Long Read, Politics, Privilege, Top Stories

Privilege Checking the Privilege Checkers

Having the privilege conversation is itself an expression of privilege. … It’s not just that commenting online about privilege – or any other topic – suggests leisure time. It’s also that the vocabulary of ‘privilege’ is learned at liberal-arts colleges or in highbrow publications.
~ Phoebe Maltz Bovy, “Checking Privilege Checking,” The Atlantic

All societies are evil, sorrowful, inequitable; and so they will always be. So if you really want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it.
~ Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By

A couple of years ago, while studying law in western Canada, I took a political science course on environmental issues taught by a renowned professor. Having become alarmed at the lack of legal protections for the environment, I hoped to learn more about the politics behind such flagrant and pervasive oversights.

Unfortunately, the class was a bust. Instead of analyzing political thought and behaviour related to our current ecological crisis, the course taught a strange blend of self-help and pseudoscience. We “learned” that atoms have free will, that the Earth purposefully maintains conditions conducive to life, that modern science is naïvely reductionist and therefore urgently in need of a paradigm shift, and that Francis Bacon was one of the main architects behind the modern disconnect from nature.

As I listened to students uncritically accepting these ideas, I grew increasingly concerned with the current state of the social sciences. At the same time, however, I became intrigued by the peculiar tone of the classroom discussion. Rather than simply offering comments – as was common in my law classes and, indeed, most of life – students frequently prefaced their opinions by first acknowledging their privileged status as educated Westerners. While it’s laudable to recognize the role that luck plays in success and in defining worldviews, the semester-long repetition of the phrase “Speaking from a position of privilege” quickly got annoying. By the end of the first seminar, it was clear that we all recognized our privilege. By the end of the semester, I was not sure why we had to keep bringing it up.

That said, even though these declarations of privilege were unnecessary and irritating, I figured that they were the product of an unimpeachable moral intuition. After all, if more of us could recognize that our good fortune in life is largely accidental, we’d be more open to helping others and less likely to think ourselves superior. When people cannot spot their privilege, they often succumb to inflated egos and a sense of conceit, thinking that their success is due solely to their own efforts. So, although we were sitting around indulging in pseudoscience and loose talk about how to salvage the environment, at least we weren’t being smug about it. We could acknowledge that much of our lot in life is no testament to our rectitude, just a result of arbitrary good fortune.

However, as time has passed and I’ve encountered acknowledgements of privilege both on and off campus, I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend. More often than not, when someone affirms their privilege or points out the privilege of others, they do so in a way that betrays an utter cluelessness about that very privilege. “Privilege talk” is regularly accompanied by hypocritical accusations, outrage over trivialities, and uncritical hatred of important modern institutions, which are attitudes that would neither exist nor be tolerated but for the privilege that we all enjoy. When someone says, “Speaking from a position of privilege,” it’s a safe bet that what follows will display an indifference to their privilege (or even an implication that it’s some kind of burden), which, of course, is an attitude only a very privileged person could hold.

Sadly, the pernicious ironies of privilege talk are generally lost on those who claim to be most aware of privilege. Moral indignation has a way of obscuring sober reasoning, and those who speak of privilege are often primed (by professors, peers, and media) to actively seek out moral transgressions. As such, many backwards beliefs and harmful attitudes have found a toehold amongst “privileged” millennials, who presume their views to be self-evidently righteous and thus not up for debate. Many of these views, were they to become widespread, would lead to the destruction of the privileges that we in the developed world are so fortunate to enjoy. These include free expression, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly, the rule of law, and ongoing efforts to judge people not by their phenotype but rather by their actions.

If we hope to maintain our privileges – and work towards securing them for others – we must be aware of the bad ideas that threaten them. Paying lip service to privilege is an empty gesture if we don’t first appreciate the reasons it exists. As we accrue privilege, these reasons become less obvious: few people are eternally grateful for anaesthesia, eyeglasses, vaccines, an impartial judiciary, building codes, or a strong economy. But if we were to lose any of these, they would be widely and sorely missed. By ignoring or downplaying how privilege comes to exist, we risk losing the habits, knowledge, and institutions that support our high standard of living.

Many of the ideas that accompany privilege talk, if implemented, would wreak havoc on human wellbeing. If people truly acknowledged their privilege, they would show a greater concern for the forces behind it, which permit them to lead long, healthy, educated, leisure-filled lives, all the while incessantly complaining about the unadulterated evils of modern civilization.

So, when people claim to be “checking their privilege,” I propose that they put in a more genuine effort to really do so. To honestly acknowledge privilege requires balanced critical thought, the ability to self-reflect, and a willingness to converse with those who disagree. Without these traits, we’d have no privilege whatsoever and might as well give up on the entire human experiment.

With that in mind, let’s consider some views espoused by those who routinely clear their throats with professions and confessions of privilege, to see how they belie the pretence of genuine understanding.

1. Words as Violence

Many will equate words with violence, claiming that harsh criticism and invective are akin to physical abuse. According to this view, violence may be inflicted upon a person merely by offending them. Anyone who claims to believe this, despite never having experienced actual fist-in-their-face, gun-at-their-back, war-in-their-streets physical violence, may need to check their privilege.

Where words offer direct calls to violence, the distinction between the two can become hazy. But in most other instances it’s irresponsible to pretend that words are on par with violence. Words, when used competently, are the tools that allow us to avoid violence. They are our only other means of persuasion. Although words can cause hurt feelings and stress responses, their negative effects generally pale in comparison to the harms wrought by physical violence. And since how we think about things influences how we feel about them, the belief that words are violence is likely to produce greater hurt feelings and stress responses, thus hindering words’ ability to defuse tense situations.

