“We are not given a good life or a bad life.”

I haven’t been writing much here lately, because Eve and I have been hard at work writing our book about polyamory. At 160,000 words, it’s well north of the New Testament and a bit north of The Two Towers in size. It turns out polyamory is complicated, and we have a lot to say about it.

However, I’m taking a break from writing about polyamory because I’ve started seeing this meme pop up all over the Internetverse, and it’s reached the point where I have to say something about it. I think it’s symptomatic of the problem of privilege.

I get what it’s trying to say. Really, I do.

But it’s wrong.

Yes, some people are given a bad life or a good life. We do not all start from a neutral place. Take this kid, for example. He would, I’m sure, be quite happy to have been given a life that was neither bad nor good:

This photo, by South African news photographer Kevin Carter, won a Pulitzer Prize. It documents the effects of famine in Sudan, in which more than 70,000 people died. Carter later committed suicide; in his suicide note, he wrote, “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain…of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners.”

Look at this kid. Then look at wealthy heiress Paris Hilton, out doing what she does best (which is, near as I can tell, “getting photographed partying”):

Then look back at the slave labor camps in North Korea, which are used to punish political dissidents “to the third generation.” People are born in these slave camps, grow up, and die (often of torture, beatings, or starvation) here, without ever knowing anything else.

The meme might more accurately say “white middle-class Westerners born into progressive democracies are not given a good life or a bad life.” But to be fair, perhaps that’s what’s meant by “we.”

For those who aren’t white middle-class Westerners in progressive democracies, there most definitely are good lives and bad. Not all lives have the same opportunity for choice and direction. Not everyone can choose to better their conditions; those born into North Korean Labor Camp 15, which is believed to hold as many as 30,000 slaves, certainly can’t.

Like I said, I get the point of the meme. I am a huge believer in empowerment myself; I have written a great deal about how the choices we make affect our lives, for good or ill.

But I also recognize that, to a large extent, this is a privilege–one that should properly belong to everyone, but doesn’t. Not everyone can choose to make their lives good or bad. The way we’re born matters; Paris Hilton can shrug off bad choices that would destroy many people who are born into a less privileged position, and just keep on keepin’ on.

Yes, make choices that make your life better. Yes, move in the direction of greatest courage. But when you do, don’t forget to be grateful that you can. It’s not your fault that people are born into situations horrifying beyond anything you can imagine, but it’s your responsibility to acknowledge that not everyone is in the same position as you are. Some people are given a bad life. If you’re not one of them, you’re fortunate, but don’t forget they exist.

And if your response is “lighten up, it’s just a Facebook meme!”–perhaps you aren’t paying attention.

20 thoughts on ““We are not given a good life or a bad life.”

  1. Not to devalue the importance of privilege awareness, but I also see a problem with the meme in terms of defining “good life” and “bad life”. Research shows happiness is only 10% circumstantial. Privilege does not necessarily equal “good life”.

    Ideally, I’d change the meme to say “it’s up to you to make it your own.” Sociological constructs and assumptions about good and bad generally work to hold us back.

  2. Not to devalue the importance of privilege awareness, but I also see a problem with the meme in terms of defining “good life” and “bad life”. Research shows happiness is only 10% circumstantial. Privilege does not necessarily equal “good life”.

    Ideally, I’d change the meme to say “it’s up to you to make it your own.” Sociological constructs and assumptions about good and bad generally work to hold us back.

  3. Thank you so so so much for this post. Yes, the word “We” has to be specified who “we” are. Otherwise I feel angry (I came to this post through More than Two site which I recently found.)

  4. Thank you so so so much for this post. Yes, the word “We” has to be specified who “we” are. Otherwise I feel angry (I came to this post through More than Two site which I recently found.)

  5. So there’s some 90-minute documentary that has no need to be named because it was somehow part of this discussion all along despite never being mentioned, and everyone happens to know what it is? Okay then.

    Not having seen the unnamed documentary in question, it’s really hard to comment on the point because I don’t know what sort of framing was used to make that point. I suspect, however, that the “happiness is only 10% circumstantial” thing is based on at least one of the following: the assumption that the environment one lives in is fully under most people’s control (and therefore, is not significantly circumstantial), that “environment” and/or “circumstances” is being defined in some specific manner for purposes of discussion/argument which only make sense coming from a position of privilege, or they accidentally ended up creating a convoluted, non-obvious tautology that amounts to something like “if you ignore the people for whom circumstances significantly impact happiness, then happiness is only 10% circumstantial”.

    To the best of my knowledge, the happiest people in the world today mostly fall under one of two categories – members of extreme subcultures, or members of small “tribal” type cultures which have been allowed to operate largely unchanged into the modern world. Both of these are subject to – depending on how one defines both “environment” and “privilege” – some very subtle set of environmental and/or privileged circumstances which aren’t available to just anyone.

    For “extreme subculture” people, these are the ones who, due to fundamental personality issues, simply cannot be meaningfully happy in the mainstream culture which they were born in. Because of this, they end up joining or creating an environment which is pretty close to perfect for themselves, for at least part of the time, since they usually can’t get away from the mainstream completely. But there’s a subtle and profound caveat to this – being able to create, maintain, and join such a “bubble environment” is not something that everyone is in a position of being able to do, and if it’s too far outside what is tolerable to the local mainstream, there will be a constant danger of being discovered and ruined.

