This issue has gotten quite a bit of traction lately. Ever since a freshman named Tal Fortgang published an op-ed in a B-level Princeton publication on the topic, everyone and their uncle has been talking about this issue. Simply put, the underlying issue is the phrase “check your privilege” and Fortgang’s indignation at being referred to with the epithet. Fortgang went on a painful rant about how his ancestors faced adversity, worked hard and gave him a better life. Therefore, he concluded, he had “checked his privilege” and was satisfied by his findings. Of course, Fortgang fundamentally misunderstood the meaning of this entire convention, but its true meaning opens up a whole other can of words.
Privilege, as it is currently understood in left-leaning polite society, means those who has received some comparable advantage in their life. If, like me, one is White, male, straight and comes from a financially stable family, one undoubtedly has received some extra boosts in the race of life. Only the truly naive would deny that much. My biggest issue with this topic is the nomenclature; at its core, I hate the word “privilege” in some of the denotations it is used in. Additionally, more radical adherents to this philosophy lose track of the real point of this exercise, advocating equality of opportunity. The radicals instead advocate for equality of outcome, but I’ll get to that.
“Privilege” is defined as a special advantage or immunity granted to only some. I suppose that is fine for some financial examples. Those with trust funds, private tutors, or other such luxuries are quite literally privileged. However, other examples make me a little bit more uncomfortable. For example, much has been said in recent days on the topic of white privilege. The idea being that Caucasians have many things in life easier, including job interviews, how people perceive you and treatment by society. Again, only the naive punks like Fortgang would ever deny that much.
But not being discriminating against is not privilege. Being discriminating against is depriving someone of her or his basic rights. That is a distinction with a big difference. To call it privilege insinuates, somehow, that everyone should experience adversity rather than everyone be free of it in this circumstance. As the Atlantic so eloquently put it today, it not only accepts, but endorses, the current constraints of class. Call me a dreamer, but I dream of a world in which we can steer clear of such prejudice, and lack thereof is not considered an undue advantage.
The same may be said for plenty of other groups. If women get paid 77 cents on the dollar compared to men, it does not mean men are privileged. It means that women are being deprived of their right to a fair wage. Certainly, no one would argue it is “straight privilege” to get married. It is EVERYONE’S right to marry who they love.
Ostensibly, the point of all this talk of privilege-checking is to remind people of any advantages they may have received throughout life so that they may be more empathetic to those less-fortunate. It should not be used as a shaming advice, used to silenced the opinions of people different than them. Leftists yelling at White people to “check their privilege” as a silencing tactic when talk of Affirmative Action arises is not reverse-racism, as Fortgang may suggest. Rather, it’s just plain dumb and rude.
If one understands the inherent advantages doled out for being White, the idea is that they could be empathetic to programs such as Affirmative Action. Likewise, advantages of maleness and Equal Pay, or heterosexuality and gay marriage. The common denominator is to just not be a jerk or be mean. If you are advantaged by being cisgendered, how about not being a terrible person to transgendered persons? Speaking up for them amid all this silliness over bathrooms and the non-existent pedophiles-turned-transsexuals who allegedly roam them would certainly be a good start.
What I am not a fan of, however, is when the phrase is used, as I have mentioned above, as a tactic to stifle debate. Look, I am a supporter of Affirmative Action, sagacious followers of this publication will remember that much. But as a White man who is a product of private schooling, I don’t think the advantages and privileges I have been lucky enough to receive cheapen my opinions.
For example, my support on the aforementioned issue is largely limited to the holistic review process it is currently employed in, but not direct racial quotas (Note: This is a moot issue, as the US Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that these quotas are unconstitutional). If a leftist protested that I should “check my privilege” because of those descriptors I mentioned in the previous paragraph, that would be the epitome of the type of stuff that should be avoided. At that point, the phrase is used as nothing more than an ad hominem attack, something I always take excessive lengths to avoid.
The other issue is when people –either inadvertently or on purpose– substitute the equality of opportunity for equality of outcome. As a capitalist, I’m only a fan of the former option, because I believe that is inherently leads to equity of outcome. This is the main rationale behind my support for Affirmative Action. However, when terms like privilege are used in a punitive fashion against those with higher socioeconomic standing just for the sake of doing so, I become somewhat uncomfortable.
Perhaps the point that you should take away most is that all the fight over semantics is so very pedantic and meaningless. Rather, one should care far more about the underlying political issues. Instead of focusing on if someone has cisgender advantage, focus on if they believe in full equal rights for transgendered people. Don’t tell someone to check their privilege, tell them to check their political views. Most importantly, just don’t be mean. That holds for both the privileged and the disadvantaged.