Noblesse Oblige, a concept I was introduced to through my dad. It’s a French phrase literally meaning ‘nobility obliges’, or as we were taught during the initiation period at my university koshuis (aka hostel, residence, college, fraternity) which had it as its motto, ‘the nobility sets obligations’. Did we consider ourselves part of the nobility? Yes we did. Were our actions always noble and the sort you would advise your kids to imitate? No not at all, we were arrogant, self-obsessed students. But that does not change the principle however, and that is what I wish to discuss here.
What it basically comes down to is that together with privilege comes responsibility or as Spiderman puts it, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. A few things going around in the news in the last while got me thinking about this.
First up, the world was made aware of the famine in Somalia earlier this year, described by many as ‘the worst humanitarian disaster in the world’. The sad thing about it is that in our news-driven, information consuming society you’d think it has been dealt with but as the shock factor wears off and new stories are brought in to sell the papers, the people are still actually busy dying. Of course none of us can help everywhere all the time and we only commit where we consider the biggest present need to be but what was quite shocking to me was what I read in the comment sections of many online publications reporting on the famine and drought. Many inhabitants of well-structured, decently managed, 1st world nations simply suggested their governments and fellow citizens shouldn’t help seeing that the Somalians (and countries like that) are eating the fruits of ignorance, greed and corruption. They are in fact eating those fruits but whose ignorance, greed and corruption? And is there not an obligation on noble nations to respond regardless?
Then closer to home, a lot of discussion has been going on surrounding the privileged position most white South Africans find themselves in as a result of Apartheid policies implemented during the latter part of the 20th century. Opinions range from ‘whites ought to be ashamed of the privilege they obtained unfairly and they ought to back down or out of the national conversation even’ to ‘all wealthy South Africans, regardless of their skin colour, ought to be taxed to help relieve poverty’ to ‘the white man should fight to defend his privileged position he worked so hard for’. Once again, will we fight for our right to enjoy privilege or will we instead recognise and accept our own privilege and together with it the obligation which accompanies it?
Lastly, following the death of Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc., the past week and the global grieving that went with it, the picture below started to circulate around the web. I get what it says and I agree with it: we tend to care only (more) about that which we can benefit from, and that certain lives are more valuable than others. It gives us perspective in a harsh way which is sometimes necessary. What it’s not saying however, although many will unfortunately read this message into it, is that we shouldn’t honour great achievements and celebrate great minds, or that we should rather avoid wealth and prosperity and focus solely on the poor and starving. It wasn’t aimed at or demeaning Jobs you fool, it was aimed at the rest of us, the ones worshipping celebrities and our own interests.
These are just three unrelated stories which made me think about the concepts of privilege, wealth and power, versus extreme need and desperation. Who is part of the nobility and who isn’t? Who is obligated to act for the sake of others and who isn’t? I believe it is a case of everyone being someone else’s Tad Hamilton: everyone is to a lesser or greater extent nobility in relation to others and have an obligation to act for the good of their neighbour by using the platform(s) they do own.
The extent to which we will feel obliged to care and act will once again depend greatly on our personal answer to the following questions: Is there a moral obligation to act on behalf of those in need resting on all of us for which we will be held accountable or are all good deeds in the end in vain seeing that finally it’s all about the survival of the fittest? Is privilege, as a position, because of our own doing and for our own comfort or is it a gift which enables us to serve others?
Basically, does the nobility have an obligation or may they simply bathe in their own privilege?
My final thought: embrace your privilege, claim your nobility, accept your obligation and serve others with it.