Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Privileged ConversationPrivileged Conversation

Privileged Conversation

North American politics are consumed by new variations on the old debate about privilege, and consequent inequality and oppression. Convivium Publisher Peter Stockland and Andrew Bennett, program director for Cardus Law, sat down in Ottawa’s Moscow Tea Room to hash out the meaning of the words.

Peter Stockland
Andrew P.W. Bennett
21 minute read

Peter Stockland: We both read a piece by Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente on the much-discussed topic of class privilege. She included a test to determine how privileged someone was growing up. You took her little quiz and scored...

Andrew Bennett: I scored 12 out of 13. But I also thought she was missing a few. For example, marks of maybe what we could call high privilege, membership in a private club, education overseas, attending a private school. If those were added, that would've been another three points for me.

Peter Stockland: You were 12 out of 13, but you were actually 15 out of 13 because you could add privileges that Margaret Wente didn't even think of.

Andrew Bennett: That's right.

Peter Stockland: I scored 5. Out of 13. With my background, I got 5. Yet, as we agreed, the real measure was that you and I were standing in the same office talking about privilege.

Andrew Bennett: We were. We did.

Peter Stockland: In other words, despite what the quiz showed, we were there as peers talking to each other despite our very diverse backgrounds. It puts the whole debate about privilege into a certain context, doesn’t it? It’s meaningless unless you talk about privilege plus opportunity. Privilege is not just a line that goes off the end of the graph into a space where nothing more matters.

Andrew Bennett: There are ingredients in privilege, or what could be classed as privilege, or the opportunities that present themselves to us. One, I think, is where were you born? What part of the country were you born in? I was born in downtown Toronto. I lived in downtown or midtown Toronto for the first 19 years of my life. I then moved on to university in Halifax, and lived in the center of Halifax. I went to university in Montreal, and lived in the center of Montreal at McGill, one of the most privileged institutions in the country. I traveled and lived and spent four years living in the middle of Edinburgh, one of the most beautiful, culturally rich cities in western Europe.

Maybe there's a particular accident of birth, but not as we tend to think of it typically. I think there's your class, the level of education of your parents, financial resources, and so forth. But in this country, one of the most important accidents of privilege is where you were you born. Is it Toronto or is it Salmon Arm? I think the point you make about how both of us are standing there working for this think tank in the middle of Ottawa throws up an interesting challenge. A great theorist of Canadian identity said Canada is defined still largely by ethnicity, class, and region. There is certainly an element of class in Canada, but much less so than in the United States or the U.K., obviously. Most Canadians perceive themselves as middle class, whether they're making $250,000 a year or whether they're making $50,000 a year.

The other aspect of that middle classness is the one whereby people who've had different opportunities in life, we can call that privilege, are still able to come together in a common place and work towards a common goal without the least bit of overt discussion or consciousness of that privilege.

Peter Stockland: My son, when he went to Oxford to do a graduate degree, was appalled at the way many of his classmates treated the so-called scouts – basically the cleaning staff - in the residence. He was flabbergasted that anybody could treat another human being like that. For his classmates, it was just normal. Likewise, when he was at Columbia doing his doctoral work, he would meet fellow students from extremely wealthy families. He was on a scholarship, but that they couldn't believe that he hadn't gone to Phillips Exeter Academy or one of the other hugely expensive prep schools that are natural for their social class. They would ask, "How did you get here?" He would answer, "I just worked my butt off, and I got here."

He was able to compete handily with them, but he was also reminded that he was a Canadian who’d gone through our far more egalitarian educational system. He wasn't the same as them. He was just determined to succeed. He wasn’t intimidated because he took advantage of opportunities available to him, despite not being “privileged.” Imagine, though, if he had grown up in Harlem.

Andrew Bennett: That's right. A lot of the discourse today that is very anti-privilege, or what is understood to be privilege, is exactly the same thing that the Oxford student is doing towards his scout who cleans his room, or the Morningside Heights or the Manhattan scion of a wealthy family attitude might be to Harlem. It's that you dehumanize the person and the focus is instead on oh, that person is privileged, therefore, I'm not going to take any interest in the person. The discourse today is that you've got this privilege, therefore, you're not worth anything, or you can't comment on this social issue or you have no right to speak. It is a dehumanizing of the person.

