The burdens of privilege: Do Williams students have greater social responsibility?

Among the issues raised by the past month’s “Whose Responsibility Is It?” project is the question of whether or not Williams students, as members of an exceptionally privileged group, have a particular social responsibility. Are problems like environmental devastation, economic disparity, homelessness and sweatshops, to name a few of the subjects encompassed by the project, our problems because we benefit from the status quo that produced them?

Does the fact that the resources available to us are unavailable to most of the world population compel us to use these resources in an altruistic way? How much of our highly privileged lives can we claim for ourselves and does the process of “giving back” require an absolute commitment?

Given my own guilt complex, my sense that my life occurs at someone else’s expense, as if privilege existed in finite quantities, neither created nor destroyed, my attempt to understand the relationship between privilege and responsibility is not just abstract. My approach to the question of social responsibility is conditioned by this personal struggle, in addition to two basic assumptions about Williams: first, that Williams students represent a uniquely privileged way of life and second, that Williams students in general don’t assume enough social responsibility.

The case for Williams as an elite community seems fairly conclusive. By all the statistics I can gather, we are at the top of the pile, both from a local perspective and from a global one. Our membership in a community free from the devastation of warfare, government brutality and famine and our assurance of shelter, food and an excellent education designates us members of a super-elite that makes up a minute percentage of the total human population. Our lifestyle is highly atypical of global norms.

And, whether directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, we benefit from a status quo that leaves much to be desired. (At the same time, it would be remiss of me to dismiss the diverse backgrounds of the student body with the adjective “privileged.” While elite, Williams is far from utopian; its status as a microcosm of the larger, “non-elite” world is reflected in instances of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and environmental abuse.)

It also seems fair to say that Williams students could take on more responsibility than we do, that we could be more aware of and actively involved in the sort of issues the Responsibility project has put forward as problems.

These two assumptions, however – that Williams students are privileged and that we don’t take enough responsibility – don’t really answer the original question. Should we be responsible precisely because we are privileged? Despite my reservations about going too far in the wrong direction and offering justifications for apathy, I think that the answer is no. I don’t believe that social responsibility is dependent on who we are as individuals, that it represents a concrete figure or percentage calibrated on the basis of lifestyle. I see less potential for change in a sense of responsibility conditioned by our location relative to each other because it retains the type of distinctions between groups of people that enable social problems to occur.

Suppose that somewhere else in the world, there is an individual experiencing injustice or deprivation in some form. Assume, as is likely, that this individual’s life is very different from mine in almost every respect, that he or she will not go to college; that he or she is not assured of shelter, food or adequate medical care; that he or she is subject to intolerance or violence on the basis of identity. What are my obligations to this person? It is likely that my own lifestyle is in some way responsible for the conditions of this person’s life and that these conditions may result in extreme personal suffering. I don’t know for sure.

If I have a responsibility towards this individual, however – and I believe strongly that I do – it is based on the fact of our common human identity, and not on the fact of my privilege. As far as I can see, a conception of service that translates the categories of privileged and underprivileged into roles as helper and helped has not done very much towards changing the system. The idea that I should take responsibility for people who can’t take responsibility for themselves because my education, my color, my nationality, or my socioeconomic status have better prepared me to do so seems profoundly disturbing, a reiteration of paternalistic and discriminatory principles.

At the risk of regressing into truisms, I want to suggest that social change should proceed on an egalitarian basis, that we are all responsible for each other, that the our need, like our potential to give, is universal. Perhaps the most important aspect of the scenario I outlined above is that this unknown person is in some way responsible for me, that s/he has something to offer me, and that service is not a one-way process but always an exchange.

So where does this idealized and perhaps unrealistic vision of social responsibility leave us? More specifically, what does it mean in terms of our lives at Williams? Exactly what am I getting with my diploma? Is it only an entrance pass to certain opportunities and a certain way of living, or am I also accepting a mandate, a series of injunctions about specific responsibilities that I have for enjoying these privileges?

If a Williams education does involve assuming certain responsibilities – and I believe it does – my hope is that responsibility is not only dependent on personal guilt. Ultimately, guilt appears to be more of an enervating than an energizing force, at least in my own case.

I don’t think social responsibility should be approached with the idea of “paying our dues” to the larger world community because this is a policy of accommodation, an attempt to justify the continuation of the status quo rather than an attempt to change it.

The student-initiated Responsibility project has suggested some of the ways in which our lives are connected to lives and situations that seem very remote from our own. My hope, both for the senior class and for the entire student body, is that we will continue to make these connections and to take responsibility for them.

If we are privileged and if this privilege incurs certain social and environmental costs, then our responsibility seems to involve recognition of the fact that the circumstances of individual lives affect other lives in ways that can be positive as well as negative, and that our most basic obligations are those based on the claims of human existence and our responsibility to each other.