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A Divergent Review

  • Posted on August 18, 2014 at 10:00 AM

I can’t remember for sure, but I think my initial reaction to the buzz about Veronica Roth’s Divergent was, “Not another dystopian novel!” I didn’t pay much attention to the hype; then again, I rarely ever do. Besides, I rarely have the time to devote to leisure reading, so I tend to stick to books that I know I’ll like—it’s not like there aren’t enough of those to keep me entertained for the next few decades.

At some point, I caught on to the premise of the story. Tris, the main character, is different in a world (or what’s left of it) that considers difference a bad thing. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Except, this story is set in the remnants of Chicago after a cataclysmic war. If you know anything about contemporary Chicago, then you know its population is full of diversity and probably couldn’t get over being different in any foreseeable future, no matter how devastated that future might be. If the movie is any indication, then this attribute of Chicago is at least partially recognized in Roth’s vision because the movie shows at least some of the racial differences that can be seen in contemporary Chicago. The cultural differences, however, have been sacrificed for the sake of survival. In their place, new differences have emerged, dependent solely on the dominant nature of the individuals: intellectuals, self-sacrificing servants, compassionate agriculturalists, honest judges, and courageous warriors.

Based on the movie (I still haven’t gotten a chance to read the book), I’d have to say that I fit most closely with the Erudite or intellectuals. It’s not because I’m power-hungry, as they prove to be in the movies, but because, especially through my young adulthood, I have usually valued my intellect the most. I can be selfless, I can be brave, I can be kind, and I can be honest. In fact, I try to be all of those things most of the time. But if I had to choose just one, then I would go with intelligence, because I like to solve problems by thinking them through.

Based on the issue of conformity, rather my lack thereof, I would be divergent as it’s described in the movie. Then again, so would most of the people I know. Whether that’s a reflection of the people I know or whether it’s a reflection of the impracticality of the faction ideal, I don’t know. Still, the idea that nonconformists are perceived by those that hold down the status quo is very familiar.

The world is full of people in the here and now that view difference, divergence, and non-conformity as threats to their way of life, even when the people who are different, divergent, and non-conforming don’t actually have anything to do with their life. That is very true to human nature and that fear is the source of the most violent, dangerous aspects of human nature. Ironically, it’s also those parts of human nature that Erudite Jeanine embraced—that and the desire for power.

Giving the selfless the responsibility to govern and administer was a wise allocation of human resources, if a rather futile one. The people who want power the least are those who are going to treat it most responsibly, but they are also the least likely to hold onto it. This is why, despite our best efforts and our best claims about public service, we haven’t been able to create a government or nonprofit sector that consistently serves and protects the interests of all of the people. Unfortunately, these sectors tend to fail the people who are in the most danger the most frequently, because they are inevitably those with the least power.

In the movie, the solution is for a few brave souls to stand up, challenge the power-hungry destroyers, and save the day. In reality, it’s rarely so simple. Government bends in the face of power, especially the power of the most powerful of its own people. The least powerful are in the most danger, precisely because they lack the power to make the government bend towards them. In a democratic state, the only defense we have is to stand together; weaving what power we have into a stronger tapestry than any of us can make for ourselves. By working together and fighting for and with each other, we show those in power that we have enough power that we’re worth bending towards. This isn’t accomplished by separating into factions, but by uniting under a banner of freedom and equality, regardless of the differences that make us “divergent.” Therein lies our power.

On Privilege

  • Posted on March 9, 2010 at 9:04 AM

Over the last several months I have been exposed to a lot of statements regarding privilege.  This concept of privilege has been used to cite “white privilege,” “straight privilege” and “neurotypical privilege,” just to name a few.  These concepts seek to describe the discrepancy of treatment between individuals among a majority and a minority.

From the minority perspective, this language describes experienced differences.  In other words, the discrepancy is real.  However, this does not make the concept of privilege (as used in this context) real.  It is this concept I seek to address.

Consider a few of the dictionary definitions of privilege:

  1. a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most
  2. a special right, immunity, or exemption granted to persons in authority or office to free them from certain obligations or liabilities
  3. any of the rights common to all citizens under a modern constitutional government

The dictionary definition of privilege does not support the use of the word in the context of a discrepancy between the majority and the minority.  For example, men tend to be assumed competent in work situations whereas women are more likely to be assumed incompetent in the same situation.  The men who are assumed competent are not privileged; the women who are assumed incompetent are disadvantaged.  There is a subtle, but significant difference.

Consider a few of the dictionary definitions of disadvantage:

  1. absence or deprivation of advantage or equality
  2. to subject to disadvantage

The word disadvantage more accurately describes the discrepancy of treatment.  Being privileged suggests that you are getting something you shouldn’t have, that you are being treated as special or above the norm.  If you are assumed to be competent at your job, you are not being treated special and you are not being assessed as above the norm.  You are being treated fairly.  On the other hand, being disadvantaged suggests that you are being denied something you should have, that you are being treated as inferior, below the norm.  If you are assumed to be incompetent at your job, you are being denied fair treatment.

The majority is not being given special rights above what most receive.  The minority is being denied rights and privileges (3rd definition listed) that they are entitled to and put at a disadvantage.

So, the use of privilege to describe the discrepancy between the majority and the minority is linguistically and rhetorically incorrect.  Perhaps more importantly, it’s also politically damaging.  When you accuse someone of being privileged, you are saying they have a benefit they are not entitled to.  This puts that person on the defensive.  Unless they are highly sympathetic to your cause, they are going to resist your false accusation and miss your valid claim of discrepancy of treatment.  You are discredited for making a false accusation; the real meat of your message isn’t even heard.  On the other hand, if the person is highly sympathetic to your cause, they are going to feel guilty, because they’ve internalized your false accusation and will feel responsible for having a benefit they shouldn’t or, more accurately, for having the benefit you were denied through no fault of their own.

Whether the individual you accuse of being privileged is sympathetic or not, a statement regarding privilege implies that individual has done something wrong by being “privileged.”  They’ve done nothing wrong (at least, not by accepting their “privilege”), because they are being treated fairly.  The wrong is not in the majority having privileges (3rd definition again), but in the minority being denied these same privileges.  Thus, the majority isn’t privileged (1st or 2nd definition), the minority is disadvantaged.

People need to understand the discrepancy of treatment between the majority and the minority.  When you’re in the majority, it’s difficult to imagine that those ordinary, every-day benefits you take for granted are denied to others on the basis of spurious reasons like skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or neurological makeup.  People need to learn about the real examples of these discrepancies.  Listing the benefits they enjoy and take for granted that are denied to others is an effective way to make people aware of the real discrepancies minority groups experience.  But calling them privileges is a mistake.  It conveys the wrong message.  It is inaccurate, because it is the wrong word.  Leave privileged to the powerful few—the senators and CEOs, the princes and dictators, the celebrities and the tycoons—and stick to accurate words that describe the majority, like benefits, rights, and advantages.  The difference may be subtle, but truth is powerful.