Peter Stockland: Going the other way….

Andrew Bennett: Going the other way, what you see coming out of that particular kind of Marxist, neo-colonialist argument is that if you're not X, if you're not Y, if you're not Z, if you’re not someone who has directly experienced marginalization or oppression, or perceived marginalization or perceived oppression, then you can't comment on certain social issues. From my perspective, I'm not going to apologize for being a white, upper middle class, heterosexual guy who is a devout Christian. There's another list contrary to Margaret Wente's privilege list. Where’s her list for being free to speak out on certain issues? I probably wouldn't score a 1 out of 10 on that list.

What I find so frustrating in all this is that when you dehumanize the person, and you just look at the fact that they have a particular privilege, you're assuming they use that privilege in a negative way, or they use that privilege to oppress people, or automatically have some kind of colonialist mindset.

Peter Stockland: I don't know whether our inability to resist that is a function of being Canadian, or a function of the times. A friend of mine, a great journalist, grew up in Newcastle, he’s really a brilliant guy. When he got out in the workforce, he went to London looking for jobs in the media, and would inevitably run up against, "Oh, and, what did your father do then?" His family history was evident in his north of England accent. It counted against him in the British class system. He didn’t let it count against him in his life.

He hated Maggie Thatcher, but he always said the best thing she ever did was abolish the council house system because what they reinforced the idea for lower class people that where you're from is where you shall stay. It was impossible to move. He was by no means a Thatcherite, yet he saw that creating a system where people believe they can move matters a great deal to succeeding in a life. You're not going to overturn class snobbery in the blink of an eye, but if you can inculcate mobility in a population, you help people understand that while life is not always going to be fair, not all going to be roses, you can move to seek opportunity.

I think that often gets lost in that discussion around so-called privilege. I didn't have anything anyone would really called privilege as I was a child, but I lived with the inchoate conviction, in the immortal words of the old Steve Earle song, that: “I'm going to get out of here someday.” The desire to do that, coupled with the possibility of doing it, is really, I think, the meaning of privilege.

Andrew Bennett: The other aspect is personal ability and being able to say, "I'm going to work hard. I'm going to take what I've been given and do my best. I'm going to make the best out of it." That is essential. When you live in a country such as Canada where there are many opportunities open to you, even if you don't come from a particular upper middle class or upper class background, there is that potential. In the same way, if you have been blessed with a great deal of gifts and with a certain degree of privilege, you can squander that very easily.

I think one thing that is bound up in privilege and how you deal with it, how you address privilege, whether you've been given a very privileged upbringing or whether you've had to struggle because you haven't had as much privilege, is a sense of gratitude. I think as a Christian, it's what you do with your privilege. It's what you do with what you've been given. Now, someone can choose to take their privilege and lord it over people, and believe that you are owed certain things by others because of your status, because of your education, because of your background. Or they can say, "I have been particularly blessed because of what I've been given and I have been blessed with certain experiences others have not had." From my perspective, you then have a great responsibility with what you do with that privilege, and you share it with others. You give back to others, whether it's in terms of temporal gifts or whether it's in terms of money and charity – not just throwing a penny in the jar, but actually giving until it hurts to support other people.

Then, too, if you've been blessed with a particular education and a particular intellect, you've got a responsibility to support institutions that serve the betterment of society, the common good, and support people who maybe have not had as much privilege as you have had.

Peter Stockland: One place where privilege does definitely kick in and make at least an initial difference is, for example, if you grow up in an area like I did, you often have no clue what opportunities might even be available. Even worse, you can accept a belief in opportunity beginning and ending just where you are. You don't know to go beyond where you are because you don’t know there is a beyond where you are. You don't know that it's possible to get into an Ivy League school because there's nobody around to tell you what an Ivy League school is, never mind that it’s possible. If you do become aware it, you can take advantage of it. Initially, though, you don't know because it's just not part of the conversation that goes on around you.

