“Check Your Privilege” Insults Your Intellectual Autonomy

Shortlink:

4525375213_092197ff5b_b

Imagine that you are talking with a friend about some controversial topic of the day—for example, immigration or the conflict in the Middle East. After you make a particularly incisive point, your friend claims that you aren’t intelligent enough to know what you’re talking about. Because of your race.

How would you react to such a charge? Doubtless most readers would take offense and question its basis. While few today will try to dismiss your views on the grounds of your race, there are many who will do so by appealing to other accidents of your birth. They even have a catchphrase.

That catchphrase is “check your privilege.”

In April, Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang set the internet ablaze with a provocative missive in a student publication (later reprinted in Time) challenging that catchphrase. Reportedly, Fortgang had been urged to “check his privilege” after defending his conservative political views on welfare and the national debt. In his piece, he recounted the “privileges” of his Polish Jewish ancestors who were persecuted by the Nazis and Soviets. He implied, of course, that they weren’t actually privileged: because his family had to overcome such obstacles, he suggested that his views should be taken more seriously.

In the controversy that ensued, critics of Fortgang argued that he failed to understand the import of the “check your privilege” mantra. Kristen Howerton, writing in The Huffington Post, claims that the phrase neither asks people to apologize for their privileges, nor dismisses those people’s opinions on the grounds of their privilege. Instead, she says “it’s a way of reminding someone that they may not know or understand what they are talking about.” Others critics of Fortgang have echoed this point.

Perhaps the “privilege checkers” don’t want the privileged to apologize for their privilege or surrender their opinions unilaterally. Even so, their challenge is not simply that we remember the trivial and obvious fact that some people are more privileged than others. When they ask us to check our privilege, they mean it in the sense that we should check our privilege at the door when we engage in a policy debate. What would this mean?

Howerton says we fail to check our privilege when we are “insensitive to the life experiences of others.” She lists a series of opinions that she seems to think one could not hold without being insensitive in this way: for example, one is being insensitive if one thinks the black community overreacted to the Trayvon Martin story, or that gays should stop complaining about marriage rights, or that handicapped parking spaces are unfair. Etc.

Sometimes we can make mistakes by failing to empathize with the position of another. If a teacher prepares an exam that would be easy for him but impossible for his students, it may be because the teacher unjustifiably assumes that the students know more than they possibly could given their education so far. Or if students get angry at a teacher for not returning graded papers right away, it may be because the students unjustifiably assume that the teacher has plenty of free time.

A failure to empathize can also lead to disagreement in politics—but it is not the only reason. Perhaps some people oppose welfare programs because they think the life of indigent people would be easy in the absence of such programs. But many oppose these programs not because they foolishly think that the indigent have it easy, but because they don’t think that the indigent deserve to live an easier life at the expense of others. Whether you agree with that or not, it’s not a belief that clearly results from a failure to empathize. It’s a philosophical belief informed by one’s deepest convictions.

Are our philosophical beliefs nothing more than products of our privilege? Many obsessed with privilege-checking seem to assume that they are. Even esthetic opinions cannot escape the reach of their criticism. Even before the Fortgang controversy, a feminist journalist who said she admired a popular television show even though its cast lacked racial diversity was asked to check her privilege. So was a politician who defended the journalist by saying that griping about privilege never helped women to advance. So were the pundits who agreed with the politician. And so on.

The idea that privilege blinds us to reality, that our philosophical ideas are rationalizations for our social status, is not a new one. It goes back at least as far as the writings of a renowned 19th century German political theorist. He famously argued that ideas are byproducts of our class interests. So a defender of capitalism may be convinced that his system maximizes freedom and prosperity, but his position can be dismissed as mere “bourgeois ideology.” The current obsession with privilege-checking simply generalizes from the critique of economic privilege to critique the privileges of race, gender, and sexual orientation, along with all the other categories of modern identity politics.

But if we shouldn’t attribute an intelligence deficit to members of a disadvantaged race, why should we attribute an objectivity deficit to the advantaged members of society? It is controversial enough to argue that there is a genetic basis for the speed and scope of one’s intellectual processing. To maintain that genetic or environmental factors (especially advantageous ones) create inevitable biases in the quality and validity of one’s philosophical thinking should raise the reddest of red flags.

If I believe only what my upper-middle class parents have raised me to believe—say, to reject the welfare state—then my view results from an appeal to irrelevant authority, not from an appeal to logic. But I can be critical of what my parents tell me, and evaluate it as logical or illogical—even when those beliefs support the right to enjoy my social status. I can decide that my parents’ arguments against the welfare state don’t make sense, and reject their views. But if I can do that, why can’t I also decide that I don’t agree with what my parents say just because they say it, but that I agree with it for reasons of my own? As long as we are capable of independently evaluating the logic of a position, we are capable of objectivity—regardless of how the position complements my social position.

