The Unprivilege Dimension

If we look at life as an optimization problem, what privilege does is to remove one or more dimensions from the space in which people must optimize in order to succeed.

The impact on people who don’t have the benefit of privilege is simple. They have a harder time solving life’s optimization problem.

As obvious as this seems, it is counterintuitive to people who are privileged. They are solving the optimization problem where privilege isn’t a variable. It doesn’t even exist.

It is like human beings trying to understand what it would be like to move around in a 4 dimensional physical space. Having never experienced 4 dimensions, we have no way to truly imagine it. We can conceptualize it using mathematical abstractions and figure out some of the properties of a 4 dimensional space. But this is hard and few people do it.

People who are privileged—particularly smart, successful people who have done a great job solving life’s optimization problem—also often have very strong convictions about the existence of a meritocracy. That’s because their lower dimensional reality is a meritocracy. The truth of their position is unassailable… in the space in which they are operating.

Let’s make a little model to solidify the analogy. First, let’s create a dimension for the absence of privilege. For convenience I will call it U for “unprivilege”. Privileged people are operating in an N-dimensional space where U doesn’t exist. People without the benefit of privilege are operating in an N+1 dimensional space that includes U. In this N+1 dimensional space, privileged people are operating on the N dimensional plane where U = 0.

Since people with privilege are making most of the decisions that determine the outcomes for others, most of the success in life happens where U = 0. Many of the obstacles that impede success exist where U ≠ 0, and therefore beyond the understanding of people with privilege.

In claiming that their company or industry is a meritocracy, for example, privileged people are pointing at an optimum in their N dimensional space and saying with sincerity, “Look, anyone can get here taking the same route as me!” They don’t see how hard it can be to navigate parts of the space where U ≠  0.

One of the things that breaks privileged folks out of their N dimensional thinking is ironically, but essentially, one of the things that is hard for them to understand: Negative tone. In their space, negative tone is not required in order to solve the optimization problem. So initially they will reject it as unnecessary and unproductive. But at some point, they will start to question why it exists at all. The simple explanation that all those people expressing themselves angrily are just unpleasant people won’t hold up. Like physicists struggling to explain the universe in 3 dimensions, they will realize that there must be dimensions beyond the ones that they currently conceive.

Then they will start to see the effects of privilege and start to conceptualize what it must be like to operate in a space with the extra (N+1)th dimension.