Now, extrapolate from where I grew up to, say, a remote First Nations reserve. There’s even less probability you’ll take part in a conversation about what’s really possible. And I think that’s really hard to grasp for people who do grow up in privileged circumstances. They don't really understand what it is to live in such a limited environment; to not know what’s even possible. 

Andrew Bennett: I think it's important not just to seize the opportunities but to understand when opportunities are before you. If we take an example of maybe someone who would have less privilege, you have someone from a poor economic background or from a particular minority community, or who has to struggle even more because they don't have a particular level of privilege that society would say is privilege, they very well could have access to people in their community who act as mentors that help to guide them. Growing up, apart from your family, didn’t you have mentors in your community?

Peter Stockland: No, not really. I can think of one person from childhood through early adulthood who gave me a vague sense of something more. Where I grew up as a teenager, in the B.C. Interior and then outside Vancouver, for most of the people I moved with, their idea of getting where they wanted to go was something like getting a union job in a sawmill, and buying the truck and camper for the weekend.

I worked with a guy who started at the mill when he was 17. When he was 34, he was promoted to forklift driver, and he thought he had hit the jackpot: straight days, no night work. Those are the kind of people I grew up around. They were smart guys. They had the brains. They could've gone much further, but you know what? They got out of high school, they went to work in a mill. That's what you did. So privilege is also about horizons. Charles Taylor uses the phrase, horizons of significance. What do you do when don't know what the horizons of significance are?

For me, it connecting with one person who said, "Well, this is a talent. You can make use of it." Beyond that, they didn't know much more than I did about how to actually make use of it.

Andrew Bennett: Another part of the current challenge we face around this denigration of privilege, or assuming that someone who's privileged is not worth engaging in discussion with on certain issues, comes back to again that central reality of our Christian faith : an understanding of human dignity that the person who has been greatly privileged has the same dignity as someone who has grown up in a very remote reserve somewhere in this country, or who has grown up in a small village on the coast of Labrador, or has grown up in the Interior of B.C., who hasn't had access to all these different things because ultimately, a person's worth is not judged by things.

I think in this discourse today, which is really imbued with a certain anger and, again, a denigration of the human person, I would hope that I would be able to always see someone from a remote place in the world who hasn't had the material gifts and blessings that I've received, as not just my equal, but as bearing that image and likeness of God. I would hope that they would be able to see the same thing in me. I think how you understand privilege has very much to do with disposition. I think someone who has a strong faith in God, and especially in our Christian understanding of God, should have a particular understanding about privilege and, again, the responsibilities that come with this.

Peter Stockland: It's true. It's no more acceptable to prejudge someone on the basis of upper level socioeconomic status than it is to denigrate them for being of lower socioeconomic status or cultural status. The only time I've ever been genuinely angry about that dynamic was a few years ago when the student demonstrations were going on in the streets of Montreal.

I walked by the four or five young guys who were chanting as I walked by, "One, two, three, four, this is effing class war." I just stopped in my tracks and turned back to them and said, "Shut up. You don't know what class war is. You don't have a clue what class war is. Look at you. You're all upper class Westmount kids. That's fine. If that's what you are, that's what you are. God bless you, but don't talk about class war. I'm working class. I know what it means to be put down because of the class that you come from. I know what it means to be limited in what you can do. You don't understand the first thing about class war. If you want to protest student tuition fees, go ahead. That's your prerogative. That's your place. You can do that. But don't turn it into something you have no idea what you're talking about." 

Andrew Bennett: What was their response?

Peter Stockland: Their response was, "Well, chill, man. It's just a slogan." I said, "Not to me."

Andrew Bennett: Exactly.

Peter Stockland: Not to me. I don't believe in class war, even though I come from the class that is supposed to benefit.

Andrew Bennett: Have those classes ever benefited from class war?

Peter Stockland: Of course not.

