Here in North Carolina there’s a peculiar conjunction of weather conditions, my metabolism and tennis that strikes during the winter months. We get these incredibly humid yet quite chilly evenings; and when I run around and get sweaty, my glasses steam up. Instantly, repeatedly, despite applications of everything from spit to “Cat Crap,” an industrial-strength anti-fog product. This is inconvenient for seeing the ball, which is a condition of competence in this sport, so I have finally broken down and gotten contact lenses. Ew, sticking stuff on my eyeball. But cheaper and probably less repellent than joining an indoor tennis club.
Well, like many eggheads who used to read books under the covers with a weak flashlight and continue to do most of their visual work up close, I’m nearsighted. Not a candidate for bifocals yet; my glasses correct for distance and mess up my near vision, so when I’m reading I put my glasses up on top of my head, one of those odd old fart mannerisms kids get a kick out of.
This does not work, however, with contacts. And I have to wear them some in preparation for my second appointment for the optometrist to confirm the prescription. And it’s been raining, so no tennis. So here I am squinting at the computer screen and the syllabi I’m reviewing, with my head swimming; laughing at myself and thinking about what a privilege vision is, not to mention the option of correcting it, and for no better reason than to play a game marginally less badly. What a life.
What does privilege mean here? In many ways I feel like I live better than medieval kings. Flush toilets are a particular favorite. Not growing my own food or making my own clothing. Entertainment beamed at me from every angle. The wisdom of all humanity a few clicks away. Whether these things make life better is debatable — our self-help literature attests to our relative misery, and Paleolithic cave painters may have been the most deeply satisfied humans in history — but many of the billions of humans now living without my amenities seem to think they’re pretty desirable.
In fact, ‘privilege’ is a way of attaching judgment to desirable difference, just as ‘stigma’ is a way of attaching judgment to undesirable difference. This is a pretty elementary way of thinking – that’s the problem with it. Quickly for siblings, later for only children, we learn that Others got stuff — things, relationships, abilities, skills, the blue m&m, Mom’s undivided attention, the seat behind Dad in the car, Twinkies in the lunchbox — we don’t got. A sense of ‘fairness’ is born out of pure envy rooted in raw diversity. As we grow older and reach our pre-teens this infantile invidia is transformed into a primitive moral system, either immediately as a claim on anything anyone else has, or mediately as an offer of everything we have to everyone else.
Fortunately, no serious adult would ever articulate a position so transparently narcissistic. Difference is a feature of the world that may well pass without judgment and its emotional responses: “Get rid of the judgment, get rid of the ‘I am hurt,’ you are rid of the hurt itself.” Even so, I’d like it if everyone who wanted to could play tennis, in contact lenses, on the roofs of skyscrapers in Dubai.