His priv­i­lege made him do it

The Prince George Citizen - - Opinion - MOLLY ROBERTS WASH­ING­TON POST

Peo­ple in the United States might feel a smidge of schaden­freude at our neigh­bour’s strug­gle with a trans­gres­sion alarm­ingly com­mon among politi­cians here at home – if only our own schaden weren’t so tremen­dous. Still, there’s some­thing about the Justin Trudeau story that makes it es­pe­cially hard to ig­nore, and his ex­pla­na­tion for his be­hav­iour gets right at it.

“I came from a place of priv­i­lege... but now I have to ac­knowl­edge that that comes with a mas­sive blind spot,” Trudeau told re­porters in the lat­est of his mul­ti­ple apolo­gies for his mul­ti­ple mis­takes. “The fact of the mat­ter is I’ve al­ways – and you’ll know this – been more en­thu­si­as­tic about cos­tumes than is some­times ap­pro­pri­ate,” he told re­porters in the first in­stance.

Trudeau’s crit­ics, of course, have been say­ing he loves cos­tumes for a long time now. He masks the shal­low­ness of his com­mit­ment to the First Na­tions peo­ple with a tat­too based on a Haida de­sign on his sculpted left tri­ceps; he cam­ou­flages a re­treat from wel­com­ing refugees with a con­stant flow of lovely lan­guage con­demn­ing Pres­i­dent Trump’s xeno­pho­bia.

Yet the trou­ble with Trudeau’s com­ment comes not only from cast­ing modern-day min­strelsy as just an­other “cos­tume,” or even in the coy fa­mil­iar­ity Trudeau as­sumes his au­di­ence has with his pro­cliv­ity for dress-up. No, the trou­ble comes from the con­cept that en­thu­si­asm is an ex­cuse – as if Trudeau were a small child who sim­ply could not help him­self from dressing up in Ja­maican garb and singing the ba­nana boat song, or dressing up as a tur­baned char­ac­ter from Aladdin for an Ara­bian Nights party, or dressing up as what­ever he’s sup­posed to look like in the lat­est dark makeup video, be­cause, gosh, it was just so fun!

Trudeau speaks with the bash­ful­ness of a man who ex­pects sym­pa­thy from a coun­try that adores him as a fa­ther does his lit­tle boy. That’s fit­ting for the scion of a Que­be­cois dy­nasty and son of for­mer prime min­is­ter, the late Joseph Philippe Pierre Yves El­liott Trudeau. He didn’t do bet­ter be­cause he didn’t “know bet­ter,” and he didn’t know bet­ter be­cause no one ever taught him.

Justin Trudeau sounds a bit like the adult ver­sion of the no­to­ri­ous af­fluenza teen who drunk­enly drove a Ford F-350 into more than 14 peo­ple and killed four, then had a psy­chol­o­gist tes­tify that his per­mis­sive up­bring­ing in a world of wealth had left him ig­no­rant of the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of his ac­tions. You see, your Hon­our, he was never told “no.”

That Trudeau is a rel­a­tively lib­eral politi­cian liv­ing in a rel­a­tively lib­eral coun­try – one that mar­kets it­self as a haven of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and tol­er­ance – likely am­pli­fied the prob­lem. He never learned a les­son be­cause he was al­ways get­ting gold stars for do­ing rel­a­tively lib­eral things.

It’s ob­vi­ous what’s wrong with treat­ing the thing that caused in­sen­si­tive be­hav­ior as a rea­son you ex­pect for­give­ness for that same in­sen­si­tive be­hav­ior. Ig­no­rance won’t go away if it jus­ti­fies it­self. There’s a catch, though: Trudeau isn’t wrong.

Trudeau says he “didn’t un­der­stand how hurt­ful this is to peo­ple who live with dis­crim­i­na­tion every sin­gle day,” be­cause he doesn’t live with dis­crim­i­na­tion every day. It’s a cop-out on one level, but on an­other his words un­der­score a pre­cept of re­spon­si­ble iden­tity pol­i­tick­ing: check your priv­i­lege, the ex­hor­ta­tion-turned-cliché goes. It means ac­knowl­edge your ad­van­tages – both how they’ve helped you, and how they limit you when it comes to comprehend­ing others’ less-charmed lives.

The line be­tween check­ing priv­i­lege as a re­spon­si­ble ex­er­cise and check­ing priv­i­lege as an ir­re­spon­si­ble ex­cuse might de­pend on what “check” means. Does it mean just tak­ing a look at to make sure the priv­i­lege is there, and then declar­ing it as if you were pass­ing through cus­toms? You’ve ad­mit­ted you have it, so now you’re off the hook? Or does it mean check­ing it like you check a coat? You leave it be­hind, and you leave your­self ex­posed to all those con­se­quences the priv­i­lege has so far per­mit­ted you to avoid?

What Trudeau teaches us is that there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween in­sist­ing that you didn’t see some­thing and in­sist­ing that you couldn’t see some­thing – be­tween blam­ing your for­tu­nate cir­cum­stances for your fail­ure and blam­ing your­self, then ac­cept­ing what­ever comes your way be­cause you failed.

“I didn’t con­sider it racist at the time,” Trudeau said, “but now we know bet­ter.”

There’s the es­sen­tial ques­tion: Do we re­ally?

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