Part 4—Can maintain a strong sense of privilege: As we’ve been noting, the concept of “privilege” is suddenly very hot.
How hot is it? This hot:
Last night, Bill O’Reilly and two guests conducted a very fuzzy segment about the very hot concept. The segment was geared to the report that the Kennedy School would be teaching a course on privilege.
When Mr. O does a segment, that’s hot! And not only that:
One hour earlier, the very hot topic had turned up in Salon’s headlines again—and Tal Fortgang’s name wasn’t mentioned! The concept of privilege is so hot that it can carry a Salon report all by itself at this point!
Who needs Fortgang? This is the way a new report was bannered by Salon:
WEDNESDAY, MAY 14, 2014 06:59 PM EDT“When I think of white privilege, I think of the ability to be seen as more than a tired symbol in a culture war,” Khjwala had said.
The privilege of being “invisible”: As a brown Muslim woman, my visibility comes with my Otherness
When I think of white privilege, I think of the ability to be seen as more than a tired symbol in a culture war
Except she also pretty much hadn’t. In her 1550-word piece, the word “privilege” appears only once, in passing. Khjwala’s piece was carefully reasoned—and it made almost no use of a certain hot new term.
Why was “privilege” crammed into those headlines two times? To appearances, Salon’s headline writers had done it again:
Hoping we’d click, they gave us a reason. In revolutionary times, such corners will often be cut.
The concept of privilege is hot. For that reason, we’ve been thinking about the ways the concept can perhaps be helpful—and about the various ways the concept can be misused.
In the current media world, varieties of journalistic misuse will often turn out to be endless. To some extent, that’s how it has seemed as we’ve explored the concept of privilege through the revolutionary cadre at the new Salon.
Full disclosure! Yesterday’s fiery piece at Salon may have been even more wrong than we suggested. Will the Kennedy School really be teaching a course called “Checking Your Privilege 101,” as the hapless but revolutionary Prachi Gupta reported?
In yesterday's report, we noted that Gupta seemed to have misread a joke by her source at New York magazine. And sure enough!
At some point, Gupta’s bungled report was rewritten, with a correction stuck at the end. Meanwhile, Marketplace posted the text of an email from the Kennedy School. The email suggests that Gupta’s bungle may extend beyond the name of that supposed course:
KENNEDY SCHOOL (5/15/14): There appears to be false information in the media being conveyed by reporters who have not contacted Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) officials to verify the accuracy of the information. Contrary to one article that has been picked up by others, the school is not planning to offer classes, coursework, or sessions devoted specifically to "power and privilege"...Whatever! Which, in its Latinate form, could appear as the motto on the new Salon's coat of arms.
Warning! For better or worse, the new Salon represents the cutting edge of a new revolutionary cadre which is emerging from within the pseudo-progressive world. Not unlike certain groups of locusts, these cadres seem to emerge every fifty years. And make no mistake:
Membership in such cadres will often confer a very strong sense of privilege.
To our nostrils, the fiery young writers at Salon often convey a remarkable sense of privilege. In these revolutionary times, there’s no need to observe even the simplest rules of evidence, argument or logic in the course of their fiery work.
Everything is permitted at such revolutionary times! The dumbest children in the country may end up atop the ramparts. They may reinvent language along the way, or even turn to real bombs.
The last time such a cadre appeared, Theodore Allen was introducing the concept of “white privilege,” if this history by the world’s foremost authority can be believed. Sensibly utilized, the concept might well have its uses.
But alas! At revolutionary times, exceptionally silly cadre members may not be entirely careful in the way they employ and apply their new constructions. Drawing on the research of the highly privileged Julia Fisher, we will observe two possible downsides to the use of the current hot term:
(1) The term can be used to stifle debate or dissent.
(2) The term can spread an unhelpful sense of guilt among those who have grown up with social advantages.
(Quoting Fisher, the term can have “the effect of invoking guilt, in large part because the phrase is so often used ungenerously, as a weapon rather than a gentle reminder.”)
Please understand: According to Fisher Think, inappropriate use of the term can even be used to spread unuseful guilt among those who favor social justice as defined by the revolution. At one point in her Little Red, White and Blue Book, Fisher paints a gruesome portrait of the way the concept can affect the suggestible and compliant:
FISHER (5/6/14): In liberal spheres of debate...privilege can be a sort of scarlet letter. Gawker's tournament may have been intended as comedy, but it was not without insight. “Privilege: so sweet to have,” Hamilton Nolan wrote in the introduction. “But even sweeter to not have. Privilege has its benefits, but the lack of privilege confers that sweet, sweet moral superiority.” The bracket makes explicit the competitive nature of the today's debate about privilege. Everyone is checking everyone else's privilege, competing to be the least privileged person present—and, thus, the most authoritative on the subject of privilege. Privilege is stigmatized; hardship—or assumed hardship—becomes a badge of honor.Can lack of privilege confer that sweet, sweet moral superiority? Yes, but so can rejection of privilege.
Take, for example, the biographies of the students who run the popular tumblr “Check Your Privilege at the Door.” If the blog weren't so self-serious, I'd assume this was parody: “I am mixed race (white and Korean) and a lesbian. I also identify as fat and as an atheist. My privileges include white-passing privilege, cisgender privilege, class privilege and able-bodied privilege. I am an extrovert with low social skills.” Nothing about her personality, interests, or achievements—only where she stood in the Internet equivalent of my high school's sorting exercise. Mixed race: one step back. Fat: one step back. Cisgender: two steps forward.
It’s amazing to see how many people can be taken in the sad direction conveyed by the highlighted passage above. As we noted in Tuesday’s post, the foremost authority describes a similar phenomenon the last time a pseudo-progressive revolutionary cadre began to arise:
The concept of white privilege also came to be used within radical circles for purposes of self-criticism by anti-racist whites. For instance, a 1975 article in Lesbian Tide criticized the American feminist movement for exhibiting “class privilege” and “white privilege”. Weather Underground leader Bernadine Dohrn, in a 1977 Lesbian Tide article, wrote: “...by assuming that I was beyond white privilege or allying with male privilege because I understood it, I prepared and led the way for a totally opportunist direction which infected all of our work and betrayed revolutionary principles.”Speaking like a member of a northern branch of The Shining Path, the highly suggestible Dohrn self-criticized to beat the band. After that, she turned to the bombs, getting several people killed and sending Reagan to power.
Make no mistake—membership in revolution can confer a strong sense of privilege. Among the highly suggestible, it may seem that previous rules have all ceased to apply.
Journalistic rules no longer apply, as we routinely see at Salon. Beyond that, exciting private languages can and should be invented. Soon, the others are being told to shut up with the claim that they’re mansplaining, whitesplaining or failing to check their privilege. Failing to check its own dumbness, an excitable cadre seizes the banner of “progressive” debate.
In our view, there’s no doubt about it: dumbly applied, the language of “privilege” can end up being very unhelpful. Tomorrow, we’ll look at one particular wondrous use of the hot new fifty-year-old term.
It comes from a former Teach For America member who now pursues the revolution from an unlikely perch at Booz Allen. She has the language of “privilege” down cold.
On balance, we think her piece just isn’t real smart. More strikingly, it conveys an astonishing sense of privilege, even leaving Booz Allen aside.
Tomorrow: Membership can confer an extremely strong sense of privilege