The Duty of the Righteous Man

A personal journal entry from several months ago begins with a quotation by Primo Levi, which I encountered in an essay by Ursula LeGuin.  “It is the duty of the righteous man to make war on all undeserved privilege, but one must not forget that this is a war without end.”

I wrote several paragraphs of not-very-focused rumination about this idea when I first encountered it, and I have thought back to it many times since.  And now I find myself thinking of it once again as I read the thoughts of one of my Clarion teachers, Mary Anne Mohanraj, talking about issues of race and its treatment in SF/F on John Scalzi’s blog. (“Mary Anne Mohanraj Gets You Up To Speed” Part 1, Part 2)  A fair amount of this discussion concerns genre fiction and the genre fiction community, but there is much here that is a reflection of our culture as a whole.  Specifically, it was through the early rounds of this discussion (which has kind of unfortunately come to be known as RaceFail ’09) that I encountered Peggy McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which helped focus for me some of the fuzzy edges of the concept of undeserved privilege and made me realize that while my thinking about privilege in terms of class was fairly developed, it was still very rudimentary on issues of race.

I’m still getting my thoughts in order on the subject of subverting undeserved privilege, and how doing so interfaces or fails to interface with rational self-interest.  It’s a sort of idealism vs. pragmatism in the face of preexisting conditions argument, and I am struggling to find my own clarity of thought about it.  But the RaceFail ’09 discussion has helped me learn to recognize kinds of privilege that were previously invisible to me, and even bereft of conclusions the improved perception is valuable.


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  1. One hesitates to be a jerk, but I do have to point out that it’s spelled “privilege.”

    That said, like previous hideous net-consuming flame wars (some of which I have generated), RaceFail’09 has generated some valuable discussions along with the usual kindling, and for that I am grateful. I just wish so many people didn’t have to feel personally hurt by it (which leads to angry attacks, which are usually failure-generators).

  2. Thanks, Ferrett. This is what I get for posting without proofreading. I secretly have turrble speling.

  3. Eugene,
    This is such an important topic, which is why Ursula K. LeGuin is the writer I turn to for insight. She’s always thinking about race, class and gender. My favorite books by LeGuin, Four Ways to Forgiveness and The Word for World is Forest, are unflinching treatments of race.

    The McIntosh essay is a classic and a must-read; every good gender studies reader contains it (I sometimes teach this subject), and it demonstrates the necessity of examining race, class and gender simultaneously in narrative and social study. We all have a race, a class and a gender. People of privilege tend to overlook that fact because they don’t have as many daily confrontations with the limits of those categories.

    A funny but insightful site I recently came across addresses some of this issue in terms of overused themes in sci-fi stories. Folks who are interested can check out John VanSickle’s Grand List of of Overused Science Fiction Cliches at:

    Ferrett, I think anger, especially angry denial, is almost always a normal reaction by people of privilege in discussions like that. Realizing your position of privilege when it’s obvious to some others is embarrassing and feels like an attack even when it’s not. Then again, sometimes there are attacks, which is also understandable and unfortunate. But dialogue has to start somewhere.


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