Furthermore, if we tear down the distinction between words and violence, then why not simply use violence to solve our problems as a first rather than a last resort?

2. Scientism

The privilege-conscious will sometimes declare modern science to be a power structure that arbitrarily promotes the views and practices of today’s dominant culture. In essence, they think of science as a narrative produced by Western elites that, while influential, is no more reliable than folk wisdom. It is only preferred because it reinforces a white patriarchal monopoly on our view of truth.

Anyone who has never had to undergo surgery without anaesthesia, has safely flown across the world to escape the cold of their local winter, and carries the luxuries of telecommunications in their pocket, but believes the scientific method to be the reprehensible instrument of a white male conspiracy keeping minorities in bondage and cleaving us from nature, should probably check their privilege.

There are better and worse ways of pursuing truth. The worse ways are the most intuitive, so come naturally to every culture that has ever existed (including our own). Humans are naturally disposed to describe nature by appeals to anthropomorphism and teleology, despite the fact that the natural world is neither human-like nor purpose-driven. Fortunately, we’ve uncovered methods that allow people of any skin colour, culture, or identity to discover more accurate ways of thinking about reality. These methods (and the knowledge and understanding they uncover) are what we call science. Science is one of the few social endeavours that produces identical results regardless of the identity of the people involved. In this way, it approximates the egalitarian ideals (justifiably) cherished by those on the political Left.

Even if white men happen to have greater access to science than others, this is no reason to dismiss or denigrate science – rather, it’s a reason to promote science more broadly so that people of all identities can take part in our best efforts to describe reality.

3. Capitalism & Freedom

Venezuela, 2014

Many of the most privilege-conscious see capitalism as an evil economic regime and think of freedom only as a propaganda term thrown about by neoconservatives. To them, capitalism is the bogeyman hiding behind all of our societal ills, and freedom is an ideal used purely to justify global abuse. If someone lives in a country graced by low levels of poverty, legitimate democratic elections, and a press that publicizes the plight of the governed, yet they wish to abolish markets and live in something more akin to a Communist state, they should check their privilege.

It has become a progressive cliché to say that North America needs to replace the free market with a socialist model in the vein of the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland). Somehow, this notion has spread despite the fact that these countries have actually embraced free market capitalism. Much of their economic and political success flows from their commitment to private property and free markets. The strong social safety net and renowned public services of the Nordic countries exist alongside, not instead of, the capitalist paradigm.

By craving some sort of post-capitalist utopia, we are wasting effort on a chimera. A viable way of discarding capitalism may some day emerge, but until then we would do best to emulate societal models that have proven themselves. In our case, we should focus not on eliminating capitalism but on improving it, through wiser modes of regulation, taxation, and allocation of tax revenue.

4. Believe the Victim

Many of today’s privilege-conscious believe that when grievances are filed against white men by members of historically oppressed groups, we should unconditionally believe the alleged victims. This attitude is most visible in the furor that surrounds sexual assault trials, where some commentators suggest that unequivocal belief in victims’ claims should trump due process. If a person is lucky enough to live in a state where citizens possess the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty in a fair trial, yet they’d rather use tribal markers such as skin colour, class, or sex to determine the guilt of an accused, then they should check their privilege.

No sane person can deny that in some instances proving guilt is hard. In cases involving sexual assault, where we’re dealing with private acts and incompatible perceptions, the burden of guilt is especially difficult to satisfy. However, if we abandon due process and rely instead upon identity or gut reaction to determine a person’s guilt, we sacrifice an important bulwark against tyranny. Wherever identity – rather than the facts of a case – decides guilt or innocence, we lose the collective security of a legal system rooted in an agreed-upon reality. By removing the obligation to scrutinize evidence, we allow ourselves to operate on pre-existing prejudices, reducing our courts of law to mere kangaroo courts. A world without due process would contain far more injustice than we face today.

Although some victims fight uphill evidential battles, we cannot make a better world by ditching due process. Rather, we must find ways of accounting for the difficult burdens of proof faced by some people, while also preserving the legitimacy of the law. This approach may be less gratifying than simply Tweeting #believethevictim, but it aims to preserve civil liberties that we all – regardless of identity – should cherish.

5. Oppression in Western Civilization

Many of today’s privilege-conscious view white people and the structures of Western societies as irredeemably evil. To them, Western democratic nations are bastions of racist and sexist oppression operating under the guise of “progress.” To question the attitudes and practices of other cultures is racist, but to condemn Western society is a moral obligation. If someone (rightfully) deplores racism and sexism, yet views white males as intrinsically wicked and sees the Western pursuit of knowledge, progress, and morality as a grievous blight upon history, then they should check their privilege.

Maybe our education system has let them down, neglecting to teach them about the horrors of history and depravities of human nature faced by most people who have ever lived. Maybe the atrocities carried out by previous generations have clouded their minds with guilt, and all Western institutions now seem hopelessly tainted by association. Or maybe they’re simply the victim of a runaway negativity bias that’s been amplified by likeminded media and peer groups. Whatever the reason, people who hate the democratic and open societies that have nurtured them would do well to reconsider.

Although Western societies could be doing many things better, we can appreciate that we’re already doing many things right; compared to the Middle Ages, the Islamic world, or even our own culture fifty years ago, we are a veritable oasis of equality and potential wellbeing. If we cannot recognize our strengths, we cannot build and draw upon them to succeed. By focusing only on our weaknesses we incubate self-hatred that serves no purpose, because to correct any weakness requires the deployment of pre-existing strengths. A balanced and productive worldview must account for the bad and the good in one’s own culture.

