Last semester, a group of 15 year olds sat around a seminar table and talked to me about their reactions to Peter Singer’s “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” a summary of his utilitarian philosophy about sharing the wealth. His basic thesis: no one needs more than $30,000 a year to live on; everything else should go to other people in the form of charity. This seminar discussion is without fail always one of my most heated and impassioned every fall semester.
One girl, visibly upset, turned to me and said, “I mean, I think he’s right, I guess. I feel bad. But he’s so rude about it. And I mean, what am I supposed to do to help?”
She felt moved but defensive, the way many people feel when they have their privilege pointed out to them by another person.
For those of you readers who do not already know or suspect, I teach at a prestigious college preparatory school. Or, as so many of my friends say when I tell them where I teach, “Oh, the rich kids.”
They raise an eyebrow into a tight check mark on their brow that translates as one of two things: good luck with those brats or you’re not a REAL teacher, out of the trenches like that.
Both conclusions bother me. Sure, I have some guilt about my luck given other schools I’ve taught in with needier, more damaged kids. I often repeat the story of my first teaching job at 22 years old. I lasted only one semester–it wasn’t the parole officers or 14 year old girls with their own babies that got me in the end, but the young student who had a dead cockroach stuck in his ear that, as he told me, “The doctor won’t get out, cuz we don’t got insurance.” His English teacher–a 23 year old Teach for America volunteer–and I used our off periods to find a free clinic that would remove the cockroach from his infected ear. I was completely unprepared for that job. I was under the impression the students needed me to teach them Spanish. They didn’t. They needed a case worker. It took me 11 years to return to teaching at the high school level.
My husband and I often worry whether our talents might be better spent in other places. I have my days: I walk through the hallways aghast at casual conversations between teenagers that include throwaway comments about cruises through the Greek isles, $4,000 jeans, and box seats at Texans games with such-and-such CEOs or so-and-so politicians.
The longer I teach these “rich kids”, though, the more I realize the universe put me exactly where it needed me. Turns out it’s easier to feel empathy for disadvantaged kids that it is to feel empathy for privileged kids. But they need our empathy. And this country needs us to have empathy for them.
Bear with me a second.
The first term of Obama’s presidency saw Occupation Wall Street, a movement that didn’t even reach the outer edges of my students’ little radars. Obama’s biggest cage match wasn’t against bin Laden or any other foreign enemy. The championship fight went to John Boehner and company. The fight is about class, and the we’re still in the late rounds–no one has TKO’ed yet. The major obstacles to bipartisanship in our country right now are obstacles of privilege: male privilege and economic privilege.
Privilege is tricky–people who have it often can’t see it. Some never see it. That’s one of the basic postcolonial arguments: those on the margins have a wider lens than those in the center of power. My students didn’t ask to be born wealthy any more than a poor child asks to be born into destitution. They didn’t have a choice, and most don’t have any real grasp on just how high they sit on the economic totem pole. But so often when they’re confronted with the reality of their privilege they feel shamed for something they didn’t do and can’t yet control. And those that have managed to grasp their socioeconomic position often feel enormous amounts of pressure to live up to their parents’ standards of wealth and status.
As a class, we tried to work out why Peter Singer’s article bothered my students so much. We finally agreed it was a matter of tone (they weren’t quite ready to talk about the possible limitations of utilitarian philosophy in general). I used this realization on their part as a teaching moment. The art of persuasion, I told them, is not only about appeals–ethos, pathos, logos–but about the tone that dresses those appeals, an awareness of audience and situation. Singer, for all his intelligence, was tone deaf in that article if he meant to persuade rich people. He shamed them and they reacted they way all of us react to shame. “Shame,” as Brene Brown tells us, “corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” When shamed, people resist change and dig in their heels. They start to feel like people are out to get them, a fear I’ve seen in many rich people, one that makes even the most well-intentioned of them behave badly. Witness a large part of the leadership of the Republican Party. If we want privileged people–especially young people–to change, we better move away from shame and toward empowerment, away from bitterness and toward love.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s horribly unfair that we must ask the world’s disadvantaged people to resist anger and try empathy instead, to take the moral high ground. Just. Not. Fair. Also, there is a time and a place for anger.
Still, most of my students, those “rich kids”, are kind-hearted human beings. They need mentors to help them look privilege square in the eye, recognize it, and then do something useful with it. To this end, I have great admiration for a nonprofit called Resource Generation that aims to empower wealthy young adults to leverage their assets and create social change.
The best feminists have figured out that to transform our ideas about gender, we will need to empower men as much as women. The same follows for economic injustice. We will need to empower rich people as well as poor people if we want lasting change, and that empowerment requires us to check our tone.
I want to pull that student aside and tell her she doesn’t have to feel shame about her wealth. I want to tell her: you’re beautiful, talented, intelligent, very, very lucky, and you have so much worth that isn’t born of and goes way beyond your pocketbook, because if I tell her that maybe–just maybe–she’ll see worth in other people too and she won’t begin to hoard her wealth, cast suspicious glances in all directions, because she believes without money she is nothing.
And in honor of the holiday and inauguration tomorrow, I want to offer a rationale for why I’ve come to accept and even love my job in that school of rich kids. In the words of the tonally-gifted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
That’s it. There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet. Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few years ago, but most men and most women never discover it…
And oh this morning, as I think of the fact that our world is in transition now. Our whole world is facing a revolution. Our nation is facing a revolution, our nation. One of the things that concerns me most is that in the midst of the revolution of the world and the midst of the revolution of this nation, that we will discover the meaning of Jesus’ words…
As we look out across the years and across the generations, let us develop and move right here. We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better.