But if I can’t evaluate an argument for or against some political position simply on the basis of its logic and free from prejudice, I lack the ability to be objective. Then I don’t have real intellectual autonomy, which is the essence of human free will. But privilege-checkers think that some political or cultural beliefs result from bias simply because of their content, simply because they support the rights of some members of society who happen to be privileged. This entails a repudiation of human intellectual autonomy and therefore, of free will.

But we are intellectually autonomous and we can be objective. If we couldn’t, we wouldn’t be able to identify any belief as a prejudice. But even privilege-checkers think we can do this, as they are intent on pointing out ways of avoiding prejudice. Unless they are somehow very special and the only ones who can avoid prejudice, all human beings can form objective, unprejudiced beliefs.

If we really want to combat bigotry and prejudice, we need to follow the advice of another, somewhat underappreciated philosopher, and check our premises, not our privilege. That is, we need to identify the major starting points of our arguments and see if they are supported by the facts and by an integrated view of reality.

We began to overcome racism when we checked the premise that African slaves were not rational human beings. We began to overcome sexism when we checked the premise that women were ruled by emotions not rationality. Before these doctrines were rejected by society at large, these premises were usually checked first by the intellectual leaders of the day—who happened to be straight white men in positions of privilege. If they could break free from prejudice through science and logic, we can as well.

Interestingly, we should reject racism and sexism because their most basic premises deny human intellectual autonomy. Both see individual human beings as slaves of their genetics and environment. The privilege checkers who say we cannot help but see the world through the filter of our privilege share this premise. It is the most crucial premise to check—and reject. Just as we are free to reject our parents’ beliefs, we are free to reject the philosophers who reject the existence of that freedom—and of the many catch phrases they have spawned.

 


If you found the ideas in this article provocative, you can learn more about them at The Undercurrent’s Student Conference, this coming fall. Students interested in attending can apply here.

This article was funded by a donor to The Undercurrent who chose the “Personalized article” level of support. If you would like to see TU produce more articles like this, please visit our donation page


 

Creative commons-licensed image from Flickr user no lurvin here

Posted by on August 4, 2014. Filed under Culture, Summer 2014. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
  • Scion

    Just like the title “feminism” it suffers from a gross misunderstanding of its application. The connotations of “feminine” imply women only club. The popular -and incorrect- use of “check your privilege” has been to counter any point a white male has to say rather than requesting more empathy from them… ironically making the user as bigoted & privileged as those they accuse.

  • Brendan Moore

    Another perspective on privilege is that it is a lens through which we see the world. As a white person, I will never have the same experiences as someone who’s grown up black in the United States, and so I simply cannot speak as incisively about those experiences. This does not invalidate my opinion (as the author appears to have conceded early in this article), but it does contextualize it as not emerging out of thin air and from a completely universal standpoint. Utterances are made by people, and people exist within contexts over which they have limited control. I’d say it’s more objective to acknowledge that one’s opinions are in part shaped by the experiences available to them. I can hardly have an opinion on, say, conflict in the Middle East if I haven’t ever heard of such a place. Well, hearing about something is one kind of experience. But living in a place, or doing extensive research on it, or having family ties in that place, are other kinds of experiences which may give one more in-depth knowledge about the subject.

    The bugbear of anti-“PC” people is always this spectral progressive tyrant who oppresses straight white men by simply saying, “Check your privilege.” When, in reality, this is very rarely a statement with force enough to prevent anyone from ACTUALLY uttering their opinions (Cf. Tal Fortgang, this article, etc.). And, further, it is a straw man to claim that we must never consider one’s identity or social position when weighing one’s experientially-based opinions on a subject. For instance, if a rich white person says that it’s easy to live off food stamps, it’s likely they have no idea what they’re talking about. Rather than pursing a kind of rationalism or idealism whereby we assume that every individual is equally positioned to have fully valid opinions on a whole array of subjects, we should recognize that reasoning must go hand-in-hand with experience in most, but not all, domains.

    • Maus Merryjest

      You mean like the constant hordes of liberals who constantly spout opinions about the wealthy and constantly want laws to ‘eat the rich’? I guess they should be checking their privileges too-
      But they don’t, because Social Justice is a rhetoric that only works in one direction.

      • Brendan Moore

        I seriously have no idea what you’re talking about. What privilege are you saying that “hordes of liberals” (presumably none of whom are rich, in your view) have over “the rich” (presumably none of whom are liberal)?

        • Mick Price

          “I will never have the same experiences as someone who’s grown up black in the United States, and so I simply cannot speak as incisively about those experiences. ”
          So if you can’t speak incisively about the experiences of blacks, how can you talk incisively about the experiences of the rich? Because “Check your privilege” isn’t about talking incisively, it’s about getting rich, white, straight, males to shut up.