*     *     *

Privilege brings many of the risks that come with being spoiled. Spoiled children often think themselves superior to others while failing to appreciate the full extent of their spoils. If we are not mindful, our privilege can turn us into spoiled children who care nothing for our own advantages and opportunities, yet always crave more. Unfortunately, such a mindset seems to be infecting broad swathes of the West’s most privileged millennials.

As progress comes to pass, it’s easy to take it for granted and become greedy for more. This is part of the human condition, but it’s important that we keep it in check. Many people who claim to deplore established “Western” progress nevertheless obsess over their own versions. But when we succumb to a greed for progress that’s divorced from the restraints of reality, we often overreach and cause great harm. One need not look far into the past to find under-informed yet over-eager attempts to bring about utopias that produced some of human history’s most heinous chapters.

When we truly appreciate our privilege, we understand that it contains the seeds of the progress we seek. If we cannot acknowledge that we’ve already made great strides towards high ideals like universal human rights, the elimination of poverty, and democratic equality, then we’re apt to become unduly nihilistic about Western civilization. To appreciate progress does not mean that we must think ourselves perfect, refrain from self-criticism, or settle for the status quo. It simply means that we appreciate just how far the talking, tribal apes we call human beings have come.

 

Tristan Flock is an engineering student and writer with a BSc and a JD. He can be followed on Twitter @tbonesbeard

70 Comments

  1. While I found much of your article well thought out, your comments describing the self-regulation of earth as pseudoscience are very misplaced. The view of the earth as a coherent self-regulating organism is not at all what you present it to be, there are substantial numbers of research papers that support this view. Whether it is called the Gaia Hypothesis or Earth Systems Science fundamental and very stringent research has found that indeed the planet must be viewed as a single organism, not a collection of unrelated bits, which a more reductive approach insists upon. I have read several hundred journal articles on this topic, written on it extensively, and followed closely the initial and very strong objections to James Lovelock’s insights. The more the theory was attacked the more it held up over time. You have done your arguments here a disservice by not doing better research on the topic before you dismissed it in so prejudiced a fashion.

    • I think it was the idea of bestowing Mother Nature with purposive agency rather than the metaphor of organism that the author found fault with – the difference between animism and a useful, scientific model.

    • Kitimat says

      You’ve utterly disregarded the point of the paper; in fact it seems you’ve decided to nitpick a tiny introductory line, and run off on a tangent about it. This essay has nothing to do with the earth as a self-regulating organism…

      The author states: ” We “learned” that atoms have free will, that the Earth purposefully maintains conditions conducive to life…”

      This has nothing to do with the Earth as a coherent self-regulating organism. If you think that after reading “hundreds of papers,” the claim that atoms have free will and the Earth purposely self regulates, (as in the Earth has agency in maintaining it’s equilibrium), is not pseudoscience, then I’d kindly ask you for whichever drugs you were on when you read those papers. I could use some of that.

      Next time, instead of trying to pump your self-esteem by spewing out irrelevant information, you should try to work on your reading comprehension, and avoid detracting from the topic at hand. This site is usually better for that than reddit, but alas, not today.

      • Jerome says

        Your sanity and rationality are almost palpable, yes well said indeed

      • Jeff Bailey says

        This is exactly what the author was getting at….some people are so obsessed with one thing, that everything tends to look like that one thing.

      • Lavaf says

        Is that your only criticism because it doesn’t seem like that’s the meat of the article

    • Time is up says

      You flat earthers are grossly uneducated. Check your ignorance!

  2. Indeed. Almost everybody living in the post-war west is outrageously privileged in comparison to almost everybody else who has ever lived, throughout the world and throughout history.

    Of course, you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

    (Similarly for other westernised countries).

    • Maureen says

      “Privilege” seems like a perverted, uglier form of the age-old Western/Christian value of simple gratitude. Thankfulness for what you have and acknowledgement of your unearned blessings are lovely practices and generally conducive to greater happiness. The new concept of “privilege” is a twisted and warped version – a way of silencing people or, as the article points out, sanctioning blatant hypocrisy and entitlement.

      • I couldn’t agree more. The problem is that the term “Privilege” is often used as a term to describe basic human rights but the term is not always accurate depending on who the speaker is. For example, to live in an area which is not effected by war is a basic human right. To say that you are privileged to live in peace is inaccurate – you are fortunate. Privileged implies that war is perpetually global, and that everyone else suffers the effects of said war save you; making you unique. However, you are not unique, a vast majority of other people live in peace also – you are not privileged. This trend of western self defecation needs to stop.

      • Indeed, “Check Your Privilege” usually means I’m less privileged than you so I’m entitled to every privilege and you non!

  3. Jason says

    I tried to share this post and Facebook flagged it as spam. I notice the article isn’t on your Facebook page either. Did you guys remove it or is Facebook censoring this article ?

    • Justin P says

      Facebook is auto-targeting this post as spam.
      I don’t know why…but I suspect some programmer at FB doesn’t like the content of this message and doesn’t want people to read about it and form their own opinion.

  4. Jeff York says

    I served in seven third-world dystopias, four of them Islamic visions of what can only be described as Hell on Earth, I kid you not. If you were born in the developed world then you’re “privileged” whether you realize it or not.

    I question whether the Leftist malcontents are using the word privilege(d) correctly. A privilege is knowingly granted by one person to another, e.g. “Your application has been approved. You are now a member of this country-club.” It seems to me that a lot of what the Left calls privilege is actually winning one-or-more genetic, environmental or circumstantial lotteries.

