Part 1—Readers grope pachyderm: All of a sudden, “privilege” is extremely hot.
In this morning’s New York Times, three letters discuss the paper’s May 3 news report about Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang, who wrote a murky piece in a campus mag concerning the subject.
Fortgang’s famous piece was murky enough on its own. This morning’s letters recall the three blind men who famously groped the elephant.
Famously, the three men emerged with completely different ideas about what sort of critter was being groped. This morning’s letters seem to be discussing completely different topics.
The first letter says that the command or suggestion, “Check your privilege,” is an “ad hominem attack” which “sabotages debate.” Fortgang seemed to make a similar claim at the start of his world-famous essay.
The second letter writer seems to be groping a different part of the elephant.
He agrees that the directive, “Check your privilege,” acts as a type of “conversational kryptonite.” But his main point is quite different: He seems to say that a sound moral upbringing constitutes a privilege too, and it’s a good thing to have.
Or something. In our view, this writer’s point isn’t enormously clear.
Already, we are off in the weeds, weeds which grew rather high in the original essay by Fortgang. That said, we were most struck by this morning’s third letter, which seemed to be groping an ancient part of the pachyderm.
The letter is short; it may include assessments which are perfectly accurate. We were struck by the language it used:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (5/12/14): The young man profiled in your article is too quick to dismiss the point about privilege. I am 75 and like him grew up in Westchester County, New York. My teachers reminded us frequently of the privileged life we were leading. We had the best teachers, involved parents, and many field trips to museums, concert halls and theaters in New York City. We were a very fortunate cohort.This writer says that young Fortgang is “too quick to dismiss the point about privilege.” The famous freshman should “get out of his soft surroundings and see how” the other 99 percent lives, the letter writer says.
This young man needs to get out of his soft surroundings and see how most of the population lives.
Those judgments may be accurate! It all depends on what “the point” is taken to be. It also depends on Fortgang’s actual views, which weren’t expressed with any great clarity in his original essay.
That said, almost everyone could be more sensitive to other people’s situations and circumstances. That’s even true of Katie McDonough! Surely Fortgang, a college freshman, has a lot he could learn.
That said, we were struck by the writer’s recollections of her own upbringing in the 1950s:
Like Fortgang, this letter writer grew up in (largely) affluent Westchester County. We chuckled as she recalled her teachers describing the privileged life she and her classmates leading—privilege which started with the fact that her teachers were amazingly good!
Put that minor point to the side. Back in the 1950s, did her teachers really remind her of “the privileged life [she was] leading?” Was that the language they used?
It’s possible! But according to the world’s leading authority, the current language of “privilege” was largely invented and promulgated starting in 1965. By June 1969, the New York Times was on the case, reporting that SDS was calling “for an all-out fight against ‘white skin privileges.’ ”
That doesn’t mean there’s anything “wrong” with the language of “privilege” or “skin privilege,” or even with the language of “whitesplaining,” “mansplaining” or the more common “Salonsplaining.”
It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with advising someone to “check his privilege” in some situation. Appropriately stated, that may constitute good sound advice!
It does make us wonder if that third letter writer’s recollection is accurate. Was she told the she was living “a privileged life?” Or was she possibly told that she had “all the advantages”—that she was part of “a very fortunate cohort,” language she herself recalls?
For starters, here’s why we ask:
In 1963, Phil Ochs wrote an anthem of the era. His famous song was called, “There But For Fortune.”
Ochs didn’t write a song called, “There But For Privilege.” To see Joan Baez singing his anthem in real time, you can just click here.
(Baez’s recording was a Top Ten hit in the U.K. But then, everybody recorded the song, including Chad and Jeremy!)
Does the possible change in language matter? If a change in language has occurred, could it be that the language of “privilege” is more instructive than the language of “advantage” and “good fortune?”
Could the language of “privilege” possibly be less helpful in our ingoing debates?
Suddenly, “privilege” is extremely hot. The concept is spawning a lot of discussions.
That said, no two people seem to be groping the same pachyderm in these discussions. We’ll discuss aspects of this ongoing Babel all week.
Where does confusion come from? In our sprawling national discourse, we have that critter in spades.
Tomorrow: Sources of incoherence
For extra credit: The lyrics to Ochs’ anthem can be perused here. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
In five minutes or less, compose an essay explaining how offensive Ochs’ lyrics are.