Garwulf's Corner

Garwulf's Corner
A Few Words About "Checking Privilege"

Robert B. Marks | 20 Jan 2016 12:30
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I don't think I can put it off any longer - it's time to go down the rabbit hole.

So much of pop culture today seems to toyed with by - and sometimes even toying with - outrage culture, to the point that there's only so long that anybody can dance around the edges before addressing it. So, no more delays - let's just roll up our sleeves, pinch our noses, and get started.

(There's going to be two or three of these installments, and to prevent things from getting too heavy I'm going to space them out a bit.)

If I have one wish for this new year, it is to see "check your privilege" struck from the English language.

It's a phrase around 25 years old, and it used to be a very useful exercise. The original meaning was to understand the ways in which one is privileged (aka "lucky"), from upbringing to environment to social class. And, that is an important thing to be able to do - once you understand how these things affect you, you can step away from yourself and see how others are affected by their circumstances. But that was a long time ago, and the new meaning is very troublesome.

For example, using the phrase as it was originally intended: I'm a Russian Jew living in Canada, with my family having been here since my great-grandparents. This means that I am the second generation in my family to never have to face institutional antisemitism or see signs in public parks declaring "No dogs or Jews." I am the second generation in my family (in Canada) not to face the certainty of violence against them from those who hate them. And when my great-grandparents fled Russia, they were fleeing a place where Cossacks might hunt them for sport during pogroms.

So, this is how I am privileged, and I am indeed quite lucky. The problem is that those who would (and have) told me to check my privilege did not mean it that way.

They used it to tell me to shut my teeth, and to put my "privilege" aside as though it is a coat.


There are a few problems with that. The first is that most of the so-called "privileges" I enjoy are basic human rights, such freedom from persecution, freedom from discrimination due to race, sex, or creed, and freedom of speech, among others. They are not "privileges," and they are certainly not anything to be ashamed of - instead, they are to be fought for and defended, as the problem with any right is that it is all too easy for somebody to take it away or subvert it. This new phrasing of human rights in terms of privilege is particularly troubling because of how it changes the discussion - it removes urgency, painting those very human rights that others lack as something nice to have, rather than something to be demanded with immediate effect by those without them.

While I receive the human rights I am due, that sometimes others receive them only on paper is a serious problem. This creates a moral obligation to do what one can to rectify it. Perhaps it is standing up and being counted when the time comes, speaking out against it, engaging in activism and community outreach, or active protest. After all, how can we truly have justice if we won't fight injustice when we see it?

(And, perhaps it's just me, but has anybody else noticed that all the talk about "white privilege" seems to be sidelining what is happening to African Americans in the discussion, in effect making the conversation all about white people?)

Another problem is that the modern usage of "check your privilege" links the merit of one's ideas to one's identity, rather than to the quality of said ideas - a form of identity politics all too similar to those fueling racism and sexism. It is true that there are certain things that cannot be truly understood unless you were there - I will never be able to make my Catholic wife or in-laws fully understand what it is like to grow up with most of the family stories ending in the words, "and then they were killed by the Nazis." But while they may not ever gain complete understanding, they can come close. Likewise, I will never understand what it is really like to be an inner-city African-American, but if I read enough first-hand accounts and credible work on the subject, I can gain a reasonable comprehension of it and the quality of my ideas can't be discounted for my lack of direct experience.

Language is important, and if we want to make the world a better place, we need to take a couple of steps back and think about what we are saying. We need to remember that "privilege" may include being rich enough that you never have to work, or living a life of luxury, but it does not include basic human rights, which should never be a source of shame or be set aside. We need to reject identity politics as a whole, no matter who it is directed at - and in the process shatter the very structures of racism and sexism into tiny shards never to be reconstructed. We need to stop demanding that people "check their privilege," and fight injustice instead.

I really believe that if we do these things, a new, better world will be right around the corner.

Author's Note: I hope everybody's enjoyed our special treat of a weekly schedule for a couple of installments, but I'm afraid it's back to bi-weekly after this. The next installment of Garwulf's Corner will appear on February 3rd.

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