    Another view is that what the Left calls privilege is actually just better performance. The truly incredible bounty provided by Western Civilization serves to support that point of view. “The only reason the West has done so well is because of all the wealth they stole and people they exploited.” Everywhere Europeans went during the colonial age the various indigenous populations were warring against each other, oppressing/exploiting each other and stealing from each other. They were just doing it locally and on a smaller scale. To extract the wealth, that frequently the indigenous people didn’t know they had or what it’s value was, Europeans had to invest in those countries and build cities, roads, railroads, ports, eventually electrical power, universities, etc., and had to teach the natives skills. None of that excuses excesses committed during the colonial age.

    • <>

      My family lived for around 1000 years as slave labour to the few. They were not in chains but they were bound by laws that forbid them not to have meaningful employment meaning they were forced to work in someone’s factory, that forbid them from living by their own means or from living freely in the world, they were bound by law to believe in god and despite not having the vote they were bound by law to fight on behalf of the soverignty. All these offences were punishable by imprisonment and death in the case of refusing to fight. Only since WW2 has life improved for my family and those like it. I personally was born into and grew up in poverty in the shadow of this existence and things really only changed for this portion of the population from the 60s onward. I am British. I’m white and a male.

      I don’t see the developed world as being the better world. I don’t want factories and roads and cars and huge financial infra structures. I want nature and forests and freedom from labouring for others. Most people fleeing from the non developed world to the developed are misled in my opinion. They are going to a world where they will have less and less indepenence and the least under a socialist or communist government which would tie them into a specific role in society without the freedom to be what ever they wanted. Tied to the state as a part of a (state) machine.

      https://sustainablehuman.minds.com/blog/view/662863197279100930

      <>

      Those going to the west or ‘developed’ countries are being invited because it’s running out of cheap labour and can no longer compete with the east.

      I no longer live in the UK I left for a much smaller poorer country but one that gives me more opportunity even if I am still tied to the state because I have to pay tax.

      • “Using Adam Smith’s own estimates of factory wages being paid at the time in Scotland, a factory-peasant would have to toil for more than three days to buy a pair of commercially produced shoes. Or they could make their own traditional brogues using their own leather in a matter of hours, and spend the rest of the time getting wasted on ale. It’s really not much of a choice, is it?

        But in order for capitalism to work, capitalists needed a pool of cheap, surplus labor. So what to do? Call in the National Guard!”

        https://sustainablehuman.minds.com/blog/view/662863197279100930

        • ga gamba says

          Oh, make a pair of brogues. That sounds simple.

          Is it?

          Well, you’ll need the lasts, and in the olden days they were made from wood. Let’s hope you have your own trees that you may fell (or a kindly land owner who will allow you to do so) and of course the needed axe. Next you’ll need to shape the wood into a form of your feet; we’ll assume you’ve acquired the skills to do so on the first go.

          Now, on to the leather. You don’t have that laying around, do you? Well, go get a hide. You own a calf, don’t you? Slaughter and skin it. If you’re luck you may be able to sell some of the meat. Dry or salt what’s left unsold and uneaten. (Salt was very expensive in the olden days.) Now tan the hide. You’ll need to make the liquor in which it’s bathed. For months. Again, we’ll assume here that you know how to make that liquor and the materials magically fell into your possession. Praise the Lord! You also need a vat. Is that the one you use to bathe yourself? Oh well, sacrifices need to be made.

          Now you have your leather. We’ll assume you have the knives to cut it. Since leather is thick, you’ll need to skive it so it’s more flexible to wear. You’ve cut your pieces. Again, we’ll assume you know the pattern. And don’t neglect to punch holes in the leather; those punch outs require a special tool, which we’ll assume you have, but having them allows the water to egress from your shoes. Now to stitch them together. We’ll assume you have needle and thread. OK, you’ve stitched the uppers. Now, using a pliers you’ll pull the uppers over the lasts, hammering in the nails to attach them to the lasts. Then stitch uppers to the outsoles. Will you use the single stitch or dual stitch method? Dual is more durable, but you’ll need to make an insole and skive that. Eureka! You made it through the process without impaling yourself or severing a finger. You’re almost there.

          Wait about two weeks for the leather to form to the last.

          Remove your brogues from the lasts to try on. Perfect fit? A miracle! If not, well you can either suck it up and wear painful shoes for many months (who knows what damage you’ll do to your feet?) or repeat the process all over, learning from your mistakes.

          So much for sitting in the pub drinking ale all those days.

          You need to check your assumptions.

        • Lavaf says

          All right I can see that nowadays India works hard for a far smaller amount of money, but what is this alternative you are suggesting?

    • Good points all. I’ve heard the saying, oil in the ground is useless and just mud unless you know how to extract, refine and use it.

      • My above comments go to Jeff York btw. I was trying to reply to his comment.

  5. Jordan says

    This article is the longest terd I’ve ever read. Wow how can you compare two different groups plight as the same…how about the truth is hard to swallow, so in turn I will continue to pretend it doesn’t exist, but I do think about it.

  6. 82% of the superrich 1% own and run the world. Thats yhe only privilege I see.

  7. DiscoveredJoys says

    “If you use the language rules that your ideological opponent demands that you use, you cede the territory to them.” – Jordan Peterson

    Every call to ‘Check your privilege’ is a command to adhere to the ideology behind it.

      • DiscoveredJoys says

        …and it is signalling ‘I am virtuous and you are not.’

      • ga gamba says

        It’s a bit more than that, though. It’s a way to shut down the conversation without engaging the points raised. It’s the prog’s way of putting one’s fingers in one’s ears and shouting “blah blah blah”.

