The Privilege of Refusal

This is the second of three mini-essays on privilege; the first one is here.

I first began thinking of the privilege of refusal in my attempts to live a simpler, more minimalist life.  I came to the realization that I know when I rid myself of an item, I am able to replace it if I really need it after all.  It is safe for me to refuse or reject things because all of my needs are easily met.

Any time something is refused it is a manifestation of privilege, even if the individual refusing is in need of the offering.  Consider a hungry man who refuses a meal.  Why would he possibly do so?  It could easily be as a sacrifice for his child, because he chooses to adhere to a particular diet backed by moral or religious reasons, because he is confident of receiving food later by other means, or simply out of pride.  In each possibility, the man is blessed with a privilege that enables him to make that choice.

Many instances of selfishness are cases of opting-out of a community or a discussion: all forms of refusal.  When individuals are required to depend on and interact with each other, they are forced to give so that they can receive.  As an example, a lonely child will likely not refuse friendship, but that same child might easily forget the first friend when another more desirable one comes along.  The first's companionship is refused because the child has the privilege of another friend.

Refusal is powerful--it can cause waste and feelings of rejection in others.  It can make the privileges that enable it apparent to those who do not posses them.  It is much harder to eliminate than bragging, mostly because it has good sides too.  It can also reduce waste and enable generosity.  Given this power, how should we wield it?

Actions are often taken myopically, without considering the full impact of the decision, for better or worse.  However, if we were to consider the elaborate system of possibilities for every minute choice we make, we wouldn't accomplish anything; at some point we must act with an approximate understanding and move on.  Similar to the privilege of complaint, we can use refusal to help ourselves understand our privileges.  With introspection we can improve our approximate understanding of the world, hopefully allowing us to make better choices.

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