    For small tribal cultures, well… there’s a lot going on with this, and it would take far too much space to cover it all. So, I’ll just go over a few key points: 1.) In the past, people who simply could not be happy in the tribe’s culture due to fundamental personality reasons usually died fairly young, one way or another – which provided the bonus of other people not having to deal with those who were chronically unhappy. 2.) In the modern world, they don’t have to die, they can leave for some place which better suits them and come back to visit occasionally – which is another bonus. 3.) Living in a tribal culture which has been allowed to operate mostly unchanged and unmolested in the modern world is a privilege of sorts, and a fairly recent one at that (outside of a few specific exceptions, like the Amish). You normally can’t really join them, you have to be born into one, and creating a new one is going beyond even what extreme subculture sorts can reasonably do.

    And for the people whom the mainstream culture that they happened to be born in is at least “good enough”? Is not the “circumstances” of birth a major factor here? Is happiness being treated as a binary condition, where you either meet some baseline level or you don’t, so only “good enough” matters, and being “among the happiest” or not is an irrelevant non-issue? It may sound like I’m quibbling with semantics, but that’s the point – how you define and utilize terms like “happiness”, “circumstances”, “environment”, “privilege”, and what you choose to exclude as being likely irrelevant, probably makes a huge difference in what kind of conclusion one would reach.

    • If you want to look it up, it’s called Happy. They claim the barefoot, beaten rickshaw driver with rain in his “house” is just as happy as the privileged American.

      I don’t know their metrics to evaluate that, you can go to the studies and researchers and debate with them if you’d like. They don’t talk about the things you do here, but I don’t know that they’d disagree.

      I didn’t bother mentioning the title because no, my point was not necessarily about happiness. It was about semantics, just as you come to in your last paragraph there. I was more just offering it as a point to consider and am not here to argue anything, so sarcastically attacking my comment rather than asking for info/title if you’re actually curious is kind of unnecessary.

      Nice ideas with your cultures though.

  6. So there’s some 90-minute documentary that has no need to be named because it was somehow part of this discussion all along despite never being mentioned, and everyone happens to know what it is? Okay then.

    Not having seen the unnamed documentary in question, it’s really hard to comment on the point because I don’t know what sort of framing was used to make that point. I suspect, however, that the “happiness is only 10% circumstantial” thing is based on at least one of the following: the assumption that the environment one lives in is fully under most people’s control (and therefore, is not significantly circumstantial), that “environment” and/or “circumstances” is being defined in some specific manner for purposes of discussion/argument which only make sense coming from a position of privilege, or they accidentally ended up creating a convoluted, non-obvious tautology that amounts to something like “if you ignore the people for whom circumstances significantly impact happiness, then happiness is only 10% circumstantial”.

    To the best of my knowledge, the happiest people in the world today mostly fall under one of two categories – members of extreme subcultures, or members of small “tribal” type cultures which have been allowed to operate largely unchanged into the modern world. Both of these are subject to – depending on how one defines both “environment” and “privilege” – some very subtle set of environmental and/or privileged circumstances which aren’t available to just anyone.

    For “extreme subculture” people, these are the ones who, due to fundamental personality issues, simply cannot be meaningfully happy in the mainstream culture which they were born in. Because of this, they end up joining or creating an environment which is pretty close to perfect for themselves, for at least part of the time, since they usually can’t get away from the mainstream completely. But there’s a subtle and profound caveat to this – being able to create, maintain, and join such a “bubble environment” is not something that everyone is in a position of being able to do, and if it’s too far outside what is tolerable to the local mainstream, there will be a constant danger of being discovered and ruined.

    For small tribal cultures, well… there’s a lot going on with this, and it would take far too much space to cover it all. So, I’ll just go over a few key points: 1.) In the past, people who simply could not be happy in the tribe’s culture due to fundamental personality reasons usually died fairly young, one way or another – which provided the bonus of other people not having to deal with those who were chronically unhappy. 2.) In the modern world, they don’t have to die, they can leave for some place which better suits them and come back to visit occasionally – which is another bonus. 3.) Living in a tribal culture which has been allowed to operate mostly unchanged and unmolested in the modern world is a privilege of sorts, and a fairly recent one at that (outside of a few specific exceptions, like the Amish). You normally can’t really join them, you have to be born into one, and creating a new one is going beyond even what extreme subculture sorts can reasonably do.

    And for the people whom the mainstream culture that they happened to be born in is at least “good enough”? Is not the “circumstances” of birth a major factor here? Is happiness being treated as a binary condition, where you either meet some baseline level or you don’t, so only “good enough” matters, and being “among the happiest” or not is an irrelevant non-issue? It may sound like I’m quibbling with semantics, but that’s the point – how you define and utilize terms like “happiness”, “circumstances”, “environment”, “privilege”, and what you choose to exclude as being likely irrelevant, probably makes a huge difference in what kind of conclusion one would reach.

  7. If you want to look it up, it’s called Happy. They claim the barefoot, beaten rickshaw driver with rain in his “house” is just as happy as the privileged American.

    I don’t know their metrics to evaluate that, you can go to the studies and researchers and debate with them if you’d like. They don’t talk about the things you do here, but I don’t know that they’d disagree.

    I didn’t bother mentioning the title because no, my point was not necessarily about happiness. It was about semantics, just as you come to in your last paragraph there. I was more just offering it as a point to consider and am not here to argue anything, so sarcastically attacking my comment rather than asking for info/title if you’re actually curious is kind of unnecessary.

    Nice ideas with your cultures though.

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