualize the concept, imagine the following scenario: You and I are walking in a desert. A traveling merchant runs up to us and says “I have just received a revelation from Allah! He recited his word to me and I must spread his message!” To me, the fact that an illiterate merchant received a revelation is convincing, and I quickly drop my belongings and become a follower of this stranger. To you, the whole thing is absurd, and you keep walking to the nearest hotel in order to get psychiatric care for me. We were both exposed to the same tangible experience, yet we interpreted our experiences in a fundamentally different way.
Therefore, I would like to define a person’s actual experience with the following equation: tangible experience + abstract experience = actual experience. Abstract experience includes reflections on tangible experience that may influence an individual in a unique way. The impact of the abstract experience is impossible to measure systematically since each individual may have a unique abstract experience in response to the same tangible experience.
In either case, grouping everyone with the same apparent tangible experience together into a class of “underprivileged” or “privileged” entirely ignores the concept of abstract experience and presumes that a whole class or a category of human beings is only capable of responding to their life conditions in one particular way. Such an approach ignores the fact that each individual makes daily decisions based on a nearly infinite list of prior causes, thoughts, and interpretations of experiences that is entirely unique to the mind which is its host. Examples of this fallacy are widespread: “white males are privileged,” “poor people are unhappy,” “rich CEO’s are greedy,” “all Jews like money,” and so on. In America, the latter fallacy even inspired powerful affirmative action policies, which operated on the assumption that somehow all blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans were abstractly influenced in the exact same manner by the exact same tangible experiences and are only capable of reacting to their conditions in the exact same form in the future. Policies that attempted to radically redistribute wealth in my home country of Russia, also operated on the same fallacy, and assumed that every rich “kulak” earned his wealth through theft and that every Russian peasant was incapable of achieving success. The result was yet another policy of economic affirmative action pinning one class against another based solely on the tangible experience of different people.
Another way of looking at my argument is asking the following question: Would you rather be a slave, or would you rather be a slave master? Or to put it another way: Who lives a more virtuous life: a slave or a slave master? The question is difficult because, as Plato rightfully observed long ago, a tyrant is the biggest slave in his kingdom of slaves. Thus, even though we may have agreed that slave owners were “privileged” at the time, the abstract experiences that they lived in actuality made them the lowest and the least virtuous “class” of human species.
The final example I would like to illustrate is that of general poverty. Simply because a person undergoes a tangible experience of poverty does not mean that he is incapable of getting out of poverty, or that this tangible experience has not been in some form beneficial to his internal development. What if I chose to be poor out of my rejection of materialism in the abstract experience (as monks and spiritual leaders often do in the East)? What if poverty taught me certain immaterial values that I would not have otherwise learned if I were the spoiled child of a CEO? What if I told you that the richest experience in my life was when I shared a two-room apartment, with six family members, living on a few dollars a day, in downtown Saint Petersburg?
Due to the immeasurable nature of abstract experiences, the approach of systematic characterization is incapable of creating a just society and is only bound to create more divisions between ordinary people. Consequently, the only method by which we can eradicate racism and discrimination is a philosophical approach that rejects classification of human beings and looks at each and every person as an individual within society, not a bromidic group-member. This type of individualism would properly promote a society of true meritocracy and foster a healthy environment for free economic exchanges.
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