Saturday, January 4, 2014

Shakespeare on Privilege

In Act 3 of Shakespeare's King Lear, Lear stops shouting at the storm long enough to utter this question:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,/
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,/
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,/
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you/
From seasons such as these? (III.IV.35ff)

The scene marks a turning point for Lear, who up to this point in the play has shown concern about only one thing: himself. Now as he finds himself naked on the stormy heath, rejected by his daughters, at the mercy of the storm, he has a change of heart. We could say of him what the narrator of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe says of Edmund when he sees the squirrel family who have been turned into ice sculptures: "For the first time, Edmund felt sorry for someone besides himself."

Lear's question, of course, is rhetorical. The poor naked wretches of the world have no defense against the pitiless storm. More important, as Frederick Buechner points out in his meditation on this passage, Shakespeare's play confronts us with this reality: the poor naked wretches of this world are all of us. Whether we are young and full of hope or old and cynical, we are all of us as vulnerable as Lear to the pitiless storm that is life--with its failures and sorrows, its victories and joys, its maddening paradoxes of injustice and redemption, blindness and sight, betrayal and loyalty, hatred and love--a sobering and frightening picture of which Shakespeare paints in the play.

But Lear continues with this reflection:

O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just. (III.IV.39ff)
"I have taken too little care of this." The pronoun in Shakespeare's line is wondrously ambiguous. What is the "this" that Lear has taken too little care of? The poor naked wretches of the world, I suppose, and probably also the condition, the plight of the poor, the homeless, the neglected, the oppressed. At the very least, Lear must be confessing his own ignorance or lack of concern for his society's most vulnerable. He's been king, it seems, for a long time. No doubt he's lived a sheltered and pampered existence, especially when compared to the lives of those on the lowest rung of the social ladder in his kingdom (see, for example, Poor Tom, the homeless man whom Edgar disguises himself as in the play).

Lear's powerful lines came to mind again this week as I read a book called Power, Privilege, and Difference by Allan G. Johnson. My church is using the book for an adult education study sponsored by its Beyond Racism task force. I'll quote a couple of relevant passages from that book:

If dominant groups really saw privilege and oppression as unacceptable--if white people saw race as their issue, if men saw gender as a men's issue, if heterosexuals saw heterosexism as their problem--privilege and oppression wouldn't have much of a future.
Johnson goes on to list several reasons why dominant groups in society tend not to engage with these issues, the first of which is this:

Because they don't know it exists in the first place. They're oblivious to it. The reality of privilege doesn't occur to them because they don't go out of their way to see it or ask about it. Dominant groups have no idea of how their privilege oppresses others. This obliviousness allows them to cruise along and tend to the details of their own lives with only an occasional sense of trouble somewhere "out there" just beyond the fringe of their consciousness. This lack of awareness also gives them a low tolerance for hearing about the trouble, for when the normal state of affairs is silence, any mention of it feels like an imposition.

Both quotes seem to describe Lear's situation perfectly. As king, at the top of the social ladder of his day, it was easy for Lear to remain in a state of ignorance, even obliviousness, about those at the bottom of the ladder. It was only when, stripped of power, wealth, and privilege, Lear himself had to "bide the pelting of the pitiless storm," it was only then he began to identify with the poor and oppressed, to feel, as he says, "what wretches feel." Only then did Lear go from having a vague sense of trouble somewhere out there to having a sense that the problems of the poor and the marginalized were his problem, his issue.

I get the impression when I hear some people dismiss or minimize the idea of privilege (whether race, class, gender, or sexual orientation) that they assume it's a relatively new concept dreamed up by political liberals and sociology professors. But it's not.

Shakespeare knew about privilege. And in the character of Lear, he painted a striking picture of what it means to own our privilege. He also gave us a clue about how we go from a state of oblivious disregard to a state of caring identification.

Through no fault of my own, I am a white, middle class, heterosexual male. Like it or not, these realities place me in a position of privilege in my society. Those facts ought to compel me to ask some hard questions about privilege, power, and difference.

Frequently, I suspect, they will prompt me to say, "I have taken too little care of this."