“So What?” – The Story Behind Our Privilege

Vishesh, II B.Com

It’s a startling realization that if the system was actually even close to being fair and equal, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. Having benefited from a system that has been working in my favour at the cost of others, the least I can do is question the status quo and start a discussion, because by being ignorant towards it, I’m passively enabling this system while I continue to benefit from it and that doesn’t make me feel very good irrespective of how much money I earn and how happy my family is. As much as I wish I can achieve even a fraction of the success my family has, or any of the people I’ve mentioned above have, I personally don’t think I can lead a fulfilling life being conscious of these things and not trying to do or say something about it.

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Lately I’ve been very fascinated by the concept of “success” and how people from different backgrounds, more specifically the urban class, go about defining and achieving their goals. Most importantly, the circumstances under which they achieve their goals and the factors they attribute to their success once they’ve achieved it.

Before we go about redefining success, let’s examine the existing definition. I found a somewhat comprehensive definition on the Internet:

“Success (the opposite of failure) is the status of having achieved and accomplished an aim or objective. Being successful means the achievement of desired visions and planned goals. Furthermore, success can be a certain social status that describes a prosperous person that could also have gained fame for its favorable outcome. The dictionary describes success as the following: “attaining wealth, prosperity and/or fame”.

If I was to elaborate on this definition, I guess people would also associate success with a life full of happiness with family and friends and a good balance between work and family. Of course, you’ll always have people on either end of the spectrum, someone who values fame or wealth and economic prosperity above all else and someone who doesn’t care too much about money as long as they have a happy family and are content with their job; and then you have certain Jack The Rippers and Osama Bin Ladens. But let’s count them out for the moment. I guess its safe to say that I’ve pretty much covered most people on the spectrum.

I’ve had the chance to meet and talk to different types of people who’ve achieved varying degrees of success, from multimillionaire CEOs to some of my own friends who seem to be on the path to a very successful life. One of these people I would like to talk about is my friend. Let’s call him Sid. Sid is a devout Hindu Brahmin who’s studying hard to become a Chartered Accountant, just like his dad before him. Sid is very hardworking and gets decent grades and hence isn’t very fond of the concept of reservations in educational institutions. He takes immense pride in his family’s traditions and culture. So much so that if he was to be in a relationship, he doesn’t see the point in pursuing someone who is not Brahmin as he can’t envision a future with them, because his family would not approve. However, I believe him when he tells me that it’s a personal choice, because it’s a question of family values and having cultural differences.

Next, I’d like to talk about another friend, or rather his mother, let’s call her Mel. Mel is a charismatic protestant Christian, goes to church every Sunday, and is very proud of having raised two strapping young boys who she believes will go out and conquer the world, but is rather disappointed that they don’t believe in creationism and flood geology. However, she’s relatively “liberal”, as some would label her, as compared to her friends who have home schooled their children so as to not let science corrupt their minds. She believes in the literal interpretation of the bible and believes it’s her biblical responsibility to support the nation of Israel, irrespective of human rights violations happening there and reserves a portion of her earnings that she donates to Israel and the Zionist movement.

My grandmother having been married off at the ripe age of 14 years, not having studied past 9th standard has been a housewife for her entire life, takes immense pride in having raised three kids who are doing very well for themselves. The other day, in conversation with a relative, she unapologetically proclaims how she would never give her house on rent to a Muslim in front of my maid who also happens to be— yes, you guessed right— a Muslim; yes the same maid my very successful software engineer mum wasn’t too comfortable accommodating in the servant quarters at the back of my house, because Muslims cook beef. I’m sure by now you would have noticed a number of digressions, but I’ll get back to how those are relevant in a bit.

Taking my example again— my personality, preferences, likes and dislikes, worldview, lifestyle etc., have been influenced by my own family and friends, the private schools my parents have sent me to, the places I’ve traveled and most importantly the various people I’ve met and their opinions and beliefs. So this would give me an undue advantage if I were to apply for a job in the industry my father has worked in or start my own company, as compared to someone who has had no exposure to entrepreneurship and business networks.