Andrew Bennett: I think that that's really much of what is at the heart of these conversations that are taking place is an assertion of whose views are acceptable, whose speech is acceptable. That comes from two problems. One is a profound ignorance of history, to not see that throughout human existence how these questions in different forms have come up again and again, and when they've been dealt with violently, when they've been dealt with in a way to try to start at year zero, it never goes well. The French Revolution did not end well. Nazism did not end well. Fascism in Europe did not end well. Khmer Rouge did not end well.

It's a profound ignorance of history. The second is a deeply flawed anthropology, this idea that you as a human being are only worth something if you have these views. It just loses the big picture.

Peter Stockland: It's one end of the escalator and the other. You and I might've begun at different ends of the escalator. Ultimately, we come to a point where we talk together as colleagues, as friends, as human beings, not as representation of our class, not as representation even of our past, but as people and, as you said, as image bearers of God. I guess the question becomes what work do we do try to bring a measure of such sanity back to the discussion about privilege.

Andrew Bennett: It's interesting that we went through this long period in the 1980s and 1990s, certainly in Canada, a post-ideological age where you really couldn't point to any particular political ideology apart from “aren't we great that we're Canadians,” which every party could buy into. There was no specific ideology that captured people. Now we've got one, and it is a very threatening ideology because of, again, its dehumanization of human beings and its demonstration that you do not have value unless I tell you that you have value.

Peter Stockland: In terms of that, the group that I find as frustrating as the social justice warriors are those we've come to call libertarians. I know some who argue that what we understand as libertarian is a travesty of how the term was originally meant. But I’m using it the sense we encounter, on a very regular basis, “oh, just leave it to the market to sort everything out.” Well, I'm sorry, but there is a myriad of institutions that are essential to sort things out, not just the market. You were talking earlier about mentorship. Well, institutions themselves have a mentoring capacity. You engage with an institution and you learn from the traditions of that institution. You learn modes of being, modes of behaving, that help you advance to understand things more fully.

But the libertarian attitude, at least as we now understand it, arises from the misunderstanding of equality of opportunity as if all opportunities are equally distributed. Well, they aren't. I know from experience they aren't. I don't need someone sitting in whatever milieu they come from telling me what the opportunities were for me, or are for people in similar circumstances to those I grew up in.

Andrew Bennett: Well, we should always be striving for truth. We know, as Christians, that truth is Christ and so therefore, in our striving for truth, our truth should always be guided by a love for others and a desire to seek something better, always something better, but that thing that's better must lift people up, not put them down, not denigrate them for their beliefs, who they are, what the color of their skin is, what their sexual orientation is, but rather always lift them up so they can be themselves fully. If you're doing that, then you're generally working towards the common good. I think that is the message that we have to continue to strive to advance in our society as Christians, and as Christians who are thinking critically about these things. We need to say there is a path forward that allows us to grow closer to one another and engage in meaningful community where there's a deep respect.

The understanding must be that each one of us is striving for the same things. We're striving to understand who we are, who we are in relationship to others. We’re trying to understand the world we're in. We're trying to please God, see beauty and discern beauty, even if we're not always going about it in the best way. I think if we want to have renewal of our culture, we need to find ways that ensure people are able to do that and when they mess up, they have the support where someone says, "You messed up and I recognize in you that dignity. Here are ways we can continue on together in a way that is a generally human way to live." I just see so much now where we're pushing that humanity aside. It's all about ideology, buzzwords, whatever it might be, to try to explain away things we don't understand.

Maybe one way to explain it is that privilege gives a bit of a head start on seeing particular aspects of the world, provided you're also taught at the same time to know how to appreciate it, to be grateful for it. One thing my parents instilled in me was gratitude. You must be grateful. You must be thankful for all these things. The ability to have that head start, to see all these things in a particular way, doesn't mean that the guy growing up in Salmon Arm, who is in a small town and is surrounded by probably tremendous natural beauty, is worse off than someone going to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra when he is 10 years old. Both are a particular type of beauty. How do you appreciate that beauty, and what do you do with your appreciation of it? Do you share it? Do you celebrate it? Do you contemplate it in wonder? Or do you toss it aside, say, "Yeah, whatever."