    • Jerome says

      Excellent quote, Peterson used that very notion in his deconstruction of the recent Channel 4 debacle

  8. Everything you’ve said is nonsense to normal, unindoctrinated people.

    This is the stuff of French postmodernists and German sociologists, and it’s all aweful.

  9. Andrew Roddy says

    There is a chapter headed ‘Scientism’ that has no bearing on scientism. Scientism describes the growing belief that the scientific method is the only reliable way of furthering our understanding of the world and ourselves. There are many people who are critical of that tendency whilst also placing a high value on the usefulness and reliability of scientific endeavour. Indeed the most compelling criticisms that I have read of scientism have come from scientists.

    • The word scientism is not well defined and has several uses (as Steven Pinker has said, “it’s more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine”). For this reason, it’s not a very useful term. However, people who criticize science (sometimes for legitimate reasons, more often for illegitimate reasons) seem to like using the term as a pejorative.

      If scientism refers to science overstepping its bounds (a definition you appear to agree with), then the minority of people who view science as an oppressive structure will undoubtedly see the current influence of science as a gross overreach, hence the applicability of ‘scientism’.

      • Andrew Roddy says

        Perhaps ‘scientism’ is bandied about as a boo-word. So are lots of words in different contexts. I can’t see it being usefully understood as a doctrine but it has valid currency and, as the belief that it describes becomes more an more apparent, it becomes more and more useful. Something as General as ‘science over-reaching it bounds’ won’t do. Science, a relative infant, has along way to go before it even gets a sense of it bounds.
        https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-folly-of-scientism

    • One of the best definitions of Scientism I’ve read was from F.A. Hayek:

      “Hayek defined “scientism” or the “scientistic prejudice” as”slavish imitation of the method and language of Science” when applied to the social sciences, history, management, etc. Scientism represents “a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed, and as such is “not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it.” (Hayek’s Economica essays on scientism were collected in his 1952 Counter-Revolution of Science and reprinted in volume 13 of the Collected Works.)”

      https://mises.org/blog/against-scientism

  10. Lottery? You mean there’s a line-up of souls in heaven waiting to be born, and it’s pure luck whether each individual soul is inserted into an African or an American? I thought I was a white middle-class American because my parents were white middle-class Americans.

    • akvadrako says

      Indeed, thinking about it like you could have been someone else doesn’t make any sense without invoking some kind of extra-physical soul.

      But it’s still the case that you find yourself in some position with more or less power than others.

  11. “Socialism itself can hope to exist only for brief periods here and there, and then only through the exercise of the extremest terrorism. For this reason it is secretly preparing itself for rule through fear and is driving the word “justice” into the heads of the half-educated masses like a nail so as to rob them of their reason… and to create in them a good conscience for the evil game they are to play.”
    – Nietzsche

    Or, check the con.

  12. Jern Stergler says

    Great post! Hard to argue with any of these points.

  13. Brian says

    In general, yes, there are definitely people who play the privilege card incorrectly. In that sense the author is correct. But it’s important to not become too obsessed with those who misunderstand and misrepresent a particular view. They are annoying, but they are a minority. Here are some thoughts in bullet point:

    – In the introduction, the author blurs the lines between different levels of privilege. In one hand, he acknowledges that privilege and unequal access the opportunity are real. On the other hand, he argues that those speaking about privilege are privileged due to their living in a good economy, etc. Again, while he’s correct about this, he’s conflating two different issues. It’s like saying: “Sure, a Palestinian living in Jerusalem is oppressed, but they should be thankful they get to eat and take the bus.” It wipes away the issue of inequality and basically blames the victim for having a voice and time to think about something and express an opinion.

    – The author needs to be really careful when talking about the pain that words cause compared to physical violence. Generally speaking I agree that speech needs to be protected, and I’ve written about this publicly several times. Students are delicate flowers. They need to be tougher. Bad ideas need to be fought with good ideas, not censorship. This being said, the author completely dismisses the damage that can be done through verbal harassment. This approach is a mistake. He uses the same failed logic as I described previously. He takes a severe case of violence, like a gunshot wound, and compares it to simple verbal harassment. He ignores levels of intensity and tries to simplify emotions and actions that exist on the spectrum, not as a binary process (yes and no, good and bad). In my opinion, he gives a half-hearted attempt to admit there is a spectrum, but it is not a very convincing effort.

    – Re: capitalism. While there are people who do heavily criticize capitalism, can you blame them? Last year, 1% of the people in America took home 85% of the wealth. They are angry. Maybe they’re not the best economists, but this is a case where we should empathize with their anger and guide them rather than cast them off as crazy. They are not crazy. If this kind of wealth inequality that we see today is the true end goal of the free market and of capitalism, then I’m against it too. But that’s another discussion. Just understand that they are not speaking from a position of crazy. Privileged in the sense that they are allowed to speak out against it? Yes. But this is not a strong criticism against the point. In fact, it is a distraction. It relieves yourself of the burden of having to actually address the point.

    – In regard to sexual assault allegations, yes, although I am a huge supporter of the #MeToo movement, and I acknowledge that guys have been sexually harassing women in virtually every aspect of public and private life for centuries, we do have to protect to process. That being said, if you have 13 accusers and were banned from the mall in the 1960s, I’m willing to forgo the court trial.

