As far as ideological buzzwords are concerned, “Check Your Privilege” is right up there with “Rape Culture” in the hierarchy of excellent, beautifully conceived drivel. I am in awe of phrases like this, they are exactly what this blog has always been about, power through ideas. The genius of these phrases is that they do a large number of complicated things in merely a few words. They do the following,
- Establish ‘axioms’
- State the issue
- Frame the solution
Going through our framework with “Rape Culture” yields the following,
- Axiom: There exists a prevalence of rape in society
- The Issue: Society is a perpetrator of this rape
- Solution: The culture supports rape, males are those who rape, therefore males not only control culture (note the feminist framing here) but also support the culture of rape (being only the gender associated with rape).
This is a complicated set of assumptions and framing, all generated by two simple words. Their power relies in our desire to ‘hook up’ these words and phrases with our common understanding, aka our ‘shared language’. The word associations with Rape and Culture allow us to make all these complicated associations subconsciously. The trickery here is not what it is said, but what is left unsaid. All those untested assumptions, all those unchallenged ‘issues’ which get set as fact when one argues directly about how x or y isn’t rape culture at all!
By yielding to the temptation of accepting the words as cannon you have already given up any argument to the contrary. You have submitted entirely and now the results are framed for you in a way the user wishes it to be so. Namely, rape culture is bad and is perpetrated by a male dominated culture which ‘consumes’ women and objectifies them on a continual basis.
This leads us to the main course,
Check Your Privilege (stated to another person)
- Axiom: Your current societal status is privileged
- The Issue: You are ungrateful of your superior status, and are ignorant of its ramifications (your privilege has not been checked)
- Solution: Not only should you feel ashamed/guilty about your superior status, you should be actively working to mitigate it via association with those groups who seek to diminish privilege. Privilege is generally associated with an unfair advantage over other people, therefore to be ignorant of your treasured status would be an insult. Given that most people are believers in meritocracy, than you must accept that privilege is not just bad economically but also in a social sphere.
More can be derived from these three simple words. Checking your privilege is a direct challenge for you to justify your current social status and what you are doing to ‘reduce’ privilege in your world. However, I find myself unimpressed by the use of this term by leftists. Not just because I refute the pre-suppositions, but because I reject the pompous arrogance that accompanies it.
I want to tackle this phrase in two pieces. The first is the economic argument, the second is the social one.
The Economic Argument:
If you want to think about this in a historical perspective, “Privilege Checking” is nothing new, even though the phrasing is. It is merely a way of someone in a lower economic status to express not just envy, but a desire to ingratiate themselves with a sense of moral superiority in the face of seemingly unfair social power against them. It is a defense mechanism, that success in the societal game is merely the result of chance rather than any merit.
The irony I see with this sort of reasoning is that leftists do not generally support meritocracy; even though they give lip service to it. The support for labor unions is a prime example of this. While the private market place is still full of “who you know” rather than “what you know,” unions obscure this picture to the most unfair advantage of those who do not come from a union family. The labor union is the economic personification of “Check Your Privilege,” but in reverse.
My economic privilege is something I should be ashamed of. No matter how hard I work, or how much I suffer. We should all feel guilty; either being born into wealth or producing it through your own determination. Those who grew up poor and became wealthy are not exempt from this economic Privilege Checking. They are just as guilty as the trust fund babies. The argument from the leftist is that the capitalist system is not a meritocracy, it is ruled by oligarchs who pillage and stockpile rather than produce.
You must give sympathy to those who fall off the ladder, either because they do not participate or because they are incapable of the climb. The answer from “checking your privilege” In an economic sense is to eliminate it. But how?
A leftist would argue that the best way to do so is to squash or chain private capital. I would argue that at no point in human history have we lived in a society so infatuated with meritocracy, which is due to capitalism and the enlightenment rather than socialism and Marxism. I think it as an historical fact, Capitalism more so than any other economic system yet invented, has been more successful in getting people to make decisions based on merit rather than on family, race, sex, or class.
But this is for another day.
The Social Argument:
The most powerful phrasing of “check your privilege” has to do with racial and gender status. Namely, white males are treated as demi-gods while people of color are cast to the dirt.
The fact remains that to exist confers privilege. Any pool of competitive advantage of another is thus defined as privilege. A physically active man, a naturally intelligent women, or a white man. All confer privilege whether deserved or not. “Checking” this is to make an egalitarian statement of the worst type. That is, egalitarianism for the sake of it without any serious purpose.
The trouble remains with how the phrase deals with the patriarchy question. Certainly gender inequality has existed since civilization began (and, depending on your viewpoint, since humanity began). The issue is that no existing male is responsible for the actions of prior males. I state with certainty that the son should not pay for the sins of the father. As a result the current male generation is morally exempted from the atrocities of prior oppression. However, checking your privilege makes this association explicit. I am guilty for the circumstances I have been thrust into. The white man, rather than the white woman must pay his dues. The black male, over the black woman must pay his, and so on.
But beyond this, let us take the current situation of any male in (almost all) societies. In the modern day these men now indeed enjoy a benefit over their black, or Hispanic, or female companions. But in modern times this is largely due to the cyclic nature of power via in-group bias more-so than a conspiracy to subjugate ‘inferior’ genders and races. Those with power subjugate those without it. It is only in very recent times (1700-current) that equality of individuals based on their existence, not heritage, has ever been serious implemented or entertained on a large scale.
I am powerless to stop the cyclic nature of power and abuse. It is a natural endeavor of humans that they prefer those who they are similar to (by any physical, or personal characteristic; be it race, blood lines, or esoteric interests). Once this process begin, exclusion and an ‘others’ is generated. Eliminating the cycle is done through a continuous revolving association with ‘others’. If the goal is to integrate society and eliminate gender/race differences, I assure you that humans will find some other criterion to oppress each other under (such as, region, location in a city, hair color, whatever).
My issue with “Checking” my privilege is that it implies that what I’m currently doing to fight against racial or gender injustice is not enough. I need to agree, politically, with the perpetrator. I need to justify my actions to someone who feels morally superior by flinging a short, mindless phrase at me. Then of course, when digging too deep into this phrase we run into the issue of “everyone has privilege, we should just be thankful and observe that some people are more advantaged than others,“ which spirals into an obnoxious ‘race to the most disadvantaged’ argument. A pointless exercise. There will always be an oppressed. The principal question we should be working toward is how to minimize this number, and a game of back scratching between privileged people changes nothing.
Because friends, if you are privileged enough to say phrases like “Check your Privilege” rather than worrying about survival, you are probably quite a bit too privileged yourself.
Engaging in this dialogue is about as useful as going into a Starbucks “Pay it Forward” line. A nice way for generally wealthy people to do zero good and be socially pressured to feel ‘morally superior’. Get in line folks. If you think you are fighting for the oppressed by giving lip-service to actual oppression you are kidding yourself. I’ll be more impressed when you actually start doing something, rather than having pointless circular arguments on who deserves our attention.