While in the Middle East, the Israeli state regularly broke international laws in 2014, yet was exempted from sanction in ways other nations would not be. And more recently in the coverage and condemnation of the appalling events in Paris but relative media silence of the massacre in Baga, Nigeria. Privilege isn’t just about biased nations, media, and justice systems, it is also about individuals.
Many born into the middle class or above, or who are light skinned or male or heterosexual or able-bodied or English-speaking or hold a high-level job or can include a combination of some of these and more, have a distinct level of often invisible privileges. Of course, everyone’s life stories are unique and stories of privilege or a lack of it will vary amongst us all.
In sociology we call the way different elements of our identity bring privilege or deny it at the same time, “intersectionality.” Yes #alllivesmatter. But no, all lives are not privileged or understood to matter equally. Another issue with privilege is the way it can negatively impact empathy. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’ shoes, and imagine how things feel and look from another person’s position.
A good way it can be nurtured is through reading and the arts where we are given a glimpse into the minds of other people. Another way is through the acceptance and study of cultural differences. Where empathy is lacking people and the society they live in often become self-interested, homogeneous and dehumanising for some groups. It is the world of “me first” and shunning groups as “other” into an innately lower category.
It breeds a continuum of anti-social behaviours that begin with the mundane, like being impolite or rude, and reach on the other extreme—by way of stereotype, stigma and prejudice—murder and genocide. In the literature empathy is understood as inter-species. Many animals, like elephants and rats, display it and of course, dolphins too. In humans empathy is something observed in toddlers and infants.
For most children research suggests environmental factors develop or curtail this innate capacity for empathy. A healthy self-esteem is suggested as a central component in a growing child’s ability to recognise and respond to other people’s feelings and needs. While environments that are stressful, lack attachment to others, and (are) unsafe seem to dampen children’s empathetic abilities.
That said, amongst some humans like the autistic, those with schizophrenia, and rich people, a diminished ability for empathy is often noted. In the last instance, this is something many also suggest anecdotally— money changes people. Recent research out of Berkeley supports the anecdote and points out people who drive expensive cars are more likely to cut in front of other drivers than those driving cheap cars.
Drivers in expensive cars are also more likely to ignore pedestrians on crosswalks and to double-park. Another experiment showed the richer the person, the more they ignore the rules. While in another, researchers set up a game designed to provide one player with all the cash prizes and noted as the player got richer he was more likely to cheat. And there are a lot more studies like these.
One interpretation of these data by UCLA social neuroscientist, Keely Muscatell suggests rich people lack empathy because wealth affects neural processes related to understanding others. A possible take away from these studies is the suggestion rich people make bad politicians. Their high-income status and privilege means they lack the empathy and understanding needed to lead and develop nations where the rich are a minority and the not so rich the majority.
This is essentially the same refreshing point made about politics by the former president of Uruguay, José Mujica. “I’m not against people who have money, who like money, who go crazy for money…But in politics we have to separate them. We have to run people who love money too much out of politics, they’re a danger in politics…People who love money should dedicate themselves to industry, to commerce, to multiply wealth. But politics is the struggle for the happiness of all.”