Friday, May 2, 2014

Check your identity politics

Monster Privilege. (© 2013 garsedj)
Tal Fortgang is sick of being told to “check your privilege”.

Fortgang, 20, is a sophomore at Princeton, which is just liberal enough to suffer a paper/website for conservative students, the Tory. Now, for a student at an Ivy League school to tell another, “Check your privilege,” is at face value unexpected; it’s like two peers of the British realm blackguarding each other as elitists. However, much as G. K. Chesterton once said of Britain’s peerage, it’s precisely because schools like Princeton, Harvard and Yale are bastions of America’s aristocracy that they’re noisy hives of fashionable progressivism rather than museums to staid, stuffy conservativism. For class warfare, no one can make war on the rich like their own children.

Fortgang fumes, “The phrase [“Check your privilege”], handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung. ‘Check your privilege,’ they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.”

Fortgang’s rant in the Tory ran April 2. Two weeks later, the progressive Princetonian fired back with a post from freshman columnist Mitchell Hammer. “Once I got past the irrelevant, anti-liberal rhetoric — comparing the use of the phrase ‘check your privilege’ to the descent of ‘an Obama-sanctioned drone’ did little to help me understand Fortgang’s argument — I realized that Fortgang wasn’t wrong. He just didn’t get it.” How Fortgang could “not get it” and still not be wrong, Hammer doesn’t bother to puzzle out; logic, as we will soon see, isn’t Hammer’s forte.

The main umbrage Fortgang and others who share his opinion take with the phrase “check your privilege” is that they take the colloquialism personally. Fortgang’s article is reminiscent of the 2013 incident at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), where three white males criticized Professor Shannon Gibney for how she was discussing race issues in class. The students felt personally reprimanded for structural racism because of their identity as white men. However, Professor Gibney — and anyone involved in race, gender, sexuality and other identity discussions — is not directly criticizing every white male. Similarly, every white male’s accomplishments and personal family ancestry are not condemned or negated by the privilege debate. Instead, “checking” one’s privilege is meant to provide a more universal outlook and a heightened awareness of greater societal trends and stereotypes hat we have each internalized.

This is, not to put too fine a point on the matter, pure cow plop.

First, there’s no point in even referring to class privilege unless you intend to declare your opponent’s argument/observation/idea skewed and defective precisely because rooted in that privilege. When you say, “Check your privilege,” you’re not talking to a whole class of people, of whom some indeterminate amount have some presumed bias; you’re accusing that person himself of possessing the bias. You can’t get more direct than that. When you do so, you immediately discount that person’s actual background and accomplishments, not to mention his experiences and evidence, in favor of a simplistic social model containing only four zero-sum choices (white/non-white, male/female, religious/irreligious, straight/not-straight). To then protest over the target’s umbrage, “I didn’t mean it personally,” is to be at best obtuse and insensitive … at worst, callously dishonest.

Second, the injunction to white male religious heteros to “check your privilege” comes with no equal instruction to non-whites, females, non-straights and the irreligious to “check your disadvantage”. Put another way, only whites, males, the religious and straights have a class bias in need of checking; non-whites, women, the irreligious and the LGBT group are either presumed remarkably objective or given free passes to have as biased Weltanschauungen (yes, that is the plural) as they like. This privileging of the presumably disadvantaged belies the supposed universality to which Hammer appeals as grounds for “checking” straight/white/male/religious privilege; this is no leveling of the playing field but a tilting in the opposite direction.

Let’s look at this second point further: Hammer tries to resurrect the validity of the “check your privilege” command by redefining privilege:

… [Privilege] does not necessarily require being able to trace your lineage back to Rockefeller or Vanderbilt. … What privilege means is being able to confidently enter any social sphere without fear of rejection. Privilege means never questioning the bias of the feedback and grading you receive from your professors or employers. Privilege means living your life free from consideration and hyper-awareness of your race, gender or sexuality.
Privilege does not, therefore, mean that you yourself have lived a life of complete affluence and comfortable apathy; it is instead possessing certain attributes or traits that are regarded as desirable — or being free from particular traits that are deemed undesirable — and that have typically allowed their possessor to live a relatively advantaged life.

In other words, no matter what challenges and obstacles a straight, white, religious man may have had in his life, they couldn’t possibly equal or surpass the challenges and obstacles faced by non-straights, non-whites, the irreligious and women; therefore, his experiences and evidence are poisoned fruit because of his “privilege”. This argument isn’t simply indefensible; it’s wrongheaded and arrogantly presumptuous. Fortgang understood perfectly; ironically, Hammer is blithely unaware that he’s simply rephrased Fortgang’s complaint. Nu, he doesn’t even give Fortgang victim-credit for being Jewish!

Third, cognitive biases of any kinds are only relevant, or even interesting, when the argument/thought/idea is wrong. However, a claim of class bias doesn’t prove an argument/thought/idea wrong even if the person is so biased; in fact, it’s a circumstantial ad hominem fallacy, of the sub-genre C. S. Lewis called “Bulverisms”:

Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.” You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. … In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he came to be so silly. (Lewis [1941], “Bulverism”, God in the Dock)

In the end, Hammer gives us nothing more than warmed-over leftist stereotyping and cult-of-victimhood rationalizations, a steaming pile of progressivist bigotry delivered with an air of moral and intellectual superiority that is unearned and, as far as I can tell, undeserved.

Fortgang “wasn’t wrong” because he was right. What Fortgang couldn’t get was how progressives like Hammer can be so oblivious to their own hypocrisy.