Statistically, these individuals represent the top 1% of India, if not lesser. But let’s really get a feel of how “successful” one needs to be, to fit in that percentile. To be in the top 1%— a person needs to be making approximately 34,000 rupees p.m., which translates to 4,08,000 rupees p.a. To put that number into perspective, assuming a wage labourer in India who’s being paid the minimum wage (160rs/day) works on all 365 days of the year, it would take him 7 years to earn the same amount; for an average labourer in Zimbabwe, it would take about 22 years. The 1% in India also happens to own about 58.4% of the wealth, with the bottom half owning about 2%.

So now you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, we get it, we’re extremely lucky to have not been born to a cotton farmer in Zimbabwe, boo hoo, now what?” That’s a reasonable reaction, that’s how I used to feel too, but let’s dig a little deeper. Putting luck aside, let’s dwell into the various socio-economic factors that determine our success. Here’s my own example, I have the opportunity to explore a wider range of career options considering the fact that my father is a businessman, because his wealth and the backup option of working in his company practically acts as a safety net; hence when I become an accomplished penguinologist cum cat behavior consultant, it is not entirely by individual merit. Similarly, we as individuals are moulded by our social environment— our friends, family, neighbourhood, school, economic class, caste, etc. Taking my example again— my personality, preferences, likes and dislikes, worldview, lifestyle etc., have been influenced by my own family and friends, the private schools my parents have sent me to, the places I’ve traveled and most importantly the various people I’ve met and their opinions and beliefs. So this would give me an undue advantage if I were to apply for a job in the industry my father has worked in or start my own company, as compared to someone who has had no exposure to entrepreneurship and business networks. However, if I wanted pursue a career in music or theatre, I’d have no clue where to start as compared to someone whose family has music run in their blood, as they say.

Yes, I agree, all the examples I’ve given till now are just anecdotes, so let’s evaluate some empirical data relating to IAS officers who are the crème de la crème of our society and would easily classify as the “elite 1%”, even income wise. According to a study done in 1985 (yes, that’s a study done 30 years ago, but they are probably our parents age by now, who we often look up to as successful people, if that’s any consolation), Brahmins constituted 37.6% of all recruits and were the majority in all states, despite the fact that they constituted about 5% of the population at the time. The ‘Shudras’ however, constituted 2% of all recruits, despite the fact that SC/ST community constituted around 23% of the population. However, since the mid 1990s, the number of positions reserved for SC/STs and OBCs have been increased from 22% to about 50%. Another study done in 1972 concluded that, “candidates with higher university qualifications, urban background, previous experience of some positions, whose parents have been employed in modern professions, have greater chances of success in the IAS.” (Bhambri, 1972). Other studies have also shown how parents earnings is a very big determinant of the child’s earnings. However, these studies do not necessarily prove a causality, but they are enough to show us that a positive co-relation exists between socio-economic background and chances of success. So, as we can see, success and failure is a complex function of socialization and accumulation of social capital among other factors.

I personally think “personal beliefs”, “traditions”, “family values” and descriptions of the sort are euphemisms for prejudice and bigotry and that all beliefs come with consequences in the real world.

I think it’s time that I clarify that out of the two ways all this information can be interpreted— i) as an explanation behind the successes of the elite or ii) as an inquiry into the dynamics behind social and economic inequality, I would urge the reader to consider the latter as it is far more important and relevant, as my aim is not to discredit and induce guilt in those who are successful, but to explore the dynamics of a system and public narrative that has disproportionately benefited a handful, at the cost of the vast majority.

Sid, Mel and my family are now probably thinking, “How is this our fault? You know what, we’ve worked hard all our lives, so what if we’re a little conservative in our beliefs, we pay our taxes and we give generously to charity. These are our individual beliefs based in religious tradition and it’s also a question of family values, we don’t run the government to effect any change, so how does it matter what I believe in the confines of my home?” I think we fail to realize that the so called “individual” doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that individuals change and influence society as much as they are products of it, as Marx eloquently put it, “Society does not consist of individuals; it expresses the sum of connections and relationships in which individuals find themselves.” Hence I firmly believe we can only understand an individual in relation to the whole and vice versa. So in a deeply divided society where there is already a significant amount of cultural and intellectual inbreeding among the elite, our beliefs and ideologies are passively enabling the prevailing socio-economic order and stunting social mobility; this means people from underprivileged backgrounds lose out on being hired into high end jobs and thus have their skills and talents wasted. As I type this, I can hear my grandmom tell my Muslim maid to not even switch the light on in the pooja room, because she did it with her left hand. I don’t think even 70% of reservations in our institutions would facilitate change if there’s no social mobility and cohesion in the family and immediate community level. While we point fingers at the politicians and evil corporate overlords, we conveniently forget that these politicians and corporate overlords are the products of our own families, communities, colleges and churches.