Peter Stockland: Exactly. Do you attend to it? Do you cultivate it?

Andrew Bennett: And share it.

Peter Stockland: Where I grew up as a kid, we'd go up to the lake in June and when it was time to come down in late August or early September, we were maybe 11 years old, we were allowed to take the boats down. Our parents trusted us to take the boats down. We knew how to navigate the river. We knew how to watch for the markers in the river. You knew if it was red or if it was white which side of the sandbar to go on, all that kind of stuff. We were trusted to do that. In spring, I’d go with the family across the alley and pick asparagus on the banks of the river….

Andrew Bennett: You'd pick asparagus?

Peter Stockland: Yes….

Andrew Bennett: Wild asparagus?

Peter Stockland: Wild asparagus, yes. Or we'd go off on our bikes on Saturday morning and just ride for miles and miles. We rode Indian ponies over on the reserve, all that kind of stuff. Many years later, a friend of mine who went to school in England, visited with me in the town where I grew up. I was pointing out to him, "Oh, there's where we used to take the boats, and there's where we used to pick the asparagus, and there's where we used to do this and do that." He said, "Who are you, Huckleberry Finn?" But we never thought anything of it as kids. The only theatre we had was the Christmas pageant at church. But where you had the theater in downtown Toronto, we had freedom to run around and do whatever we wanted. Do we then cultivate a spirit of resentment because Andrew had the privilege of going to the symphony and Peter only got to take boats down the river?

Andrew Bennett: That would be back to gratitude again.

Peter Stockland: God gives us gifts and what do we make of them? That's the question. It's not how much more privilege some seem to have. It's this: if you had certain gifts, what did you make of them?

Andrew Bennett: I'm actually mentoring a young guy right now who’s 19, about to turn 20. We're reading through C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity and he has started growing in his faith. I said to him, "One of the things we need is more wonder in the world." He said, "Do you mean curiosity?" I said, "No, wonder." I pointed to a tree that was just near where we were sitting at this café. I said, "That tree, it's totally different from that tree and look at how its leaves wave in the wind and each leaf waves in a different way and the way the light comes down into it. That's wonder. Curiosity is why the leaves are green, like what does the green in the leaves do? Wonder is a metaphysical state.

Peter Stockland: We might also call it awe.

Andrew Bennett: A good friend of mine and his wife just had their first son little while ago. When I was studying at Edinburgh, he was an atheist and had no interest in God. We used to have some pretty amazing conversations. We lost touch. That would've been in 1997, 1998. So, go ahead 10 years. I was in Washington for some business meetings and I was going to go to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast dinner. I couldn't go to the breakfast. I had meetings. That evening, I went to St. Matthew's Cathedral in the center of Washington for Mass. I went into a pew and there's this shaved-head guy and a woman standing in front of me. I knelt down and was praying, and Mass begins. When it comes time for the sign of peace, who turns around but my old friend from Edinburgh, Nathaniel. I thought oh, this must be his fiancée or his wife and she's a Catholic and he's here supporting her. Well, then he went up to communion. He turned around and he said, "I bet you weren't expecting that, Mr. Bennett."

At the back, after Mass, we started talking and he told me about his conversion. He said there was this one moment in his conversion where he was back at his parents' place in Vermont. As he was walking along this road, sort of a little path through the woods that he'd walked along hundreds of times, he stopped and looked at this tree, which he'd probably seen a hundred times before. He just gazed at it in wonder, he said, and asked: “Why is it here? Why is it shaped like that? Why does it do what it does?” He said that was a moment when he was already on his path to conversion, but realized there was much more there than he could see. I think even more so when we look at people, there's much more to this person than what I see. or how the media portrays them, or how.... You and I and many of our colleagues get frustrated by certain politicians and we can slip into this denigrating mode, but do we know what's in their heart or the struggles they have, or the woundedness they have, or the joys they have or what gets them up in the morning? I think it's so important is to recover that decency.

