Check Your Premises, Not Your Privilege

I try to keep an open mind about different world views. That just seems reasonable to me. Like the five blind men and the elephant, we each see a different piece of the truth. It would be a bit silly for me to stand here, screaming “I have scientific proof that an elephant is just like a snake!” while I hold its trunk and you hold its ear, and neither of us sees the whole animal. It would be just awful if I then added that you are evil and a threat to our society because you were part of the “elephant-is-like-a-carpet” set, and thus a snake-denier.

Yet that’s just the kind of thing that’s happening right now in the United States, as a loudmouth, a gold digger and a senile idealist walk into a primary. (God, I wish that was the opening to a joke! If it is, the joke is on the American people.) People are just being nasty to each other.

So perhaps I’m just another victim of the polarization of America, but there’s a worldview I can’t keep an open mind about any more. An article first featured on a hack political website, and then distributed by Huffington Post, so infuriated me that I guess I’m now officially on the warpath against privilege theory. I won’t explain what touched off my war here. You can read last week’s post.

Some might say that everyone who dabbles in privilege theory does not go to the ludicrous extent of demonizing a boy who’s a victim of North Korea’s unjust laws, just because that boy is white. I’m sure that’s true. The problem is, when you dabble in a theory, and it’s an evil theory, it doesn’t matter how nice and sweet and kind-hearted you are, your worldview is tainted by evil.

And this theory is evil, pure and simple. You are not evil if you buy into it, but you do need to check your premises. You need to ask, “What is the basis of this theory I’m buying into, what does it say about my world view, what are the ultimate implications of its application, and, above all, who developed it and why?”

Those are good questions to ask about theories you disagree with too, and I asked them.

First I discovered that privilege theory is attributed, by some, to Karl Marx. Most of my readers and friends know what I think of Marx. Here’s an example. Sorry, I don’t have a reputable link to a connection between Marx and privilege theory. Mostly, it was just a lot of chatter on forums, suggesting that, because Marx developed conflict theory and posited communism as a way to level the economic playing field and increase the general welfare, he was one of the first to say, “Let’s get rid of privilege.”

An article from the journal International Socialism disagrees. (Yes, it’s true, I’ll read anything in my quest for answers.) These authors correctly identifies Peggy McIntosh, a “radical feminist” per Wikipedia, as the founder of modern privilege theory. These authors consider the concept of white privilege to be post-Marxist. The following statement from their article caught my eye:

Identity politics essentially argued that only those who experience something can really understand it or be relied upon to challenge it. Privilege theory largely accepts this premise, but in many ways is the flip side of this framework—focusing not on the oppressed, but on the supposed “privileged” oppressor.

This statement seems to imply that there can be no peace between heterosexual white males and pretty much anyone else, unless the privilege of white males is revoked. That sounds like the spirit of Marx to me. He was all about tearing down what exists. It also suggests to me–and this is my personal experience with self-appointed social justice warriors–that peace and harmony are not the goal of privilege theory. The goal is to gain advantage by claiming disadvantage, to promote division and discord.

The author of this article, writing at The Federalist, seems to agree. Indeed, David Marcus takes the argument farther, by saying that privilege theory actually abridges equality and free speech:

By the late 1980s, there were no more institutional mountains to be climbed. On paper the United States had moved beyond officially sanctioning the second-class treatment of any of its citizens. Lacking institutional fights, liberals focused on culture wars—the National Endowment for the Arts versus Jesse Helms, or Murphy Brown versus Dan Quayle. The concept that began to take hold was that the marginalized should be given more agency by virtue of their oppression. In fact, level of oppression became the standard by which speech would be judged. This differed from the dissociative concept of political correctness because the rules of political correctness applied, more or less, universally. After McIntosh, they no longer did. By virtue of the privilege whites enjoyed, their speech was now subject to stricter scrutiny. And that development directly leads to the far more dangerous turn our society’s discourse has taken.

Again, do I believe that everyone who is talking about privilege is evil? No. Do I believe that members of certain groups do not suffer additional disadvantages because of their identities? No. But do I believe that privilege theory is dangerous, and that anyone who is talking about it should learn about its true origins? Yes.

Privilege theory is more of the same divisive bilge that revolutionaries have spouted since Marx, and it has the same goal. That goal is to give power, not to the masses, but to a few shrewd politicos. Is that what you want to accomplish when you use this argument?

Please. Check your premises.



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2 thoughts on “Check Your Premises, Not Your Privilege

  1. “This statement seems to imply that there can be no peace between heterosexual white males and pretty much anyone else, unless the privilege of white males is revoked.”

    _Please check your premise._

    This is not what modern discussions of privilege are talking about. You may be right about what its roots are, but they are no more descriptive of what modern discussions are about than the original meaning of “awful” (that is, awe-inspiring) is anywhere near what it means now.

    The phrase “check your privilege” isn’t a call to revoke it, or a command to renounce it. It’s a request for you to think about it, especially when talking about experiences that you yourself have not had.

    When someone asks you to “check your privilege,” what they’re really asking you to do is to reflect on the ways that your social status might have given you an advantage – even if you didn’t ask for it or earn it – while their social status might have given them a disadvantage.

    So, for example, the suggestion that people who want to earn enough money to eat, pay rent, etc. should go to college is usually coming from any number of privileged points of view:

    Neurotypical people succeed at college where non-neurotypical might not.
    Physically able people have fewer barriers to success at college.
    People who grew up middle class or better often went to better primary schools
    People who grew up in stable homes generally do better in college than folks who grew up in homes struggling with mental illness, addiction, or abuse.
    People who went to college twenty or forty years ago paid a lot less (in terms of number of hours of unskilled labor required) than modern students do.

    That’s what “check your privilege” means.

    • Don’t worry, I’m always checking premises–mine, among others.

      The statement I’m reacting to comes from an article on modern privilege theory, and I read it as saying exactly what I summarized—that white, hetero males can never be part of the solution, because of their privilege.

      I find it disingenuous to attempt to limit modern applications of privilege theory to a simple request that we all take stock of our advantages. It’s applied in so many more sinister ways, particularly to censor the opinions of anyone the user determines to be privileged.

      An innocent word like “awful” can grow to have negative connotations, true. But a divisive theory designed to hurt some cannot be turned into something innocent. Even were privilege theory not used to silence the opposition, its questions come with built-in assumptions. Those assumptions are based on the skin color and gender of the person being asked the question. Not all white males grew up rich, or in mentally healthy families, or straight, or whatever. To assume they did is sloppy thinking at best, prejudiced at worst.

      Each of us is unique. Each of us has our own privilege / challenge index. Indeed, you might benefit more than I from privileges we both shared equally, and you might cope better with the same challenge that I experience. It’s impossible to address our advantages and disadvantages without resorting to sweeping generalizations. Sweeping generalizations include “everyone should go to college,” which is ridiculous because it’s a one-size-fits-all approach to a diverse population’s needs.

      People should be evaluated for their individual qualities, not their demographics. Privilege theory puts the emphasis on demographics. It judges people based on group membership. That’s my biggest problem with privilege theory.

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