Checking ‘Check Your Privilege”

Privilege (album)

Privilege (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a philosopher, I became familiar with the notion of the modern political concept of privilege as a graduate student—sometimes in classes, but sometimes in being lectured by other students about the matter. Lest anyone think I was engaged in flaunting my privileges, the lectures were always about my general maleness and my general appearance of whiteness (I am actually only mostly white) as opposed to any specific misdeed I had committed as a white-appearing male. I was generally sympathetic to most criticisms of privilege, but I was not particularly happy when people endeavored to use a person’s membership in a privileged class as grounds for rejecting the person’s claims out of hand. Back then, there was no handy phrase to check a member of a privileged class. Fortunately (or unfortunately) such a phrase has emerged, namely “check your privilege!”

The original intent of the phrase is, apparently, to remind a person making a claim on a political (or moral) issue that he is speaking from a position of privilege, such as being a male or straight. While it is most commonly used against members of what can be regarded as the “traditional” privileged classes (males, whites, the wealthy, etc.) it can also be employed against people of classes that are either privileged relative to the classes they are commenting on or in different non-privileged class. For example, a Latina might be told to “check her privilege” for making a remark about black women. In this case, the idea is to remind the transgressors that different oppressed groups experience their oppression differently.

As might be imagined, many people take issue with being told to “check their privilege!” in some cases, this can be mere annoyance with the phrase. This annoyance can have some foundation, given that the phrase can have a hostile connotation and the fact that it can seem like a dismissive reply.

In other cases, the use of the phrase can be taken as an attempt to silence someone. Roughly put, “check your privilege” can be interpreted as “stop talking” or even as “you are wrong because you belong to a privileged class.” In some cases, people are interpreting the use incorrectly—but in other cases they are interpreting quite correctly.

Thus, the phrase can be seen as having two main functions (in addition to its dramatic and rhetorical use). One is as a reminder, the other is as an attack. I will consider each of these in the context of critical thinking.

The reminder function of the phrase does have legitimacy in that it is grounded in a real need to remind people of two common cognitive biases, namely in group bias and attribution error. In group bias is the name for the tendency people have to easily form negative opinions of people who are not in their group (in this case, an allegedly privileged class). This bias leads people to regard members of their own group more positively (attributing positive qualities and assessments to their group members) while regarding members of other groups more negatively (attributing negative qualities and assessments to these others). For example, a rich person might regard other rich people as being hardworking while regarding poor people as lazy, thieving and inclined to use drugs. As another example, a woman might regard her fellow women as kind and altruistic while regarding men as violent, sex-crazed and selfish.

Given the power of this bias, it is certainly worth reminding people of it—especially when their remarks show signs that this bias is likely to be in effect. Of course, telling someone to “check their privilege” might not be the nicest way to engage in the discussion and it is less specific than “consider that you might be influenced by in group bias.”

Attribution error is a bias that leads people to tend to fail to appreciate that other people are as constrained by events and circumstances as they would be if they were in their situation. For example, consider a discussion about requiring voters to have a photo ID, reducing the number of polling stations and reducing their hours. A person who is somewhat well off might express the view that getting an ID and driving across town to a polling station on his lunch break is no problem—because it is no problem for him. However, for someone who does not have a car and is very poor, these can be serious obstacles. As another example, someone who is rich might express the view that the poor should not be helped because they are obviously poor because they are lazy (and not because of the circumstances they face, such as being born into poverty).

Given the power of this bias, a person who seems to making this error should certainly be reminded of this possibility. But, of course, telling the person to “check their privilege” might not be the most diplomatic way to engage and it is certainly less specific than pointing out the likely error. But, given the limits of Twitter, it might be a viable option when used in this social media context.

In regards to the second main use, using it to silence a person or to reject the person’s claim would not be justified. While it is legitimate to consider the effects of biases, to reject a person’s claim because of their membership in a specific class would be an ad hominen of some sort.  An ad hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B makes an attack on person A.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Because of the usage of the “check your privilege” in this role, I’d suggest a minor addition to the ad hominem family, the check your privilege ad hominem:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B tells A to “check their privilege” based on A’s membership in group G.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

This is, obviously enough, bad reasoning.

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  1. s. wallerstein

    The phrase, “check your privilege”, is counter-productive, not only for the epistemic reasons that you point out.

    To end oppression and powerlessness, oppressed and powerless groups need to build coalitions and alliances, precisely because they do not have the power to change things on their own. These coalitions need to include progressives coming from privileged groups, who for ethical or philosophical reasons, solidarize with oppressed groups.

    That oppressed and powerless groups compete with one another to see which is less privileged (and hence, implicitly ethically superior) makes it difficult or impossible to build political alliances.

    Nothing turns off prospective supporters more than being told to “check your privilege”, in other words, “to shut up”, that one does not have the right to express one’s opinion.

    What’s more, for a political coalition to be successful it needs to listen to and to take into account the opinions of all supporters, including those who come from privileged groups.

    So using the phrase, “check your privilege,” just increaeses the isolation and powerlessness of already isolated and powerless groups.

    If the one percent had cunningly devised a strategy for dividing and conquering the oppressed, they couldn’t have come up with a more effective tool than having them use the phrase “check your privilege” against one another and against
    progressives from privileged backgrounds who want to contribute to their struggles to end oppression

  2. “The original intent of the phrase is, apparently, to remind a person making a claim on a political (or moral) issue that he is speaking from a position of privilege, such as being a male or straight.”

    I believe the phrase originated from an argument on a thread of a feminist bulletin board, a little over ten years ago. It’s snappy, so it stuck. But it took a very long time for it to percolate into the wider consciousness (and there is a reason it took so long). Why did it take so long; to really simplify this; you can break feminism into two camps; highly privileged feminists and then highly under-privileged feminists. In general, highly privileged feminists, wanted no discussion of their privilege; for a whole host of reasons; none of them good.

    A very powerful and insidious political tactic is the deliberate omission of articles from the political discourse. This generally requires a little power to enforce, which is just what the privileged have. North America has an extremely class ridden society – this isn’t its’ distinction; other societies are just as bad (or good; depending on which side of the class divide you’re on). what distinguishes the US, is the vociferous claim to being classless. If it were true that anyone could succeed, and everyone roughly had equal obstacles in their path, then that would be a recipe for a relatively stable society. Where no one had anyone to blame but themselves, and even that the successful had no obligations to the unsuccessful. However, if that were just a myth, and egregious inequalities had no other basis than the fortune of one’s birth, then it could be grounds for far more than the hurting of feelings with three barbed words. It is in fact, casus belli; cause for war; sticks and stones time.

    More of this is to come. If you had followed particular information sources, where the gatekeepers were from a very privileged group, you may have believed Mikki Kendall was an angry bully, beating up blameless white girls. In the past it was very easy to shut the mouth of someone like Kendall, or she would only have been let speak through a heavy but invisible meditation, if allowed speak at all. And something very interesting is right-wing equivalents of Kendall are beginning to call out people, ostensibly on their own side, for privilege. Even Fox News have learned, like Victor Frankenstein, that creating a monster by no means, means you can control it.

  3. It’s all covered by Orwell.

    “1984” was supposed to be a warning, not a design specification… :cry:

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