Part 3—One possible form of excess: As we’ve told you, the concept of privilege is extremely hot.
Only yesterday, Prachi Gupta salonsplained exactly how hot. Warning! The parts of this excerpt which sounds like a joke may be a reading error.
GUPTA (5/13/14): Students at Harvard’s Kennedy School will now be required to check their privilege/Will students at the Kennedy School really be taking a course called “Checking Your Privilege 101?”
The course will be called Checking Your Privilege 101
If Tal Fortgang, the Princeton freshman who refused to check his white privilege, ever wants to go to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, he’ll have to change his tune significantly—or at least spend some time seriously evaluating it, thanks to a new orientation class requirement called “Checking Your Privilege 101.”
New York Magazine’s the Cut reports that “in response to growing demand from student activists, administrators committed Friday to adding a class in power and privilege to its orientation program for incoming first-year students.”
That purported title seems to have been a joke on the part of Gupta’s source at New York magazine. Gupta reported the course title straight, after playing the Tal Fortgang card.
Whatever! It does seem that the Kennedy School is adding some sort of orientation program in which students will “critically examine power and privilege and what it means to have access to this power.”
In theory, of course, this could be a good thing, depending on what is taught. Then again, as Bogart said, we’ll always have excesses.
Can excesses sometimes occur when we start instructing our neighbors and friends, and people we hate, that they should check their privilege? In a recent piece in the New Republic, Julia Fisher described one such alleged excess.
Warning! As some commenters quickly noted, Yale grad Fisher is highly privileged. Under the circumstances, some commenters weren’t real sure that she should be discussing this topic at all.
For what little it may be worth, this is what Fisher said:
Early in her piece, Fisher described an exercise in which a group of high school freshmen were helped to check their privilege. We’ll be honest—this sounds like a bad idea to us:
FISHER (5/6/14): My freshman year in high school, the administration's diversity czars lined my whole class across the gym and read a series of statements, each accompanied by a command to step forward or backward. “If you are white, take two steps forward.” “If your parents went to college, take one step forward.” “If you are gay, take two steps back.” Before long, we were sorted according to our supposed privilege—and I'm pretty sure all of us, from the children of real estate moguls up front to the mostly black financial aid students in the rear, felt awful about where we stood.As she continued, Fisher described a Buzzfeed “How Privileged Are You?” quiz and a Gawker creation, “The Privilege Tournament,” which was apparently “intended as comedy.”
That was almost nine years ago, and the incident upset many students and parents. Today, the phrase “check your privilege”—that is, to acknowledge your relative advantage—is commonplace, as is the tallying of privilege.
She mentioned the recent flap about Fortgang, noting the problems with his perspective. She then described some possible pitfalls with the “privilege” craze.
Was the high school exercise described by Fisher a good idea? Did the exercise even happen?
One commenter seemed to confirm that it did. In the process, this commenter almost seemed to extend the exercise.
Allegedly, the anonymous commenter is the parent of one of Fisher’s classmates. Fisher should have defined her own privilege further, this anonymous commenter said:
COMMENTER (5/7/14): I'm a parent of a classmate of Ms. Fisher's. She should identify herself and the school to which she refers. (It's Georgetown Day School in the District of Columbia, which justly prides itself on a very early and sustained engagement with civil rights.) Her calling the Upper School a "high school" is a bit of a misdirect since it suggests that she didn't herself attend an elite school (and benefit from a rate of admission to Ivy League institutions that's off the charts). Her mocking of the GDS diversity directors as czars, when they have no real power, is unfortunate. Her reference to a line up in a piece that gratuitously refers to the Holocaust is misplaced. Her claim that many were offended should be supported with evidence—or she should just speak for herself and her parents. It's fine to disagree with the methods used in that event, and perhaps even with its goals, but the tone of this piece (preening moral superiority) is completely off.According to the anonymous commenter, Fisher had committed an array of sins in her piece. This included “her reference to a line up in a piece that gratuitously refers to the Holocaust.”
That said, we were struck by the commenter’s claim that Fisher had disguised her privilege in her multiply bungled piece. She shouldn’t have called Georgetown Day School a “high school,” the commenter said. For a reason which wasn’t explained, the commenter said that Fisher should have provided more detail about her own privilege!
(Note: Fisher did attend Georgetown Day School, according to her on-line profile.)
