- Privilege-shaming has replaced the cultivation of humility.
- Humility is better suited to the incremental pace of lasting social change.
- Humility protects against greed, which is not a trait exclusive to the privileged.
“Check your privilege” and “stay in your lane” are, to my mind, amongst the ugliest of contemporary platitudes. They are aggressive and unnecessary extensions of the classic psycho-spiritual recognition that cultivating humility is important work. These new prerequisites for social interactions are unhelpfully narrow and represent an unfortunate regression in liberal society. Efforts to replace a good moral target that sometimes fails with a newer, more elaborate, more demanding alternative are counterproductive. Here are three reasons why our society would be better off modeling humility instead of shaming privilege:
Social Change Is Slow and Steady
Humility starts with recognizing that others exist and are deserving of respect. For example, humility means not peering into an open window. Just because someone has failed to adequately secure and protect their privacy does not mean you are entitled to exploit their vulnerability. Through consistent efforts of humility, cross-communal relationships are quietly and slowly expanded via subtle actions and signs of mutual respect and support.
But the new "check your privilege" thinking that dominates today’s popular social discourse doesn’t view the incremental expansion of cooperation and mutual respect across diverse communities as a good in itself. It demands the socially-minded first pass a purity test, assuming that the natural inclination of would-be helpers is to perpetuate systems of oppression. They use the language of inclusion to exclude those unfairly judged as fundamentally tainted. The rules that follow would shape a rather unattractive and uncooperative society.
Advocates of privilege-checking fail to contend with the real problem of social life, which is that cooperation is riddled with uncertainty, self-interest, and good intentions that can sometimes lead to bad outcomes. Doing the spiritual work of developing humility is a long-term commitment to relationship-building. It means you are dedicated to a constant state of social engagement as you try to better discern your place in the world. Analysis and interpretation are collaborative endeavors. Listening with humility means always being ready to challenge a speaker, not because of power or privilege, but out of trust and respect for the work necessary to achieve an optimal outcome of understanding and progress.
Greed Is Not an Exclusive Trait of the Privileged
A deficit of trust is at the heart of growing discontent with capitalism and modern-day work, as many of us don’t trust business leaders to concern themselves with principles other than greed. But exhortations regarding privilege assessments will do little to get the business world back on track. As Ron Purser and David Loy observe, “Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.” Those who have engaged in a mindfulness exercise and checked their privilege can still be greedy.
In past work, I have proposed a working definition of greed as occurring in situations where an individual seeks an economic return of greater value than what their input should reasonably earn and in so doing imposes costs upon others. The other is harmed in this process because their ability to claim fair value is oppressed.
Humility encourages us to withhold some of ourselves to create space for the other. Retail bankers embracing humility would demonstrate a recommitment to their core competency of assessing risk. Investment bankers would recommit to their clients by working with them, and not betting against them. Policymakers working on humility would reassess the effect their legislation is having and appreciate the limits of what can be achieved by government intervention. Humility can rebuild trustworthiness and eventually improve the financial order more than privilege-shaming.
Don’t Stay in Your Lane, Play the Spaces
Imagine if instead of greed and selfishness dominating the mindset of powerful business and political leaders, those leaders were to see where the other members of our community are and play in the spaces that are left open with humility. It would mean checking in with stakeholders, not checking privilege, to make sure that the space is being left open for us—and moving out when someone else needs a turn.
“Playing the spaces” is a complementary notion to “free spaces” as explored by political theorists Sara Evans and Harry Boyte. They sought to identify “the public spaces in which ordinary people become participants in the complex, ambiguous, engaging conversation about democracy.” Evans and Boyte explain that the framing of politics as left versus right forces us into paradigms of “resistance or reaction,” instead of encouraging us to find a space that will allow for engagement in the political process.
It’s trendy to shame folks for their privilege and silence them when they veer out of their lane. But the harder spiritual work of cultivating humility is the better path to a more cooperative, productive, and tolerant society.
Weitzner, D. (2021). Connected Capitalism: How Jewish Wisdom Can Transform Work. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Evans, S. M. & Boyte, H. C. (1992). Free spaces: The sources of democratic change in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Purser, R. & Loy, D. (2013). “Beyond McMindfulness.” The Huffington Post, July 1.