Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Checking your privilege

4 Comments

This article has been doing the rounds recently: http://offbeatempire.com/2012/10/liberal-bullying – it’s an interesting piece, about the way people use the term ‘privilege’ in debates, and it’s provoked lots of debate, and plenty of thinking on my part.

Privilege, in this sense, is used to denote that someone belongs to a dominant or privileged group – that their position is one coloured by their privileged status or background. When someone is called-out for their privilege, or told to check their privilege, they are often being told to consider the fact that their voice is the voice of domination or oppression, and to restrain themselves so that other voices can have a louder say.

The reason I’m writing post now is that the use of phrases like ‘check your privilege’ have troubled me for some time, and the article linked to above has helped crystalise some of my thoughts. One quick caveat, whilst I’ve said my thoughts have crystalised, they’re still quite formative and a long way from fully coherent.

On the surface, being aware of one’s position in structures of power during a debate seems like a good idea. Allowing minority voices to have a voice has got to be a worthy aim. But, calling people out on their privilege all to often appears (to me at least) to carry a whole load of negative elements with it too, I’ll go into those negative elements below.

When you accuse someone of having privilege in a debate, there’s a very real danger that you’re saying something about the person presenting the argument rather than the argument itself. Granted, you could be saying that their argument is informed by their social position, and that the other needs to be aware of that fact. But, when you do this you are also implying that they haven’t thought about their argument and are, in effect, being irrational. This may well be true – people do often hold irrational and unreflective opinions – but, I wonder whether it’s better (in the sense of being more respectful, and more likely to succeed as a strategy) to deal with opinions of this sort by showing what’s wrong with the argument itself, rather than making it about the person holding the opinion.

To be honest, it’s sometimes hard to tell when someone’s opinion is the product of careful consideration, or unreflective inculcation. So, calling privilege can end up being a way to dismiss a considered position by means of an ad hominem attack. Surely, when you have a concern that a certain group is privileged, you are concerned that their arguments may carry additional weight because of this, rather than because of the quality of their argument. To deal with that by drawing attention to the privilege is perfectly valid and sensible, but when that becomes a dismissal of the entire argument, or a means of silencing another, then it’s like fighting fire with fire.

One final thing that worries me about the way people use the accusation of privilege in debates, is that it can constitute a downplaying of individual autonomy – it subsumes individuals into statistical aggregates. Yes, I’m a white, cis normative, middle-class male – but, I’m also a rational, moral, individual with thoughts and an identity of my own, quite capable of exercising my moral imagination to place myself in the shoes of others. I am not the group that those facts about me place me in. White and male I may be, but that doesn’t stop me being an anti-racist campaigner, or an animal-rights advocate, or a feminist. Sometimes, when privilege is identified in an argument, it is to construct and impose an identity; an identify that is necessarily insensitive to individuality, and then exclude the other based upon that identity.

So, yes, it’s important to resist granting extra weight to arguments because they are expressed by someone in a privileged position (the argument from authority). And it’s important to give voice to minority or oppressed voices. But we must not lose sight of the fact that once we’ve done that, it’s the argument itself that matters, and not facts about the person delivering it. In other words: check your checking of privilege.

Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

4 thoughts on “Checking your privilege

  1. It’s not just additional weight due to the membership of the group, though – it’s also additional weight due to the added advantages that they have had in education, in not being personally invested in / upset by / offended by the topic at hand.

    And even if you control for those factors, there are still the difficulties that people who have become used to their opinions being overridden by members of that group have in speaking up where the privileged group is also speaking… so sometimes we do just have to shut up and let someone else have the floor, even if they aren’t as articulate and well-reasoned :-).

    (I am, BTW, acutely aware that I suck at this ;-) )

    • There’s two issues here. The first is what I wrote of above, that of arbitrarily giving people’s reasons more weight because they are expressed by someone from a privileged position. Obviously, we want to avoid this, so I agree with your comment in that respect. However, you also seem to be arguing that good, well-expressed reasons are less important than making sure everyone has a say. For that to be true, we’d have to place the value of inclusion over the value of truth. Whether we should do that is a something I’m intuitively wary of – it’s certainly not self-evident that we should do so.

  2. What irritates me with this phrase is that it’s loaded with assumptions and also narrowly defines privilege. For example, who is more ‘privileged’ – a POC whose parents paid for university and whose family or friends hooked them up with a job afterwards, or someone non-POC who had to work two jobs to go to university and got everything on their own? I’ve seen a lot of ‘rich kids’ throw this term around who’ve had it pretty good in their own lives.

    • A good point Chris. One way we can use the notion of privilege is to understand how our own situation may colour our views and influence our position. Another way is to draw the attention of others to their own situation in a similar way. However, when we do the latter, epistemic constraints – our own inability to be fully knowledgeable about the other’s situation – can lead to us making unwarranted assumptions and making mistaken judgements. My view is that the former use of the concept is valuable, but the latter often leads to the kind of obnoxious behaviour I originally drew attention to in my post, and which you have highlighted in your comment.

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