“Check Your Privilege” is Actually Just a Lousy Argument
Like you, I’ve read Tal Fortgang’s piece, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for my White Male Privilege.” And like you, I’ve enjoyed watching him get skewered by blog after blog in the never ending one-upmanship that is the who-had-it-worse awards. As the internet froths at the mouth, I hereby declare that, like you, I think he made a big mistake! He should have elaborated on his first sentence and stopped there.
The point he should have made, but skipped over instead, was that the “check your privilege” riposte is not relevant to almost any discussion in which it is invoked. It is a rhetorical flourish used to discredit the proposition based on the identity of the speaker, and not the merit of the proposition itself. There’s a word for this logical fallacy: ad hominem. When employed, it can pack a powerful punch, but in reality it is lazy, lousy, and liberally lobbed in lieu of any legitimate point.
Although I’ve rarely heard the literal words “check your privilege,” I have been exposed to many, many forms of this non-argument. You might recognize these examples from your own experience:
“You wouldn’t know what it’s like to not have healthcare. If you did you would see that [Obamacare/socialized medicine/Healthy SF] is desperately needed in this country.”
“Have you ever been poor? No? Well then how can you have an opinion on [welfare reform/minimum wage/etc].”
“You’re white, and your built-in privilege makes it difficult for you to see how affirmative action merely levels the playing field.”
“It must be really easy for you to argue for school vouchers having gone to a fancy private school.”
THESE ARE NOT VALID ARGUMENTS. They sound good, and they might even sound credible, especially so if the speaker is actually a member of the disaffected group in question. But you’ll realize that it’s a completely invalid point if you reverse the roles and you find that it suddenly makes no sense. I’ve actually seen, in the heat of an impassioned discussion, a “check your privilege” practitioner contort their definition of privilege to include the very, very, unprivileged individual who had taken a contrary view. It was as if he would go to any lengths to avoid making a real counterpoint with actual evidence.
What’s weird is that this line is almost exclusively employed against those who challenge the liberal-Democratic axis of thought on political or economic issues, even though no one seems to apply the logic consistently. After all, surely an Ivy League grad who checks the privilege of another Ivy League grad over minimum wage is no more qualified to have an opinion just because, in her mind, she has better aligned herself with the interests of the poor. Obviously, or at least it should be obvious, there is more than one way to approach a complicated issue like poverty and there are no easy answers, or else we would have solved it a long time ago. In any event, “check your privilege” is not productive discourse in pursuit of solving real political and socioeconomic problems.
The big secret is, you and almost everybody you know is unbelievably privileged. If you live in America, you are privileged. If you read and speak English in a world where English is the lingua franca, you are privileged. If you have an internet connection, you are privileged. If you grew up with two parents you are privileged.
Here’s the good news, though: your privilege doesn’t disqualify you from having an opinion on almost anything. To present that opinion you must have evidence and support for your claims, of course, but you need not settle for a life of lazy rhetorical flourishes in pursuance of quick debate points. Hold your position against the ad hominem, because it’s likely that when the “check your privilege” card has been played, your interlocutor has already run out of counterarguments and you’re winning.
So don’t worry about checking your privilege. Check your facts instead.