A Princeton freshman named Tal Fortgang recently made quite a stir with an essay on privilege. Entitled Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege, it described his encounters with racism and sexism rationalized by the assumption that one is privileged simply by virtue of being white and male. In his words,
There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year… “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.
As it happens, Fortgang is Jewish, and his ancestors were victims, not only of the Nazis, but of Stalin and several of the other horrific if lesser known manifestations of anti-Semitism in 20th century Europe. His grandfather and grandmother managed to survive the concentration camps of Stalin and Hitler, respectively, and emigrate to the U.S. Again quoting Fortgang,
Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.
I a word, there are some rather obvious objections to the practice of applying crude metrics of “privilege” based on race and gender to Fortgang or anyone else, for that matter. When pressed on these difficulties, those who favor the “check your privilege” meme typically throw out a smokescreen in the form of a complex calculus for determining “genuine privilege.” For example, in a piece at The Wire entitled What the Origin of ‘Check Your Privilege’ Tells Us About Today’s Privilege Debates, author Arit John notes that it was,
Peggy MacIntosh, a former women’s studies scholar whose 1988 paper on white privilege and male privilege took “privilege” mainstream.
and that MacIntosh’s take was actually quite nuanced:
What MacIntosh classifies as a privilege goes deeper and more specific than most online commentators. There’s older or younger sibling privilege, body type privilege, as well as privileges based on “your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background,” she says. Men, even straight, white, cis gender men, are disadvantaged by the pressure to be tougher than they might be.
The key is acknowledging everyone’s advantages and disadvantages, which is why Fortgang is both very wrong and (kind of) right: those telling him to check his privilege have privileges too, and are likely competing in the privilege Olympics. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt him to check his privilege.
Which brings us to the point of this post. Our species isn’t good at nuance. The “privilege” debate will and must take place in a morally charged context. It is not possible to sanitize the discussion by scrubbing it free of moral emotions. That is one of the many reasons why it is so important to understand what morality is and why it exists. It does not exist as a transcendental entity that happened to pop into existence with the big bang, nor does it exist because the Big Man upstairs wants it that way. It exists because it evolved. It evolved because at a certain time in a certain environment unlike the one we live in today, individuals with the innate behavioral traits that give rise to what we generalize as “morality” happened to be more likely to survive and procreate. That is the only reason for its existence. Furthermore, human moral behavior is dual. It is our nature to view others in terms of ingroups and outgroups. That dual nature is not optional. It is all-pervasive, and artifacts of its existence can easily be found be glancing at any of the myriads of Internet comment threads relevant to privilege or any other controversial topic.
The above insights have certain implications concerning the matter of privilege. It is certainly not out of the question that, in general, it is to an individual’s advantage to be male and white. However, as pointed out by Ms. MacIntosh, there are countless other ways in which one individual may be privileged over another in modern society. As a result, it is hardly out of the question for a person of color or a female to be more privileged than a white or a male. Given the nature of human morality, however, that’s almost never how the question of privilege is actually perceived. As pointed out by Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind, we are a highly self-righteous species. It is our nature to rationalize why we are”good” and those who oppose us are “bad,” and not vice versa. Furthermore, we tend to lump the “good” and the “bad” together into ingroups and outgroups. That, in turn, is the genesis of sexism, racism, and all the other manifestations of “othering.”
It would seem then, that we are faced with a dilemma. Privilege exists. It is probable that there are privileges associated with being white, and with being male, and certainly, as Thomas Picketty just pointed out for the umpteenth time in his “Capital in the 21st Century,” with being wealthy. However, insisting that the playing field be leveled can lead and often has led in the past to racism, sexism, and class hatred. The examples of Nazism and Communism have recently provided us with experimental data on the effectiveness of racism and class hatred in eliminating privilege. Fortunately, I know of no manifestations of sexism that have been quite that extreme.
What “should” we do under the circumstances? There is no objective answer to that question. At best I can acquaint you with my personal whims. In general, I am uncomfortable with what I refer to as “morality inversions.” A “morality inversion” occurs when our moral emotions prompt us to do things that are a negation of the reasons for the existence of moral emotions themselves. For example, they might be actions that reduce rather than enhance our chances of survival. Giving up a privilege without compensation is an instance of such an action. Furthermore, I object to the irrational assumption by the habitually sanctimonious and the pathologically pious among us that their moral emotions apply to me. When the implication of those moral emotions is that I am evil because of my race or sex, then, like Tal Fortgang, my inclination is to fight back.
On the other hand, I take a broad view of “compensation.” For example, “compensation” can take the form of being able to live in a society that is peaceful and harmonious because of the general perception that the playing field is level and the distribution of the necessities and luxuries of life is fair. Nazism and Communism aren’t the only ways of dealing with privilege. I now enjoy many advantages my ancestors didn’t share acquired through processes that were a good deal less drastic, even though they required the sacrifice of privilege by, for example, hereditary nobilities.
However, like Mr. Fortgang, I reject the notion that I owe anyone special favors or reparations based on my race. In that case, the probability of “compensation” in any form would be essentially zero. Other than whites, I know of no other race or ethnic group that has ever sacrificed its “privileges” in a similar fashion. Millions of whites have been enslaved by Mongols, Turks, and Arabs, not to mention other whites, over periods lasting many centuries. The last I heard, none of those whose ancestors inflicted slavery on my race has offered to sacrifice any of its “privileges” by way of compensation. I would be embarrassed and ashamed to ask for such reparations. I am satisfied with equality before the law.
Beyond that, I don’t insist that the dismantling of certain privileges can never be to our collective advantage. I merely suggest that, if dismantle we must, it be done in the light of a thorough understanding of the origins and nature of human morality, lest our moral emotions once again blow up in our faces.