Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


Checking your privilege

This article has been doing the rounds recently: – 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.