In this video, libertarian YouTube blogger, Julie Borowski, discusses the idiotic phrase “check your privilege”. The phrase has spread across the leftist blogosphere (and entered mainstream discourse) as a tool to shut down discussion and avoid making proper arguments.
Basically, the phrase attempts to communicate that some people have had greater opportunities than others, and that one’s own experiences shape one’s cognitive biases, perspectives, and interests. Ostensibly, “privilege checking” is intended to make people recognise (and empathise with) the issues that disadvantaged members of society face, and to understand that our society does not provide a level playing field.
However, the reality is that this is not how the phrase is actually employed and, even if it were, it achieves absolutely nothing and may even undermine the aims of the progressives who use it. Borowski discusses some of the reasons for this failure. It ironically assumes the same myopic perspective on individuals and groups as the strawman it attacks. Rather than trying to point to there being different valid perspectives on a given issue, it seeks to override all other concerns in the name of a single (ironically) privileged perspective. And it is basically rude.
As a matter of fact, I (and, I think, Borowski) sympathise with the basic underlying motivation. People do judge people based on gender and race, and, at least sometimes in some contexts, gender and race can serve as an unfair obstacle to advancement. However, there is a world of difference between this idea and the notion that there is a given ‘thing’ called ‘white privilege’.
No one says that privilege is fixed and invariable (privilege checkers are quick to point out that someone who is white and male but poor and disabled is not automatically more privileged than a wealthy able-bodied woman, for instance). But, there is still an assumption that it functions in a quasi-universal and undifferentiated manner (no matter who you are, your male privilege points still confer a degree of meaningful advantage).
Asides from these conceptual/factual issues, there is a massive problem with the tone and manner of the phrase. As Borowski points out, it does just mean “shut up” and is simply an attempt to end debate. Consider this hypothetical debate:
“I think that we need gender quotas to compensate for the disadvantages women face in the employment market.”
“I disagree. I think that they encourage people to judge others according to something other than individual merit.”
“CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE!!!!!11!!!!!”
The important point is that further arguments could be made by the person arguing for quotas. Instead, they have chosen to forgo actually arguing for their position and employed an ad hominem. Rather than actually shutting down the debate, they have only managed to discredit their own side. It also suggest an ugly and unhealthy perspective on politics (and life in general). It assumes that all debate is defined by a manichean struggle of good (progressive) and bad (reactionary) and all positions and ideas can be reduced to a point on this spectrum.
You oppose gender quotas? The only possible explanation is that you are a rich white man who has no understanding of what it is like to be a woman. Indeed, rather than trying to educate you on the positive arguments for my position (after all, you couldn’t understand because how could I communicate this to someone with privilege) I’m just going to irrelevantly remind you how lucky you are. And that means you can’t possibly win this argument. Also you should feel bad.
I think it’s clear how this is not just plainly false, but is also a failure of a tactic. How many people have changed their perspective on something because a brown hoody wearing fanatic has shouted “PRIVULUG” in their face?
There may be a grain of truth in the notion that you should recognise the advantages you have received, even (especially?) if you have been, or feel, hard done by. It’s a big leap from recognising that to being the sort of tool who goes around checking for privilege, and uses political debate as a desperate attempt to be sassy and superior.