Should Fisher have specified that she was discussing a prep school? We don’t really know why. The reference to “financial aid students” seems to imply that this was a private school with students from an array of backgrounds. But Fisher’s description of the exercise would seem to stand or fall on its own, as does her analysis of the possible problems with privilege-checking gone wild.
Fisher’s piece strikes us as basically sane-and-balanced. In this passage, she describes one possible problem—in her view, the most serious problem—with the culture of checking-your-privilege:
FISHER: The real problem with the phrase "check your privilege"—aside from the fact that it reduces people to the sum of their characteristics—is that it has become a handicapping device. White male? Then what could you possibly know about racism or sexism? Calling out privilege often isn't intended to make someone consider his advantages in life so much as to dismiss his perspective. But I want to be able to discuss sexism or feminism with men, and I think their opinions are no less worthy or relevant for the fact that they are male. Similarly, anyone should be able to participate in a conversation about racism without being discounted or silenced on account of race.According to Fisher, the phrase, “Check your privilege,” is often used “as a weapon.” In Fortgang’s formulation, the phrase can be used “to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them.”
That’s why I find Fortgang’s reaction not wholly out of place. Told to check your privilege, it’s pretty easy to feel shut out of conversation; an advantage in life might be turned into a disadvantage in debate. “Check your privilege” can come across as an expectation that a person be repentant for sins he has not committed. In its most generous usage, of course, “check your privilege” isn’t meant to make anyone feel guilty—only to make them recognize their privileged position. But it has the effect of invoking guilt, in large part because the phrase is so often used ungenerously, as a weapon rather than a gentle reminder. This is partly what outraged Fortgang, who refers to the phrase as a reprimand that "threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them."
Might this be a possible pitfall when we start privilegesplaining? Can this sort of thing actually happen? Can arguments be struck down “without regard for their merits?”
Of course they can! If you doubt that, you need only examine the comments to Fisher’s piece.
Can privilege be used as a weapon, as a way to stifle dissent? In the sixth comment to the piece, an anonymous reader engages in the very approach Fisher had just described:
COMMENTER 6 (5/7/14): Yes, Julia Fisher, who went to a 30k a year private school k thru 12 and then Yale, please lecture to everyone about why people should cool it with “check your privilege.” Are you kidding me?The commenter didn’t examine the merits of anything Fisher said. He simply rejected the notion that someone like Fisher should be discussing the topic.
The next commenter pretty much took the same line:
COMMENTER 7 (5/7/14): You have got to be kidding!The substance of Fisher’s arguments was ignored. In essence, the commenter said that someone like Fisher should stifle herself on this topic.
Such trivial topics are used to advance the careers of privileged individuals such as Julia Fisher, fomenting rage and resentment among those lacking in privilege, and distracting them from building the skills and contacts that can potentially have some material impact on their lives.
Meanwhile, other privileged individuals such as the self-righteous T. Fortgang are further padding their already privileged status and likely setting themselves up for jobs that rely on connections and social familiarity...
The previous anonymous commenter had taken a slightly more nuanced position. Some of what follows is perfectly accurate, but the desire to stifle discussion is very near:
COMMENTER 5 (5/7/14): “Told to check your privilege, it’s pretty easy to feel shut out of conversation; an advantage in life might be turned into a disadvantage in debate.”Depending on the situation and topic, it may be true that some straight white males might benefit from “shutting up more” and listening to others. But what if the gay black female is wrong on some point and the straight white male has noticed? What does the straight fellow do then?
Ummm... good. As a straight white male, most of us should shut the eff up more often and listen rather than trying to make sure our voices are heard. Trust me guys, there is no lack of prominent voices speaking up for straight white males in our culture.
It's amazing how upset some of us get when we're forced to experience in even the most trivial way what actually disadvantaged people put up with on a daily basis. Oh boohoo, I was made to feel uncomfortable about my race or gender one time in a college class, that's definitely a problem we need to address right away.
Can “Check your privilege” sometimes be used as an ad hominem attack, as a way to stifle dissent against one’s own preferred position? Of course it can!
Quickly, people arrived in comments looking for ways to stifle Fisher. Soon, that classmate’s parent arrived.
She didn’t defend that privilege exercise on the merits as much as she argued that Fisher should have more fully disclosed her own privilege. How can we evaluate arguments unless we have full disclosure of the privilege lying behind them?
Babel lies down that dull-witted road. If you doubt that, read Fisher’s comments.
Tomorrow: The glorious uses of guilt