The Little Prince(ton)


The invisible forms of privilege are the worst

A response to this article.

Which was a response to this article.

As a short preface, the guy from Princeton (Tal Fortgang) being talked about wrote an article about the abusive use and fallacious nature of the ‘check your privilege’ card and the racist, classist, sexist and other prejudicial judgements that come along behind it. While the article is quite long and goes into his background, that of his ancestors etc the crux of the article boils down to the same problems I have with it:

There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year.

Pretty much everything else in the article is just fluff, but in that quoted passage he identifies the problem with it. That’s it’s fallacious, that it’s prejudiced and that it stifles discussion and debate. I’ve covered before that it’s a misuse of the definition of the term privilege, and you’re welcome to read about that here (or in a dictionary).

There’s plenty of substantial things to criticise in his article, the intellectually bankrupt concept of the American Dream etc, but left or right anyone should be able to agree that it is logic, reason and evidence that should carry the day.

Not Violet Baudelaire.

Dear Privileged Princeton Kid,
Your angry op-ed has been been going around my Facebook for a few days now, and since I’m tired of unfriending those who have approvingly posted it, I’d like to address you directly here.

Strike one.

Not only do you immediately re-state the rejected accusation without support, but you also demonstrate that you’re unwilling to even countenance another opinion on the topic without silencing it from your consciousness by blocking. That this is a reflexive action on your part. Blocking people after a fruitless discussion or after getting abuse is one thing, blocking people for having a different opinion is another. Especially if those people are otherwise normally in your feed. This isn’t blocking, it’s excommunication for heresy.

You claim you’re tired of people telling you to “check your privilege”, and in response, you have written a long diatribe about how because your ancestors dealt with some shit it means you’re not privileged like all these people think you are. Then, you go on to explain all of the ways in which you think you are privileged, throw in some solid nonsense about reverse racism, and end up coming to the ultimate conclusion that:

Strike two.

Again this doesn’t address the point being made and there’s some hypocrisy here. If his ancestry is irrelevant then so is that of people and groups who make their claims to be victims based on historical situations. If it means nothing that his ancestors had hard times, then the same applies in the modern age. You’re also spouting dogma, not arguing. ‘Reverse racism’ isn’t a thing, it’s just racism. If you dismiss someone’s opinion purely because of the colour of their skin – even if it’s white – then you are a racist. End of story.

Privilege is not personal. Privilege is institutional and cultural. It is macro. You have privilege because you are part of a group that has privilege.

Strike three.

This is again ignoring the actual problem. That assumptions of privilege under this tortured and abused misdefinition are being used in the personal sense as ad hominem attacks and to poison the well. To silence dissent. It’s not more acceptable to tell someone to shut up because they’re a man than it is to tell them the same for being a woman. Privilege – where it exists – is indeed institutional. Cultural, not so much. As a reminder, a privilege is:

“A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”

Do people like Tal have special rights before the law? No.

Advantages? Some. Wealth – which presumably he or his family have if he’s going to Princeton – warps the system, but it’s not granted him by virtue of wealth, it’s that wealth provides him with an (unfair) greater capacity to take advantage. In theory anyone can go to college and a basic education is everyone’s right. Wealth doesn’t alter that, it just gives him greater access to more options.

Immunity? Again no. He doesn’t – in the modern, western social context – have any different or peculiar rights or immunities than anyone else.

In the simplest, crudest metaphor I can think of, let’s say you’re a fully abled person in a race against a man with only one leg. You train a long time, run really fast, and beat him. No one is saying you shouldn’t be proud of working hard or running so fast; all we’re really asking for is that you admit that maybe having two legs fucking helped a little bit.

You’re already out, but this adds insult to injury. Consider it a crowd member at the game jeering at you. In your example here the person’s disability is actual, present, real and physical. No amount of effort (Oscar Pistorius notwithstanding) is going to make any difference to that person’s capability. Nobody expects a one legged man to compete equally in that race with an able bodied man and the able bodied man is not privileged by having both legs, he simply isn’t disadvanteged (underprivileged if you will) in the way the one legged man is. The two legged man is the societally accepted and expected norm. Not a special condition of benefit, not a privilege.

It boils down to this.

Trying to use ‘privilege’ (incorrectly) in an argument to silence on the basis of race is racist. On the basis of sex, it’s sexist and so it goes for all the other *isms and *ists you care to mention. It has absolutely no place in a debate or discussion which is rooted around objective, empirical evidence.

It’s prejudice and you’re asking for your prejudice to be ‘privileged’ over that of others.

Knock it the fuck off.


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