    – In general, the article creates a boogie man and the destroys it. This is the classic strawman argument. Whereas in some cases the type of person actually exists, the percent of time dedicated to discussing this minority opinion is disproportionate to the amount of time that should have been used to discussing actual inequality, and actual privilege. What is missing from this article is scale. That if you have brownskin you do not have access to opportunities that other people have access to. Instead, it focuses on the one person in the room who does not properly articulate this point. In doing this, although in some cases correct, it magnifies insignificant points and buries significant, pervasive injustices. And if the author admits that my prior sentence is correct and that their sole intention was to focus on the people who simply get it wrong, then they need to add a disclaimer at the beginning, which details that they understand the degree of inequality that exists in this country, and they need to show that they truly understand what privilege means, rather than pretending to understand what it means.

    • Lol… He should put in a trigger warning at the beginning and check his privilege? I dont think he needs a straw man with you around.

    • Jern Stergler says

      Hello there Brian, me of the previously stated “hard to argue with any of these points” comment. You make the most convincing counter arguments that I have yet seen, so to that I doff my cap. Some thoughts on some of your bullet points.

      -In my experience, the people who privilege check incorrectly the most are white students on campus, and so if the author has had similar experiences to me, I don’t think he is “blaming the victim for having a voice” a la Palestinian’s in Jerusalem, he is rightfully targeting people who do have lots of privilege, and fail to accurately focus their efforts on making a difference.

      -To say that “the author completely dismisses the damage that can be done through verbal harassment” is a bit far, considering he said “although words can cause hurt feelings and stress responses, their negative effects generally pale in comparison to the harms wrought by physical violence.” As someone who has experienced both verbal and physical harassment, I can tell you that the physical harassment is far worse. Of course there is a spectrum for how bad verbal abuse gets, but in general nothing on that spectrum comes close to actual violence. Someone who equates words with physical violence likely has not endured much physical violence in their life, and likely lacks perspective.

      -Yes, 1% of people taking home 85% of the wealth is a severe problem, and certainly not something that any sane person (as I assume the author is) would support. However he is not outright defending capitalism, but merely saying that it should be acknowledged we have benefitted by it, even if we haven’t benefitted as equally as we should have, and that we should be striving to improve capitalism, rather than attack it while offering no reasonable alternative. You could make an argument that capitalism should be completely abolished, and I wouldn’t say you were wrong, but we also have to be realistic, and I think aiming to improve the system makes more sense than using our privilege to throw useless insults at it. If you critique capitalism while also offering reasonable ideas to improve it, then perfect, and I suspect the author would agree.

      -While it is undeniable that men have been harassing women for eons, and while I would certainly believe blanket statements such as “100% of women have experienced at least one form of sexual harassment or assault in their life”, it’s also important to avoid a witch hunt mentality. A mentality that some of these privilege checkers definitely do have.

      -You said: “Whereas in some cases the type of person actually exists, the percent of time dedicated to discussing this minority opinion is disproportionate to the amount of time that should have been used to discussing actual inequality, and actual privilege.” I wish I could fully agree with this. While on a global scale, and even a Western scale, the number of people who incorrectly privilege check and would benefit by reading this article is a small one, within the bubble that is university campuses, it is a large enough and vocal enough group that this is sadly a necessary article. Rather than infer that it is the author’s fault for wasting valuable time that could have been used fighting actual injustices, I view it as a necessary reminder to those that this article is aimed at; to help get them back on track, so that we can all get back on track. If left unchecked, they would be the ones spending a disproportionate amount of time discussing the wrong issues.

      Obviously we both agree that there are people out there who could benefit from the general idea of this article. How necessary it was comes down to how many of them we have personally encountered I suppose, and I have encountered quite a few. To me it addresses many of the things that I found frustrating about university.

      Cheers

      • Not arguing here but just a little thought experiment might be in order. If the 1% didn’t take home the wealth, would it automatically go to the people at the “bottom” or would the wealth not have been created at all?

        I’m not necessarily arguing one way or another but the whole 1% argument is a very reductionist way of thinking.
        People tend to assume that if those at the top got less than those at the bottom would get more by default, but this might not always be true. Man X invents a cool dinglehopper, and billions of people buy it, he prophets outrageously for it, this bumps up the aggregate GDP in the US which doesn’t really help put the poor people, but how does it HURT the people at the bottom? The dinglehopper likely is not a necessity, he doesn’t own slave shops, no ones being forced to work for him and if he never built it in the first place the bottom still wouldn’t have that money.

        This is the zero-sum argument here. Having said that I’m aware that the tech disruption does hurt lots of people. When someone invents something that replaces thousands of jobs or takes them offshore that’s a whole different argument and I have issues with that as well.

        I just want people to stop the knee-jerk 1% arguments because they’re mostly empty slogans.

        • Andrew Roddy says

          No, KDM, your entire argument is framed in a zero-sum paradigm. It has no bearing on the totality of human experience. Sums are just shit we do in school. If life is reduced to that then education has imploded.

        • Certainly, life is a zero sum game and the aptitudes, skills and abilities necessary for acquiring wealth are normally distributed over any reasonably large population. A political and economic system that outrageously rewards the big winners in this lottery and ignores the needs of the bottom 80% of the population is simply a tyrannical oligarchy.

          You can read Machiavelli’s “Discourses on Livy” for yourself and decide whether the arguments against the 1% are rational and based on history or are merely knee-jerk reactions from bleeding hearts. History does suggest that when they are denied work and sufficient income, the peasants will revolt.

          • Lavaf says

            Hi EK
            The author of the article already pointed to the Scandinavian countries model that has a strong safety net. In that model, you pay a bigger percentage of your income as tax when you earn more, and smaller when you earn less. The VAT is also really high. This makes the government able to offer free health care to all citizens. Some of the money also goes to make public transport cheaper and one of the TV-channel networks is government owned. There are many privileges granted to citizens of Scandinavian countries by their states.

