Checking our privilege
Words can mean different things in different contexts.
Privilege is one of those words.
In diplomacy, privileges relate to something specific. They relate to our privileges and immunities, the rules by which all states that are signatory to the Vienna Conventions agree, which govern how diplomacy is conducted and diplomats and their households are treated.
These privileges and immunities ensure diplomats and their family units have relatively unfettered movement around the globe. They ensure that hosting states have dedicated lanes at immigration and customs checkpoints for diplomats on official business. They ensure that diplomatic households are entitled to domestic help in their residences to help with official functions. They even offer otherwise extraordinary immunity from criminal prosecution in a host country.
Then there’s the discussion about privilege that we’re learning about in wider civil society. This privilege challenges us all to critically assess how our backgrounds and political, social and economic structures have been constructed for some, but not all, citizens. This critical assessment is a good thing.
What happens when both interpretations of privileges intersect?
For diplomats and those who live the diplomatic life
I travelled a lot on my diplomatic passports. It never stopped being a little exciting to enter a country through the diplomatic line at immigration. This was especially the case when the queue for the other lines snaked way beyond the immigration counters.
It was also exciting to get diplomatic license plates for a car. It was extremely helpful to be waved through military or police checkpoints by simply pointing down at those plates when asked to stop by serious people holding big guns.
It was exciting to ride in the ambassador’s vehicle with their Excellency in the car, weaving through traffic with the flag flying from the front of the vehicle.
It was touching to be treated as a very special guest when visiting offices of the host government or local schools. It’s also lovely to get tickets to special events like the opening night of a new theatre production.
It’s also beyond lovely to have accommodation provided for you – sometimes at no cost – and the maintenance on that property taken care of by the office.
All these privileges are there to help us focus on that which is important: the job.
To diplomats and those who live the diplomatic life, at least some of these are taken for granted at some point. While these privileges are expected for the job, the privileges can seep into the core of our beings. We can lose ourselves in the job and derive our sense of self from it. This influences our perception of reality.
We can forget that we breathe rarefied air. We can forget that we’re benefiting from a system and rules that have been designed to help us live and work with relative ease.
Yes, the job can be tough. The whole diplomatic life can be tough on us mentally, physically and emotionally. But when we breathe that rarefied air day-in and day-out, we can forget what regular life is like.
What are we to do?
We need to check our privileges.
I am an able-bodied, white CIS-gendered man. While I am proudly gay, I’m not discriminated against like other members of the LGBTIQ+ communities. Perhaps I’ve even benefitted from being in the closet for almost 30 years. I’ve surely benefitted from a world-class private school education in a stable and safe political, social and economic environment. I've benefitted from a great education from one of the world's best universities. I’ve rarely gone hungry. There have always been clothes on my back and a warm bed to sleep in. I’ve had – and made – choices.
This is privilege.
I’ve benefitted from a system designed by people like me for people like me. I am privileged.
For all that, I’ve felt frustration when things didn’t go my way; when things didn’t go how I thought they should go. I felt that other people – fellow humans – were thwarting my progress at work and in life.
I needed to have a good long, hard look at myself in the mirror when I realised that I’d forgotten that I was a human first, and a diplomat second.
I’d breathed the rarefied air and it had seeped into my being. I'd become entitled.
How about you? What are your privileges?
I don’t write this post to start a conversation about being woke or to start a competition about who is the woke-est. I write this post to start a conversation about how we all can use our privilege to see others and – importantly – to listen to others in a real, meaningful way.
Diplomacy is done away from public view. The work is done with people in the local political, commerce or academic spheres. The only time the public engages with diplomacy and diplomats is when they see something on the news in response to a disaster, or when they see a diplomatic license plate or see the empty queue at immigration and customs checkpoints. The fact is that diplomacy is done by people who are generally extremely highly educated, are highly aware and engaged in the state of the world.
Knowing this, I have a few questions for you.
How connected is your workplace to the community it’s in? Does your office support local charities? Does that support extend to engaging beyond the senior-most members of local charities? Does it involve you and other people in your office volunteering your skills and expertise in some way in the local community with real people?
Can you allow me to dream?
I often imagine a world in which diplomats and those who live the diplomatic life prioritise being active members of the communities in which they live. This is the reason for the ‘and the world around them’ in my tagline: Reconnecting diplomats and those who live the diplomatic life to themselves and the world around them.
By communities, I don’t mean only the corporate, academic or political spheres, but the communities in which real people live and work.
This may be a fanciful notion, but in Chapter 8 of my book ‘The Lonely Diplomat: reconnecting with yourself and the world around you’, I share more detailed thoughts about how we as a global community can use our skills, talents and interests to engage in real, lasting and meaningful dialogue with the communities in which we live.
The chapter ends with me writing:
It gives me chills to think of the latent power of the global diplomatic community giving back in its way to the communities in which they live. The collective skills, interests and experience of extremely talented and clever people can make a significant difference to those around us.
It’s time to listen to those around us and use our privileges – all of them – for good.
I’d love to hear what you and your embassy are doing to connect with your community, wherever you are in the world. Share your work with me through a message on social media or by sending me an email. I’d love to highlight some of the great work being done around the world in an upcoming episode of The Lonely Diplomat podcast.
Thanks for reading!
A reminder that ‘Minister’ and ‘Ambassador’-level members of The Lonely Diplomat can access my mentoring services and can talk to me regularly – and in real time – about what’s happening in their diplomatic life and receive wisdom distilled from lived experience as a posted diplomat, an accompanying spouse, a parent AND as someone whose relationship ended while on a diplomatic posting. Become a member here.
Thank you for reading this post. I really appreciate your support and I hope that my work continues to serve, support, challenge and inspire you as you reconnect with yourself and the world around you.
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Important notice: All views expressed above do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.