I love arguing and discourse; when done correctly, it’s like sex. Only instead of two individuals coming together to conjoin their bodies, they conjoin minds. When done properly it is a pleasurable experience where participants use past experience and knowledge to impress and inform each other. Both parties then walk away with new information for the next encounter and can feel the overall experience was worthwhile and a betterment of their existence.
Unfortunately, many people think that both great sex and a great argument are achieved by being as loud and aggressive as possible. Which leaves my intellect as satisfied as if I were to imagine sleeping with a forgetful narcoleptic. Most of the time would be her falling asleep except for the snippets when she’s awake and is calling me Jimmy. I’m sorry to my non-male audience for not having a more inclusive analogy, but I can only speak from what I know—and all I know is that my name is not Jimmy.
To the point: A few months ago I had one of those disappointing arguments that left me wanting. Just when the conversation got some forward traction and became enjoyable it was suddenly over—like a “quickie.” I can’t really remember the details of who, about what, or where we were arguing; all I can remember is how it ended. My dialectic partner muttered, “check your privilege” then scurried away before I had the chance to understand or react to what just happened.
Check my privilege? What is my privilege and how does that correlate to the discussion’s topic? I’m being rude because of my background? If so, how? Why are you running away before I can ask these questions?!?
I was distraught and confused so I got onto Google to hopefully get my questions answered or at least a little insight. What I found was mostly a bunch of satire about the phrase “check your privilege,” but I did find an article on Everyday Feminism, by Sam Dylan Finch, which helpfully explained what the whole thing is about.
The gist of it is that when someone says “check your privilege,” they are pointing out you may have an “unearned advantage, in comparison to other people – by no fault of [your] own, but rather, because of prejudice” to put it in Sam’s words. Sam points out that the individual who uses the phrase is not trying to make the discussion personal or saying that you haven’t had to struggle. They simply are trying to help you and, according to Sam, “It’s actually a compliment, because they’re assuming that you can rise to the occasion and that you’re capable of demonstrating the kind of empathy that’s needed.” What you are not supposed to do is defend yourself or ask for them to educate you.
I said to myself, I see what you mean Sam, but I have to respond by using some more of your words: while “your intentions might be good or neutral, your impact was not.” The intention is good and I really believe in that; the point is to intrinsically take stock of yourself and have empathy for those who are different from you with consideration that some differences have disadvantages.
So, my rebuttal comes in three parts: Sam’s article, the overall “check your privilege” philosophy, and that philosophy’s inevitable abuse.
The claim that the remark is not personal, or that one hasn’t struggled, is generally going to be at least partially false. In order for an individual to say “check your privilege” they must first assume another’s privilege. This in itself is prejudiced, not empathetic, and hypocritical—considering the point of calling someone out is because they are being prejudiced and they lack empathy. Then, when they imply that their ignorance stems from that assumption of privilege and who they are just adds insult to the injury. Although it may be true, it doesn’t remove the hypocrisy from the process. Next, they assume that their disadvantages are sufficient to make them righteous enough to put another person in check. Sam says himself that he once invalidated someone’s suffering because he failed to recognize that their struggles were not the same. So, one would have to assign values to the different struggles they don’t share to conclude that they are more disparaged—and thus win the “check your privilege” bingo. This will lead to the abuse which will be covered later, but the bottom line is to assume is all too often to make an ass out of you and me (ass-u-me).
To not defend yourself nor ask questions is essential in Sam’s rhetoric. But making claims and forming rebuttals or defenses to claims is to converse! Requiring the other side not to respond is not discourse, and that person should thus make a better argument to survive a rebuttal or should stop participating in conversations with other people. Sam states that to defend yourself is to change the topic of the conversation. It doesn’t, because the topic is still how one’s privilege made them ignorant or not empathetic; the topic of the conversation was actually changed when “check your privilege” was interjected.
The other half of arguing, discourse, and conversations in general is two parties exchanging information to convey understanding. How is that supposed to happen if questions are not allowed to be asked? Claims should have supporting details, and if not then the opposing side should be able to ask for them. If you claim I’m ignorant, and then I ask how, the response, “it’s not my job to educate you, don’t ask questions” is not a supporting detail and totally unhelpful. However, the response, “you’re ignorant because you’re white, male, and middle class” is a supporting detail that may allow me to do self-refection, which is the whole idea of this process in the first place.
The “check your privilege” philosophy is not as effective as it should be because its focus is on the catchy one-liner. Having a go-to catch phrase shouldn’t be a priority over the message behind it. We can turn to rhetoric to fix this; it was good enough for the ancient Greeks so it’s good enough for us. Although witty, “check your privilege” is far inferior to the use of proper rhetoric, which will make a better delivery. An example would be, “I get where you are coming from with your stance on police, but as someone who has to worry about racial profiling, I and others like me might not share your view.” With one sentence the same objective of “check your privilege” is achieved; their privilege was identified, ignorance was addressed, and supporting details were given. No need to change the subject, it was delivered in a less abrasive form, and some mutual understanding was made. Sometimes short is not sweet.
Lastly, the line “check your privilege” is ripe with the opportunity to be abused. Due to the inability to map out or assign values to privileges and disadvantages, it is an easy trump card that could be used by all. Privileges and disadvantages are also very relative. In a comparison of what it is to be privileged between two CSU students—where one has to work their hands to nubs and the other has a whole mouthful of silver spoons—there might seem to be a vast difference; but compared to a child soldier in Uganda, a war refugee in Syria, or a girl trying to get an education under Taliban rule, that difference is minuscule.