      • Hi Jern, thanks for the well thought out reply. I wrote this article, and you are indeed correct that I view current levels of wealth inequality as an important issue that we should be working on fixing. And as I’m sure you’ve gathered, I see taxes, regulations, and a strong social safety net as a few of the ways to deal with this issue.

        Although I often align with right-wing libertarians on my criticisms of various strands of left-wing thought, I am certainly no libertarian myself (nor do I consider myself right-wing). On the issue of wealth inequality, my thinking is very much in line with the economist Robert H Frank (especially as outlined in his book The Darwin Economy).

    • Eastwood says

      It sounds to me like the daylight that is starting to be shined on your world is beginning to sting a bit. The truth will always shine through my friend, it’s just a question of when. God willing, the sun will shine high and bright before people like yourself see your ideological nightmare come to it’s full and inevitable tragic conclusion.

    • ccscientist says

      You mention “pervasive injustices”. How do we explain that many immigrants to this country, arriving with no money and little English, do very well? I know many such immigrants and my neighborhood is full of them. They are so grateful to be here and do not feel injustice. They are patriotic Americans. I think the problem is comparing an imperfect world to an ideal which can never be realized. We do not live in a feudal society where people are forced to live on the same farm as their ancestors. There is so much upward mobility. I do not begrudge Bill Gates his money because his company has made my life so much easier. He didn’t steal anything from me. Jealousy is a useless emotion.

  14. “It has become a progressive cliché to say that North America needs to replace the free market with a socialist model in the vein of the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland)….The strong social safety net and renowned public services of the Nordic countries exist alongside, not instead of, the capitalist paradigm.”

    While I am a left leaning libertarian sort, I am not sure that the “progressive cliché” to replace free markets with a socialist model accurately depicts a true social movement. From the sources I hear (and from arguments I make myself) using these countries as an example – it is arguing for increasing the strength of social safety nets and public services (as opposed to reducing them or extinguishing them) and not replacing market models for a “socialist model”. Just my anecdotal experience.

    Any “fundamentalist” approach that reduces the complexities of governing to one “ism” or concept is, in my judgement, by reducing all options and experience down to a fundamental One Concept Design, already on the path of gulags, death camps, slavery and genocide.

    That goes for the “free market” fundies to the “socialism/communism” fundies. As with anything in the world, complexity and degrees of freedom of response to the situation at hand is the best way to have people flourish – and so a mix of a free market with social safeguards to patch the holes seems to be the best choice. Never perfect…but neither is the world, no? And with the mix – it allows for greater degrees of freedom for the populace and their leaders to respond to any factor which changes or threatens the dynamic of keeping people’s perceived liberties intact with the ability to ensure that they also will be cared for in the event they cannot themselves.

    • Jeff York says

      I wish that all the Bernie Sanders types who gush about the Scandinavian countries could understand that if the U.S. hadn’t been doing the heavy lifting of the defense of Europe for the past seventy-odd years all those cradle-to-grave-nanny-states either wouldn’t exist or would be no where near as elaborate as they are (or would’ve happened but under Soviet auspices). Not to mention all the infrastructure that the U.S. has created like the world-wide air traffic control system, GPS, weather and communications satellites, the internet, a disproportionate amount of the world’s R&D, plus institutions like the World Bank, the WTO and the IMF.

      I also wish they could understand that elaborate safety-nets that ostensibly work for countries with small, highly homogenous populations with strong social trust & cohesion, and no global responsibilities, don’t work for a nation that spans a continent and which consists of ~330-million people divided up into competing factions. It took from 1835 to 2000 for the national debt to go from zero to $5.7-trillion. It took just sixteen more years to almost quadruple to ~$20-trillion. That is not sustainable. If interest-rates were to go back to their historical average of 5% we’d have to spend $1-trillion a year just to service the debt. If/when that happens what will we have to give up? I don’t know but I suspect that we’re going to find out.

      • Yurpean says

        Sweden is neutral, so “the US” have never had any commitment to defend that country against USSR.
        Idem for Finland
        Both these countries are craddle to grave countries

        have a nice day

  15. This is one of the best columns I’ve read in a long time. I will be linking to this everywhere I can! Thank the internet for Quillette!

  16. Rosalina Wolff says

    I do not remember how I stumbled upon this, but I just have to say, I enjoyed both the text and the commentary. My goodness though, I am convinced I need to begin studying a dictionary! My brain got a workout. I felt like my understanding was holding on by a piece of thread. If you are going to write on such a heated topic, you may want to ease up on the complex language. As DiscoveredJoys most excellently quoted:

    “If you use the language rules that your ideological opponent demands that you use, you cede the territory to them.” – Jordan Peterson

    If you have any intention of changing the “victim’s” minds, you may want to level with them first. I’m not sure how many people could even merge onto this ideological highway. The drivers (“privileged”) are driving too damn fast.

    I’m not going to look this up, because I’m too lazy, but I heard that the average American fluency is sixth grade. You are talking way over a sixth grader’s head, and thus proving their argument. I’m not saying you need to completely dumb it down- it’s good to challenge people and raise the bar- but you should still come down a little bit. “Iron sharpens iron.” Not everybody is iron though, some people are gold, maybe even alluminum. Pose as one and maybe you will be able to sharpen them too.

    They say the “rich are getting richer.” I see the smart getting smarter. Let’s help people out. Not everyone is privileged with intelligence.

    I did enjoy reading this, however, so instead of dumbing it down, maybe have two versions of it- one for alluminum and one for iron (though apparently my iron is rusted. That, or I’m copper or something). Can anyone tell me, are I.Q. tests worth the time? I’ve never tried one.

