Opinion: The dangers of relative deprivation


Bobbie Szabo

Bobbie Szabo

I have recently been reading a fair amount of texts written by heterosexual, cisgender, white men who feel frustrated by our current political climate. They feel they are being shunned from the left and demonized on the right.

These feelings are legitimate, as they are based on these individuals’ perceptions of their own personal experiences.

The feelings of frustration, exclusion and inequality the cishet white men are experiencing are a result of a phenomenon called “relative deprivation.”

Relative deprivation is the idea that those who are in positions of power or who are at the top of social hierarchies feel as though they are being oppressed when those at the bottom of social hierarchies gain ground in their movements.

Imagine a blue stick figure standing at the top of a 39-foot ladder leaning against a 40-foot cliff. Imagine a red figure standing at the top of a 10-foot ladder leaning against that same cliff.

At the top of the cliff is an abundance of food, water and shelter.

The blue stick figure must only overcome a one-foot gap between itself and the necessary aspects of survival, and it does so with ease. The red stick figure has a 30-foot gap to overcome and does not succeed in doing so.

In this analogy, the blue stick figure has a significant advantage over the red figure simply because it does. The blue figure cannot help it; it did not ask for the privilege or for the red stick figure to be so unlucky in comparison.

But the blue figure had the opportunity to get the food, and the red figure was unable to get what it needed to survive.

Similarly, the way the social and political hierarchies are currently set up in our countries, marginalized populations are left stranded on 10-foot ladders, while those in the majority sit at the top of the cliff.

Sometimes, though, someone notices the inequality and injustice being done to the red stick figures in our world. Perhaps even a blue figure notices the injustice and throws down a rock climbing manual to the red stick figure so it can learn how to climb the cliff and get the food.

A blue stick figure experiencing relative deprivation would see that and say, “But I didn’t get a rock climbing manual! I had to climb the cliff on my own!”

This is true. The blue figures did not get a rock climbing manual, but they also did not need one.

The same can be said for the heterosexual, cisgender and white men who are feeling vilified and ignored in our current political climate — especially those in the far left.

After years of experiencing systematic advantages through little or no fault of their own, they find themselves in situations in which the voices and opinions of members of marginalized communities are held to the same esteem as their own— perhaps even more.

Although the white man is not truly losing anything in this scenario — as his voice is still being heard and fellow white men still hold nearly every single position of power in our country — he sees the gains being made by those in marginalized communities and feels as though he is losing something.

Relative deprivation is one of the sensations that caused the outcome of November’s election.

White men saw the advances made by queer people, people of color, women and immigrants, and they felt like they were being ignored. They felt like they were losing out on something they deserved — like the members of marginalized communities were getting special privileges to which the white man had never been privy.

Relative deprivation can be dangerous, and it is important for those who experience it to recognize it and gain some other perspectives on the issue.

But it is also important for those who do not experience it to recognize it and learn how to combat the phenomenon.  

Bobbie Szabo is a columnist, contact her at [email protected]