The concept of “advantage” is one of the trickiest of ideas, and can, I believe, often reveal to us our intellectual laziness. The dictionary explains the concept thus: “a condition or circumstance that puts one in a favorable or superior position”. Every part of this definition is tricky. The “condition or circumstance” is presented a bit like describing blue skies and hot fires, a seemingly acausal state of affairs. It just is. The second tricky part is assessing what is favorable, what favorable means. The third tricky moment is snagged figuring out the meaning of and means of determining superiority. Finally, one is left with a lurking uncertainty: what outcome is being sought or valued? Why does this position make a difference and how and why?
In the US, advantage tends to be equated with dominance power, status, wealth, possessions, education, opportunity…and with less honestly, with gender and ethnicity. The advantaged person is considered to be in a position to have good things happen. Because this is simply a “condition” or “circumstance”, it is often treated as “It’s just the way things are”, a strangely fatalistic assumption that some large reality map has constructed this predestined situation. As is apparent, if a society has “advantaged” members, it will then have “disadvantaged” members. The advantaged assume the entitlement, the disadvantaged either adapt or stage some sort of passive or active rebellion. All of this is often experienced as something of an inevitability of the human condition, the hint of intellectual laziness emerging.
The most powerful resource I found helpful in my early foray in trying to understand inequities in the US was the landmark book of Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice. Allport was a pioneer in personality psychology, and developed early work on trait psychology. His analysis on The Nature of Prejudice was published in 1954, before the volatility and tribal groupings the word “prejudice” now evokes. The book was life changing for me, in part because it was an analysis, not a partisan polemic.
One idea really stuck. Prejudice leads to oppression. And interestingly, oppressed persons purposefully acquire extensive information about the oppressors. It is obviously in their self-interest to know how the oppressors behave, what they like and dislike, how they express their emotions, how they exercise dominance. In contrast, the oppressors know very little about those they oppress. There is no need. They create some mental story, but it is not based on knowledge of the oppressed. This single insight became, over time, one of the most useful in my life journey.
As I initially absorbed this insight, the easy example of this for me was the degree to which women claim to have detailed information about the men in their lives and can predict their behavior while men often amusingly observe that they have no insight whatsoever into women and are often confused by their views and values. This contrast in knowledge was dramatically apparent in my early experiences of the gender structured relationship between nurses and physicians, though, not surprisingly, only the nurses seemed to know about it. We knew exactly what the physicians we worked with wanted; they often didn’t even know our names.
This insight changed many of my life experiences, since I read it when I was relatively young. Over the years, I began to notice that persons in oppressed circumstances had a distinct “advantage” over their oppressors, even when they didn’t realize that they did. They could “read” their oppressor and predict challenges and outcomes. They quite literally know things about the oppressors that the oppressors did not appear to know about themselves. Concurrently, when I pointed this out, the oppressed resisted this insight, since it seemed to rob them of their “right to be outraged” at their oppression.
I also realized that this imbalance in information often lead to manipulation, deceit, knowing how to “manage” the problems the oppressor created. For many nurses this involved what we called “workarounds”, finding a way to do what we viewed as best for the patient even though our expertise was dismissed and the physician therefore did not support our decisions; we were “disadvantaged” power players even though we were often the most knowledgeable about a patient situation.
Now I am not presenting a polemic about all of this, but it did clarify my understanding of the idea of “advantage”. I started thinking of advantage as “it depends….” What is the desired outcome and how can it be achieved while “managing” the “advantaged persons” was often the real issue, and it seemed normalized. In that sense, the “advantaged” person was simply a pawn being managed by others. Indeed, being “disadvantaged” made it possible to do good that was invisible to the “advantaged” person.
I have teased this idea apart through many contrasting cycles. Here is another disruption. If my primary commitment and interest in life is my spiritual self-realization, then the societal norms about who is advantaged are virtually meaningless. Indeed, using this measure of self-fulfillment, the highly “advantaged” person using our current societal assumptions about advantage, actually now seems rather disadvantaged. Once more, “it depends…”
There are more examples of this, but the idea seems apparent. All these assumptions about advantage inform one dimension of our global deconstructions: societal assumptions about advantage are shifting rapidly. Some are being destroyed, some simply collapsed in on themselves, some are resistant to the shift but are losing the struggle to avoid change. Increasingly I am struck by those who believed that they had an “advantage” struggling to adapt to its shifts, perhaps its disappearance. I am fascinated with others who once thought the “advantage” distribution was unchangeable now testing out options.
This seems like a good time to tease apart some of our intellectually lazy assumptions about what being “advantaged” or “disadvantaged” really means. We could acknowledge that there is a heavy fog in both the assumptions we have made and the way we have made them manifest. We have this interesting window of opportunity to simply discard this dualistic nonsense about advantage and notice every human has some advantages and some disadvantages and the artificial and power-driven desire to create societies where we distribute advantage and disadvantage seems obviously self-deluded and embarrassingly foolish.
“So many tangles in life are ultimately hopeless that we have no appropriate sword other than laughter.”
- Gordon Allport -
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