    • Re IQ: The consensus seems to be that one’s IQ is the most important predictor of success in the current knowledge based economy, which rewards high IQ outrageously and punishes low IQ severely.

      Murray and Herrnstein’s “The Bell Curve” argues that a full scale IQ of 115 is the minimum for a reasonably rigorous BA; an IQ of 120 will usually get you invited to the party; but the big payoffs are reserved for IQs greater than 130. They base their arguments on the IQ tests that were routinely administered to as many children and adolescents as possible in the US between 1917-72. The “n” is huge, many millions, and it is very hard with their statistical analysis. Murray and other posters on this site over the last year or so have also argued that the heritability of IQ approaches .7, which is huge.

      Taken together, outrageous rewards for high IQ and the heritability of IQ itself is enough to support your observation that the smart are indeed getting both smarter and richer. Murray has more recently observed that since 1970, when the advantages of a two income partnership became obvious, everyone with a brain in their head began selecting partners based their earnings potential. They were called “DINKs” (i.e.; duel income, no kids). I’ve often thought that might be how aristocracies have always arisen.

      Since the 1970s, however, the fashion in education has been to dismiss the heritability of IQ and to assume that all children approximate a tabula rasa who require only a good teacher. Accordingly, since the 1970s the proponents of the tabula rasa model have also ignored the need of the 2/3 of the population who will necessarily be traveling in steerage in their ideal economy.

      The education and government establishment seems to be oblivious of the brutal selection pressure they are imposing on everyone with a full scale IQ less than 110.

        • DINKs and Yuppies overlap to a great extent and both are terms from the mid to late 1970s. The DINKs delay having children until their mid-30s. And less than two children seems to have become the norm; not even the replacement rate of live births.

          The result is what we see; a wealthy cohort with few children that has a strong tendency to intermarry.

          The result is that wealth is ever more concentrated in a fewer and fewer high earning households.

  17. jason kennedy says

    Missing from this article is any mention, let alone discussion, of one of the most powerful drivers of opposition by the left/progressives to the notion that our Western democracies are the bastions of virtue and fairness they progess to be, and which the writer asserts, and that driver is the imperialist wars the West is constantly waging around the world. How can the writer seriously talk of progress re human rights when in practice much of the planet’s inhabitants have no human rights at all if the US and its allies target their country for attack?

  18. augustine says

    @KDM

    “If the 1% didn’t take home the wealth, would it automatically go to the people at the “bottom” or would the wealth not have been created at all?”

    And should we consider any such scenario of wealth creation, based as much upon opportunity as privilege, to be desirable in the first place? If you say “yes” then you have to accept that the results will be uneven, even where access to opportunity is more or less equal and the rules (laws) are just.

    The assumption that wealth inequality must always be the result of systemic unfairness leads to ideas that empower the few (e.g., centralized planning) rather than empowering individuals and smaller, localized social units that make up a society.

  19. “Thanks for the well written article. We need to hear views from both sides, this is democracy at work.

    This racist white privilege pushed by the universities, acadamy teachers and professors and especially the media, is turning the West into a dysfunctional dystopia. The media and universities are creating people with hatred for their nations, just like Adam Weishaupt envisioned and his illuminati infiltrated the universities with this crap.

    What is the glue that holds the multinational USA together? The ideals of liberty and freedom. Yes the west has a questionable past, yes my ancestors were feudal slaves, who paid extraordinary taxes, fought feudal wars, for the aristocrats. It’s the modern aristocrats of the media and universities who are pushing white privilege for the purpose of blowing up America and fomenting revolution for their dystopian vision of global govt and the unelected NWO dictators for the purpose of modern human slavery. Read between the lines.

    I’m sure many brainwashed sheeple will be or have gotten pissed off.

  20. jorod says

    Higher education has been very successfully subverted by leftist nitwit educators.

  21. Walter says

    the next asteroid can not strike earth soon enough – we need an extinction level event to wipe out all primates, we have clearly failed at being an intelligent species with universities leading the way in causing our intellects to devolve.

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  25. John Burke says

    The author observes, and implores:

    “Many of the ideas that accompany privilege talk, if implemented, would wreak havoc on human well-being. If people truly acknowledged their privilege, they would show a greater concern for the forces behind it, which permit them to lead long, healthy, educated, leisure-filled lives, all the while incessantly complaining about the unadulterated evils of modern civilization.

    So, when people claim to be “checking their privilege,” I propose that they put in a more genuine effort to really do so. To honestly acknowledge privilege requires balanced critical thought, the ability to self-reflect, and a willingness to converse with those who disagree. Without these traits, we’d have no privilege whatsoever and might as well give up on the entire human experiment.”

    Comment:

    If this were a version of that Steve Martin comedy bit (featured in the last minute of this video) http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/theodoric-of-york/n8661?snl=1 it would have to be followed (after an appropriately pregnant pause) with a… Naaaaaa!!!!

    Are privilege-checkers bragging or complaining? They’re bragging: they want to have — and call repeated attention to — their unmerited presumptions of superiority, while camouflaging this with egalitarian posturings. They enjoy Western Civilization’s benefits, while rejecting a sufficient of the humility-inducing complexities of how it is sustained that might correct their arrogance.

  26. John Burke says

    Correction: That last sentence should have included a crucial word, supplied below:

    They enjoy Western Civilization’s benefits, while rejecting a sufficient **understanding** of the humility-inducing complexities of how it is sustained that might correct their arrogance.

    Apologies for the oversight.

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