The same uncles and aunties who are social justice warriors on whats app, scoff when they hear about inter caste or inter faith marriages and are indifferent towards people being massacred over the meat they eat and act as though paying taxes is a justification to yell at the BBMP workers in front of their house. I think we need to accept a little more responsibility than just numb ourselves by donating a few thousand bucks to charity, signing a few online petitions and forwarding messages.

By having divisive beliefs, we are fracturing our social landscape and passively preventing people from attaining the social capital that we took advantage of by the virtue of being born into favourable circumstances. These divisions which politicians conveniently capitalise on by engaging in vote bank politics which further exacerbates the situation. The same uncles and aunties who are social justice warriors on whats app, scoff when they hear about inter caste or inter faith marriages and are indifferent towards people being massacred over the meat they eat and act as though paying taxes is a justification to yell at the BBMP workers in front of their house. I think we need to accept a little more responsibility than just numb ourselves by donating a few thousand bucks to charity, signing a few online petitions and forwarding messages.

I personally think “personal beliefs”, “traditions”, “family values” and descriptions of the sort are euphemisms for prejudice and bigotry and that all beliefs come with consequences in the real world. We have no choice but to interact and enter into relationships with other people irrespective of our preferences and beliefs, because an individual alone is not self sufficing. Only if I happened to be living in a self sufficient community with me and “my people” in the mountains would we be able to live without any consequences to anybody else. I’m not one to go to tell a grieving mother that her still born child is not going to heaven, but what am I to say to her if she also happens to be funding the ethnic cleansing in Gaza like Mel; or happens to be raising her children in isolation waiting for the end of the world, clearly discussing the implausibility of the revelations occurring entails telling her that her child is going to decay in the ground. There aren’t any easy answers to these questions, but I believe they need to be asked if we hope to promote any sort of religious and cultural plurality and secularism. Here’s a pretty comprehensive description of secularism:

“…that attitude of mind which refuses to accept the division of humanity into religious or races or historical classes as final. …It is incompatible with any extreme anti-scientific, anti intellectual and dogmatic stand points so far as they affect the solutions of human problems on this earth. It believes that man has a duty to prove his own condition and make the human situation the ultimate arbiter in matters exclusively human” (Khundmiri, 1968)

This however does not mean every 15 year old atheist with a xerox copy of the Communist Manifesto has found the answer to life; because we have seen how a mass, populist anti establishment rhetoric has led to Brexit and also the rise of Donald Trump, through reactionary politics. It is quite similar to the rise of Hitler in Nazi Germany, which was a solution to the socio-economic malaise of the people in the aftermath of World War 1. It’s as important to be nuanced in our ideas and beliefs as much as it is to pursue objective truths, so as to change the meta-narrative.

So you might now ask, “What does all this have to do with redefining success?”
I personally think the traditional definition is inadequate as it doesn’t require us to question our belief system or change anything. As much as Sid will grow up to become a very successful CA and find the Brahmin girl of his dreams, his one vote for that politician who fervidly hates the reservation system as much as he does, in order to create a more, so called “meritocratic society” for his son, has the potential to permanently scar our social landscape. As part of the 1%, I believe its our responsibility to lead the ideological discourse, if we want to see any systemic change. It’s a startling realization that if the system was actually even close to being fair and equal, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. Having benefited from a system that has been working in my favour at the cost of others, the least I can do is question the status quo and start a discussion, because by being ignorant towards it, I’m passively enabling this system while I continue to benefit from it and that doesn’t make me feel very good irrespective of how much money I earn and how happy my family is. As much as I wish I can achieve even a fraction of the success my family has, or any of the people I’ve mentioned above have, I personally don’t think I can lead a fulfilling life being conscious of these things and not trying to do or say something about it.

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