A week or so ago, listening to my favourite radio station while travelling, an interview was being held with someone on the topic of privilege. I was quite stunned when the interviewee suggested that she was privileged to be middle-class, to be healthy, to have had good schooling, and so forth. Since listening to this conversation, I really thought long and hard about why we are having these types of debates in South Africa. My sharing of these thoughts is not meant to provide any answers, but simply to ask for input so I can reduce my own confusion.
Firstly, it seems to me that we simply have to accept that the debate about privilege is fundamentally a moral and ethical debate, and not one about facts or figures. To some degree at least, this is also a global debate about the increasing gap between the have’s and have-not’s. No wonder Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the USA elections talks about income equality. It is clearly not sustainable to have a situation where the top wealthiest 1% possesses 40% of the nation’s wealth; the bottom 80% own 7%; the richest 1 percent now own more additional income than the bottom 90 percent. The question is not whether or not the rich “deserve” of “worked for” this position, but how this can from a moral and ethical perspective be seen as fair or equitable.
Secondly, my sense is that we too easily go the route of trying to make those better off to feel guilty, as if somehow they do not deserve any of what they have. Our very small business is a very ethical one, making sure we follow not only the letter of the law but also the spirit. We pay our taxes, we do community work (within the constraints of what we can afford), At a personal level I do the same. Being “good citizens” is really important to us as a family, and I do my faltering best to be a good example to others.
Thirdly, I am enormously grateful that our business is successful by any business metrics such as growth, profitability, customer satisfaction and renewal. Although I am rationally conscious of the fact that my team and I work really hard to make this possible, I also know that there are businesses such as ours that also work hard and despite this do not succeed. At a personal level I am grateful that we are all healthy, that I have children that do well in their careers, that we have a home (just one), that we can afford to have food on the table every day, that we can manage to save, that we can occasionally travel – the list of things I am grateful for is very long indeed. I also know that there are ten’s of thousands around me for whom this is not true. Of this I am conscious every single day of my life.
Fourthly, I do not see myself as privileged, although I fully accept many people will see me as such. I suppose this is where another disconnect arises. To me it is quite clear that there is a difference between privilege and undeserved privilege. Everything we have, in our business or as a family, we all worked very hard for. We were not “given” anything for free, and we have never tried to obtain for ourselves anything at the expense of others. We do not have undeserved privilege.
To some degree at least, my sense is that we may need to accept that fairness in society may not mean equality, but should always mean equitability. We do not treat our children exactly the same because we know they are different. We do however try to treat them equitably. We do not treat all employees exactly the same, because doing so would be enormously disrespectful of the uniqueness and diversity each individual brings. Each one of us is born with unique talents, and some are blessed with so much more that others. Is this fair? In my humble view this is not even a question to be asked. It is neither fair nor unfair. It simply is what it is. The obligation each of us has though is to make the best of what we have been given.
Finally, I refuse to feel guilty about having all I have that I feel grateful for. It is my belief that if you feel guilty about what you have, you really do not deserve it. Do we deserve our privilege? Yes we do, because we work to constantly do better, to be better. Did we achieve the position of privilege unfairly or at the expense of others? Never consciously or deliberately.
Having said this, I remain consciously grateful for all we have. I am also saddened by the fact that there are so many that have less despite their own best efforts. If each one of us at the end of each day can say “Today I was the best me that I could be” we may be privileged and should therefore be grateful, but should not feel guilty at all. As business people, the question we should ask every day is whether the way we treat people is equitably, and that we do so not because we feel guilty but because gratitude also means that we are deliberately kind to others.