    • Mick Price

      “But living in a place, or doing extensive research on it, or having family ties in that place, are other kinds of experiences which may give one more in-depth knowledge about the subject.”
      More in-depth than who? Many people will know more about a subject than those who have “family ties in that place”, or “other kinds of experiences”. People who got mugged in the ghetto have “other kinds of experiences” should we listen to them ahead of actual criminologists?

      “The bugbear of anti-“PC” people is always this spectral progressive tyrant who oppresses straight white men by simply saying, “Check your privilege.” When, in reality, this is very rarely a statement with force enough to prevent anyone from ACTUALLY uttering their opinions (Cf. Tal Fortgang, this article, etc.).”

      It’s intended to prevent people uttering their opinions though isn’t it? And as for “very rarely … prevent anyone from ACTUALLY uttering their opinions” how do you know? Those who don’t utter their opinions are very hard to count aren’t they? That so much controversy erupted when someone challenged “Check your privilege” suggests that others are cowed when faced with it.

      ” For instance, if a rich white person says that it’s easy to live off food stamps, it’s likely they have no idea what they’re talking about.”

      But if you wanted to object to that you wouldn’t say “Check your privilege” you’d say “How would you know?”. Let’s suppose that the answer is “Actually I did a year long study on how easy it is to live off food stamps and it’s in a peer-reviewed journal.”. Then privilege would be irrelevant wouldn’t it? In fact “privilege” is utterly irrelevant in every situation I can think of.

      “Rather than pursing a kind of rationalism or idealism whereby we assume that every individual is equally positioned to have fully valid opinions on a whole array of subjects,”

      Who is assuming that? People saying “Check your privilege” aren’t claiming that people don’t have the same knowledge, they’re questioning the right of people to express their opinion or ask question. If someone says something that’s wrong, say how it is wrong. If it’s not wrong nothing about his “privilege” makes it illegitimate to say.

    • J

      Seems like your position, Brendan, is that I cannot judge the convictions and actions of others, since I am not them. What is true for one is not true for another. Our power of reason is limited by the fact that we experience reality in a unique and specific way.
      So do you call yourself a pluralist or a relativist? Or perhaps your convictions cannot be labeled as they are uniquely your own.
      Either way, Perhaps you should “check your privilege”, as a Said loving student of sociology..?, and keep your mouth shut when it comes to those of us who value and speak up for human life (reason, freedom, individual rights). Doing so would be consistent with your premises. After all, who are you to judge the thoughts of others through your own reality-distorting lens.

  • Anna

    The simple reason that “check your privilege” does not help is that it is aggressive communication and therefore does not leave room for deepening understanding. Communication is about both emotion and intellect. It is about human connection and reasoning. Most conflict can find a solution in effective communication – learning about perspective, attitude, culture and other things that influence communication would allow us all to learn and connect more deeply and find common ground to build solutions.

    • Mick Price

      “The simple reason that “check your privilege” does not help is that it is aggressive communication and therefore does not leave room for deepening understanding. ”
      I don’t think it’s really communication at all, at least not about the subject being discussed. It’s only message is “You shouldn’t talk, or I’ll make you feel bad.”.

      • Anna

        “You shouldn’t talk, or I’ll make you feel bad” = aggressive communication.

        • Mick Price

          So it is communication, just not about the subject ostensibly discussed. So we’re both right.

  • Evan C. Paul

    While it does happen that someone is told to check their privilege as an attack from an outsider for their social position, it’s disingenuous to assert that this is the only way, or the most preponderant, that such a tactic is employed.

    This article breaks down strawmen surrounding privilege-checking instead of the actual practice: a way to remind someone or indicate to them that their argument is missing key elements or perspectives which appear to be related to one’s social advantages. The irony is that this author tries to assert that one’s arguments being rebutted are perfectly well-reasoned and that the ones saying to check one’s privilege are simply mistaken–or worse, racist/sexist themselves–rather than realizing that perhaps the argument isn’t as reasoned as one believes *directly because of the blind spots supplied by one’s privilege*.

    • Mick Price

      “a way to remind someone or indicate to them that their argument is missing key elements or perspectives which appear to be related to one’s social advantages.”

      But it doesn’t do that, it simply asserts that their argument is missing that. It’s a claim that because someone is a white/straight/rich/male person they have misunderstood without pointing out a single flaw in what the white/straight/rich/male said.

  • Mick Price

    ” To maintain that genetic or environmental factors (especially advantageous ones) create inevitable biases in the quality and validity of one’s philosophical thinking should raise the reddest of red flags.”
    The people who keep saying “Check your privilege” want more red flags raised.

  • Mick Price

    “check our premises, not our privilege”
    So needs to be on a T-shirt.

  • Goodwood1@gmail.com

    Interesting…all of you agreeing with each other. And talking to each other. And validating each other. Looking just like each other…Check your…fill in the rest.