Rank and Privilege
The term “rank” refers to one’s power position in any given system or social/ interpersonal context. The term “privilege” refers to the benefits and advantages of one’s rank/power position. One of the central tasks of creating sustainable social change is to help all groups, mainstream and marginalized, to become aware of their relative powers and privileges.
Everyone belongs to the mainstream in some way and has some rank and privilege. For example, anyone who is white in a white, Euro centric society has privilege; anyone who is male in a patriarchal society has privilege; anyone who is heterosexual in a hetero-sexist society has privilege; anyone who is an English-speaker in a predominantly English speaking culture has privilege; anyone who has a college degree has privilege, as education is tied to social class and earning power; anyone who has access to economic resources has privilege; anyone who is Christian in a Christian dominated society has privilege; anyone who can vote in the country they live in has privilege. A person with high self-esteem has privilege relative to a person who struggles with self-dislike. Someone who has worked through his or her personal history has advantage over someone who has not. Someone who has suffered through a traumatic or violent childhood and has come out strong may be more centered than a person who has led a sheltered life. A person who feels close to a spiritual source has a great luck and may learn to use that for the benefit of all. Those who have been close to death have a connection to eternity that others lack.
One privilege that all people with rank share is the privilege to not be aware of the suffering of the other side. When an individual or group with rank can open up to the agony of the other side, a deeper level of connection may occur.
Unconscious power or privilege leads us to keep-out or ignore those who are different. Having higher rank, power or privilege can even lead us to think that we are innately superior to those with less power or privilege. Thus, those with less rank in a given situation seek justice and revenge for past hurts and abuses.
Mainstream groups project parts of themselves onto minority groups and vice versa. Worldwork includes helping individuals and groups embrace disavowed parts of themselves. This is vital for the health of mainstream and non-mainstream alike. Thus, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc., requires not only legal and political solutions, but identity work, healing and education.
Abuse and Revenge
Issues of abuse and revenge are a problem of every system where power, rank and privilege differentials exist. Mindell* defines abuse as the use of physical, personal, or social/political power or force against an individual or group who cannot defend them. Groups typically rise to power and seek to punish formerly powerful groups or any group, which threatens their identity. Through studying history, we can see this cycle of privilege and revenge, as groups continuously overthrow one another.
Because of past abuses and the unconscious need for revenge, those in power become unconsciously addicted to their power. We do not experience our privilege because we are still hurting from our own past abuse. Thus, working on rank and privilege requires working on abuse and the desire for revenge, on all sides.
Growing up in oppressive, racist, sexist, classist and homophobic cultures is abusive to us all. Living under political dictatorship is another form of abuse. People surviving such political systems speak of the terrible psychological and emotional damage done to them. Abuse, whether familial, social or political, severely undermines people’s capacity to participate in society. It drives people inward, silences them and destroys their confidence, and makes them afraid to speak up or say what they believe to be true. Without knowledge of the effects of abuse and oppression upon individuals and groups, sustainable and democratic social change rarely happens.
*Arnold Mindell: “Sitting in the Fire, Large Group Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity” Published by Lao Tse Press, Portland 1995