8 September, 2017

Privilege and Responsibility

I recently came across an interview with a retired headmaster, who had spent the latter part of his career as principal of one of England’s most prestigious private schools. He was being asked to comment on the changes in cultural norms and behaviours amongst the pupils and their parents and in part, to defend the notion of a privileged education. On the question of privilege he gave a thoughtful answer (which I have been mulling over for the past few weeks) and because it impacts anyone in a leadership position it might bear some reflection here.

He commented that the most significant difference between today’s privileged pupils and more importantly their parents, and those of previous generations, especially the generation that defined his early career in the 1950s and 1960s, was that today, the reciprocal nature of privilege and responsibility had been all but abandoned and that the power of wealth was by and of itself sufficient to purchase the right to privilege. Access to privilege, once paid for, was deemed to be the whole bargain, with no conditions being attached to the privileged, once that access had been procured and paid for. This was an attitude, he opined, that would have been unthinkable in his early career and that the social and cultural norms of those previous generations demanded that principle of responsibility as an inalienable part of the compact made with those whose good fortune, birth or industriousness had put them in positions of privilege.

Responsibility he defined as an ethos of service to the community and to society at large, of stewardship of possessions, the natural environement and the institutions of society and of chivalry, in the sense that Lewis Carroll had in mind, when he refered to the maintainance of a balance between action and reflection, between the ability to fight and the ability to love. In its most practical form, this responsibility requires of the privileged, that they be constantly aware of the gift of their privilege and to be especially circumspect, caring and mindful of those less privileged than themselves. Privilege stripped of its requirement of responsibility, becomes divisive, selfish and brutish.

I find it useful to put these high values into a practical context and I was reminded of that interview, whilst travelling on the plane from Munich to Dublin, a trip I have been taking – in both directions – with distressing frequency over the last two years. The route is irrelevant as the observation of behavioural norms are the same wherever the plane happens to be travelling to and from.

Frequent travellers will know that – aside from the distinctions of class and at least for adults – the aisle seats are the most sought after and the ones that are snapped up first in the online booking and check-in systems.

The reasons for this are obvious:

  • more leg room
  • no fellow passengers to inconvenience should you have to make a trip to the bathroom
  • no-one to have to play elbow-wrestling with, at least on the open flank and
  • the ability to stand up and prepare for disembarkation, as soon as the all-clear has been given from the crew.

My own belief of how the “system works”, is that there is an implicit responsibilty tacked on to the privilege of having an aisle seat, namely the responsibility of ensuring that your row neighbours, or indeed the occupants of the entire row, are given the space to exit their seats, retrieve their baggage from the overhead locker and put on their coats, without having to worry about being trampled to death by the onsurging herd of passengers further up the plane, in their drive to exit as quickly as possible.

If the aisle occupants do not recognise or take on this duty of care, then the middle and window seaters are pretty much left to the mercy of travellers behind them or to random breaks in the flow, when the aisle is blocked further upstream by a hapless passenger struggling with a suitcase, a lost contact lens, or God forbid, small children. The aislemen are the only ones with the power and position to hold up the crush from behind and to create a safe space for their neighbours to disembark free from stress.

There is no rule saying to enforce this responsibility and indeed, my observation is that, mostly, it is ignored. But when an aisleman does step up (or back) and holds the breach for his row, it creates a momentary, but palpable sense of community that is as uplifting to the aisleman (or woman) as it is appreciated by the middle and windowseaters. The bond dissipates almost as soon as it is formed, but its residue lingers for hours afterwards and informs behaviour and responses long after the trip has been completed. Kindness given and kindness accepted has a way of doing that.

Trite as this example may be, it does highlight a simple truth that privilege and its attendant duty of care and responsibility can be found in many situations of everyday life: sometimes we find ourselves in the position of prvilege and sometimes in its opposite. It is especially when we find ourselves dependant on the goodwill or care of another, who, however momentarily or serendipitously, has it in their power to make our lives a little more or a little less comfortable, that our sensitivity to the tacit implications of obligation to privilege is most acute.

My suspicion is that anybody reading this essay will, by and large, be in a position of privilege when compared to the majority of our fellow beings on the planet, not to mention the entirity of the natural environment we inhabit. We do best when we carry both the rights of our privilege and its attendant responsibity in equal measure in all our comings and goings, no matter how irrelevant they may appear to us.