Peter Stockland: It’s a decency works against what’s become a standard cultural practice of dehumanizing people and reducing them to just this set of properties or characteristics, rather than looking at them with wonder, recognizing they are invariably doing the best they can. I strongly believe we should worry less about privilege and approach things much more from the perspective that most people, most of the time, are trying to do the right thing. They may go out and make a huge mistake. Everybody does. But you can't just operate on the classic cynical presumption that everybody does this, or everybody does that, just to seize some privilege for themselves. I just don't buy it. I think it's a fundamentally false premise and a terrible, anti-human attitude.

Andrew Bennett: Well, the response to that is you don't know me and you're not taking the time to get to know me, so don't take that approach. Sometimes I think high privilege or low privilege can often be quite isolating because you feel that you're not understood, or you're not appreciated for who you actually are and the ability to share what you have, whether you had very high privilege or whether you've grown up in a very small town where you say to a friend, "Look at all the fun we used to have, all these great places we used to go." It's a wonderful guard against feeling isolated when we can share with someone. I think that's essentially what it means to be a human being is to be in community with others and to make them part of your life.

Peter Stockland: The one genuine privilege I've had in my working life, the thing I value above all others, is the ability to open doors for other people and say, "You know what? You're good at this. You might want to think about going here. If you just oriented yourself this way, you'd be okay." We were talking earlier about mentorship, but it actually even goes beyond mentorship. It's using a position you have to say, "I really believe in you. I see qualities in you that you might not see in yourself." I've been privileged to be able, over my work life, to identify people with talent and say, "You're way better at this than I am. Go get it done." That is a genuine privilege.

Andrew Bennett: Oh, there's a joy in it.

Peter Stockland: Yet it was not a question in Margaret Wente's privilege test: Have you been able to help someone flourish?

Andrew Bennett: No, it wasn’t. It would've been interesting if that had been the last question because a lot of people have been in that position. Instead, we invent ideas of oppression or marginalization for people who don't feel particularly marginalized or oppressed.

Peter Stockland: It's that old Marxist thing, right? We need to disabuse people of false consciousness. They don't realize how victimized they really are….

Andrew Bennett: Let us help you understand you’re a victim, and then we'll really victimize you.

Peter Stockland: I liked particularly what you were saying earlier, too, about the need to orient people, however subtly or overtly, toward an understanding that we are image bearers of God, and that's why we need to help each other, not to satisfy some notion of class consciousness or some agenda of combatting an abstraction called privilege.

Andrew Bennett: Because God is all truth, God is all love, God is all mercy, God is all knowledge, God is all wisdom and so if you're in that image and likeness, you are really privileged.

Peter Stockland: Outside of the Gospels, my favorite book in the Bible is Ecclesiastes: “Fear God and follow His commandments. That is the whole duty of man.” It eradicates all debate about privilege. You have a duty to fear God and follow His commandments. We're all equal in that.

Andrew Bennett: Imagine if we could all remember it.

Convivium means living together. We welcome your voice to the conversation. Do you know someone who would enjoy this article? Send it to them now. Do you have a response to something we've published? Let us know!

You'll also enjoy...

Religion, Freedom, Citizenship

Religion, Freedom, Citizenship

In early May, Cardus hosted launch events in Ottawa for its Religious Freedom Institute. Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, CRFI’s director, spoke with Convivium's Peter Stockland about the kickoff and what’s to come for the new institute.

Faith For Our Future

Faith For Our Future

Last week, Cardus Religious Freedom Institute launched its newest project, Faith in the Future. Convivium's Peter Stockland sits down with program director Andrew Bennett and researcher Aaron Neil to discuss the team's aspirations and plans as it kicks off.

Hooded Loneliness, Solitary Fear

Hooded Loneliness, Solitary Fear

Isolation and emotional homelessness are rarely discussed, but they are the prevalent hurdle faced by those experiencing homelessness.