The privilege check

This post is about the Hunger Games trilogy and contains spoilers. 

After they’ve exhausted the topic of the Quarter Quell, my prep team launches into a whole lot of stuff about their incomprehensibly silly lives. Who said what about someone I’ve never heard of and what sort of shoes they just bought and a long story from Octavia about what a mistake it was to have everyone wear feathers for her birthday party […] All three are so readily respectful and nice to my mother that I feel bad about how I go around feeling superior to them. Who knows who I would be or what I would talk about if I’d been raised in the Capitol? Maybe my biggest regret would be having feathered costumes at my birthday party.

Catching Fire, pp. 46-7

Have you checked your privilege today? Or, more importantly for the aspiring activist, have you told somebody else to check theirs? The idea of checking your privilege is basically sound: it means considering where you’re coming from and who you’re addressing. Are you treating your experience as the default human condition? Have you interpellated an audience that is essentially like you, and where does your tacit ideology leave the people who fall outside the cultural standard of “normal” within which you operate?

When I’m writing, this normally involves something like the voice of Friar Lawrence in Romeo And Juliet (Pete Postlethwaite version, obv) clanging away in my head, reminding me of all the ways I’m fortunate: “There art thou happy, there art thou happy, there art thou happy.” It’s not a perfect system, but it does give some protection against making a dick of myself. The greatest cost of privilege unchecked is the failure of sympathy, when your idea of what it is to be human is so intimately and thoughtlessly bound up in what it is to be you that you inadvertently cast anyone not-like-you out of the definition of humanity. Having privilege and not recognising it as such tends to make you morally stupid.

What I love about the scene from the Hunger Games trilogy quoted above is the way it catches the dynamic of privilege. Katniss, narrating, is from District 12, the poorest and least powerful segment of Panem (a dystopian, post-apocalyptic remnant of the USA); her prep team (prepping her for participation in the Hunger Games, a to-the-death battle held for the entertainment and subjugation of the masses) are residents of the Capitol, the wealthy and powerful ruling city. They’re the fortunate ones, and they speak to Katniss with an ignorance of their own good fortune.

Katniss resents this ignorance – but she also ultimately recognises it as ignorance rather than malice. Her prep team can neither know nor conceive of what it is to live in constant fear and deprivation. If Katniss was a blogger, now would be the moment for her to shout, “Check. Your. Privilege.” (Full stops for emphasis.) She doesn’t, though: instead she counters her prep team’s lack of sympathy with a sympathetic move of her own, recognising how her own sense might have been stunted by a kinder life.

Imagining how she could be like them is an invitation for them to imagine how they could be like her. It’s a tiny emotional transaction, but in the stratified cruelty of Panem, it’s explosively radical. The meaning of feathers to Katniss’ revolutionary persona later in the trilogy when she becomes the Mockingjay suggests that Octavia is already moving closer to Katniss at this stage. If Katniss had pressed her moral superiority in this exchange, she might have lost an ally; more importantly, she’d have lost an opportunity to breach the brutalising segmentation of her world.

Photo uploaded by carbonated, used under Creative Commons licence

One thought on “The privilege check

  1. Nice. Did you hear Amos Oz on Start the Week this morning? He talked about the importance of being able to “imagine the other” as the root of empathy, understanding and peace. He said he would like curiosity, imagination and humour to be available in capsule form and that he’d never met a fanatic with a sense of humour.

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