On privilege and socially meaningful work

I shared a Facebook update today, that I wanted to reflect on further. I was putting forward my latest pet hate: people earnestly saying it’s a privilege to work on climate, ecosystem protection, or other social issues. We’ve heard them, at conferences or on social media, counting their blessings.

Fuck that! Working on climate and social cohesion is not a privilege, it’s a duty, and all the more so the more privilege we have otherwise. Secondary pet hate: people acknowledging their own privilege on a stage, as if that made them heroes, and exempted them from the need to do much about it. My own philosophy: privilege prompts a question, what do you do with it? And the worst thing you can do about it is squander it to calm down your own guilt.

Now, getting paid to work on those important issues, so there’s no conflict of duties? For instance, between environmental and social responsibility, and feeding a child or parent, or even one’s own personal security – sure, that’s important. It’s unfair to place excessive moral pressure on people to fulfil their duty – and preferable to reduce ethical tension, by directing social resources towards what is collectively useful. I.e. pay people who work for the common good. But what this means is, being paid to work on climate, or for holding the social fabric together, has nothing to do with privilege. It’s fair payment for socially useful work, a minimal standard we should aspire to, and fight for.

Why does this earnest naming of privilege anger me? Because it blurs concepts: as if a job focused on the common good was some title of nobility (that’s what privilege is, access to special laws attached to social status). This is a dangerous narrative, implying that whoever didn’t get one of those jobs, but simply contributes everyday, outside their job title – in short, whoever is not materially rewarded for their contribution to climate or social cohesion – is a more commoner, un roturier, hardly worthy of attention, praise, or reward. Even a sucker for doing the work. Good way to build a movement hey!

Worse: it creates an odd zero-sum game competition for a handful of ‘ethical jobs’ that come with bragging rights – distracting attention from the challenges at stake, and leaving it to whoever can give out material rewards to set the agenda and direct collective efforts.

Now, is this really how we hope to solve climate change, and hold the social fabric together?