Thursday, November 4, 2010

Privilege and Needs

by Miki Kashtan

What is it that makes us so attached to privilege when we have it? I have seen a lot of polarity in discussions about privilege, with people who have little access to class, race or gender privilege often having disparaging views about those who do have such access, while those who do have the privilege feeling confused, ashamed or guilty, but nonetheless unable to make a decisive stand on it in terms of their own lives.

I remember in particular a striking example that happened in 1994. I was at the time part of a group of people who were very committed to a shared vision of a transformed society, similar in many respects to the vision that I am working towards these days. At one point in one gathering of the group, the person who was facilitating the gathering asked the people present what would get in their way of committing a significant portion of their income or savings to the joint project. As people responded to the question, I noticed the very vivid level of fear about having nothing left which leaked out of them. I understood then that the key to making sense of the difficulty lay in understanding the nature of the fear.

I have thought about that moment a lot over the years. The question seems even more pressing today, because our very survival as a species, it seems to me, depends on being able to reduce our consumption of resources dramatically. Because I am completely committed to doing so without coercion, I am called to find the root of the issue, so that letting go of privileged access to resources will be seen as attractive rather than a giving up.

These days, with my deep grounding in the centrality of human needs, I have an understanding that I want to put out in the hopes of generating further discussion. I am hungry for leverage to create a peaceful, collaborative transformation in how we live.
My understanding at this point is that privilege is a substitute for real needs. While I don’t believe that any explicit conversations take place about this with children, I have a sense that an implicit process takes place in which we are first cut off from the hope that we can get our real needs met. We are made terrified and hopeless, and actually give up any belief in getting our real needs met, often to the point of losing track of what those needs might be. This gets reinforced later by theories (such as Freud’s) that tell us that our true, unconscious drives are insatiable and can never be fulfilled. I know how often I meet people who dismiss the idea of the real possibility of having their needs met.

Then privilege is offered to some of us as something we can have. Although privilege is a very meager substitute for our real needs, it becomes the only thing possible to have. This is how I currently understand the sometimes desperate clinging to privilege: it looks to us as if giving up the privilege would amount to giving up everything, since the real needs cannot even be experienced. The fear of the void and the nothingness is so strong, that oftentimes it can obscure our own clarity of vision about how we want the world to be.

With this framework in mind, I have set out to identify pairs consisting of a real need and the privilege that's offered as a substitute for it. In each case, the privilege end of the pair supports the existing structure of society. I also like to believe that if more and more of us reconnected and reclaimed fully the needs that we gave up, by necessity this would make us subversive, agents of change. I see comfort as the cement that holds it all in place. Comfort when we have privilege, and comfort in the familiarity of the numbness and craving of privilege that we have when we are, like so so many people in this country and everywhere, without our real needs met and without access to privilege. This understanding provides some relief, some tenderness, lots of compassion for why change is so hard.

In my next post I plan to present the pairs I have identified, and explore what we might do to support ourselves and others in overcoming this key obstacle to transformation.


  1. Your post here reminds me of the book "The Society of the Spectacle" by Guy Debord (

    Here is a particularly relevant and poignant quote from that Wikipedia page:

    "Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation: "All that was once directly lived has become mere representation." Debord argues that the history of social life can be understood as "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing." This condition, according to Debord, is the "historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life."

  2. A lovely post, Miki; thank you.

    A possible example of the contrast between privilege and needs is a recent story about longer life expectancies for Hispanic-Americans vs. non-Hispanic whites. Hispanic-Americans are certainly less privileged (much lower incomes, less education, less health insurance, the stress of racial prejudices), which "should" mean shorter lifespans. But perhaps there are cultural factors that contribute to other needs being met, including close social and family networks - and meeting those needs contributes to much better health, despite the lack of privilege.

    One of the many stories about this is at

    Thanks again,


  3. Thank you for putting into clear words what I've been grappling with for a long time. I've experienced the very word 'need' as an unwanted word; those who 'have' claim to have created that having by themselves, never asking for collaboration in meeting needs. Those who claim 'needs' are scolded as being 'selfish' and not 'really needing' but just 'wanting' what's not needed.

    My point is: there's a social shaming and vulnerability in admitting one's needs to others, and moreso in asking others to help getting needs met. The myth of privilege distorts the meaning of needs, and (pretends to) values the forfeiting of needs as a great ideal.

    Those with privilege then also live in utter fear of losing the substitutes they've gleaned, for fear of nothingness, as you so clearly described. So we find ourselves worshipping the substitutes (golden calf?) obsessively, as the only and best goal attainable.

    I'm left with: how to penetrate that thick wall of protection that privilege has built to guard its substitutes and itself from the unbearable pain of seeing the truth?


  4. Miki, I wonder if, as you write, comfort is the glue. Perhaps it is habit, rather than comfort. I wonder, too, if deep grief and mourning must precede change and people are fearful of taking on the pain that comes with real grief? Jon

  5. Can't wait to see the next post and the pairs of needs/privileges. As perhaps a sidebar to this discussion, I suspect that those of us with privilege--and as a white Anglo straight male, I certainly qualify--aren't even aware that we have privilege, let alone these deep-seated needs. It's easy, I think, for the privileged to just assume that the way their lives run is normal for everyone. I'm trying to break through that perspective in my own life, but my goodness, it never fails to amaze me how pervasive it is.

  6. Miki,
    I feel sad that I hardly understand your post.
    I can only understand simple words, sentences, ideas.
    I'd be happy if you or someone else can tell me in simple phrases what's the post is about.

    ThanK you


  7. Dear Anicca,
    I'll be glad to try to help. I'd prefer if you email me directly and maybe set up a skype call or phone call. Writing is harder than talking for me now.
    This is Shula from CTC and my email is


  8. dear jon,

    i am really appreciating the questions you are raising. i do trust that habit has a lot to do with things staying in place, and still imagine that habit stays in place at least in part because of comfort.

    re grief, i share your perspective that grieving is often essential to change: grieving the losses of not knowing, the losses of separation, the pain of so many things. this is part of why i was suggesting, in the 2nd part of this post, that love would be essential, so there is room for the reality of how people feel.

    thank you again for raising these questions.


  9. To be privileged is to know that you have enough.