One effective way to control discussion about a contentious issue is to deploy an ambiguous phrase that seems so uncontroversial that no reasonable person would object to it. Often the phrase takes the form of an imperative sentence, and those who fail to oblige or challenge the command effectively make themselves targets of ridicule as unreasonable people. A classic example of this is “Support our troops,” which rears its ugly head whenever the newest American war has commenced.
Those who opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq as the war was getting underway in 2003 were often accused by conservatives of not supporting the troops, as if being against a war is tantamount to being indifferent or having malice toward the individual humans fighting it.
As Noam Chomsky said of the phrase:
“[Y]ou want to create a slogan that nobody is going to be against and… everybody will be for because nobody knows what it means because it doesn’t mean anything. But its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something. Do you support our policy? And that’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.”
Liberals are not above such tactics of intimidation, and no phrase better exemplifies this today than “Check your privilege.” Last week, three professors at the University of San Francisco initiated a campaign intended to get people “to think critically about the world around them and challenge themselves to really consider the implications of structural inequalities and how they, as an individual, can help mitigate the negative effects of social inequalities.”
To this end the professors created a series of posters and t-shirts with seven types of privilege: white, male, class, Christian, cisgender, able-bodied, and heterosexual:
Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with encouraging people to think about the ways in which their lives may have been made easier by simply belonging to a certain class, race, ethnicity, sex, religion, or other demographic. In this regard, it’s important to have perspective, as well as sympathy for those who’ve been disadvantaged simply by virtue of belonging to the “wrong” group. If this is what’s meant by checking one’s privilege, then yes, I have checked my privilege.
But now what?
Does this now mean I am supposed to get behind the hysterical caterwauling about how white men can’t have opinions on race issues, how “white male privilege kills,” how privileged white belly-dancers are engaged in a gross appropriation of Arab culture, and how — quite amazingly — that a black woman just elected to Congress is a product of white privilege because she has conservative political views? If these are the types of positions I’m expected to hold or support after having checked my privilege, then I must politely decline.
For all intents and purposes, “Check your privilege” and similar rhetoric have become substitutes for actual argumentation while simultaneously acting as mechanisms for suppressing or discrediting opinions with which one disagrees. If a wealthy, white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender, Christian male advances an argument you don’t like concerning wealth redistribution, or food stamps, or gay marriage, or some other issue, the proper way to rebut his argument is not, and never will be, “Check your privilege.” While it might be productive to get him to recognize his privilege and any accompanying empathy gaps, ultimately the best response is to address his actual argument. If his reasoning is unsound, if his logic is flawed, if his facts are wrong, then see to it that these collide with reasoning that is sound, logic that is not flawed, and facts that are actual facts.
We should never accept or reject an opinion based on the identity of the person articulating it. Opinions are not right or wrong based on who holds them. They are right or wrong based on their ability or inability to withstand the scrutiny of reality and reason. This is how debate works. And if a debate produces a conclusion that doesn’t fit your worldview, either change your worldview or explain why the conclusion is wrong.
Just don’t make “privilege” the centerpiece of your argument.
RELATED: Saying that atheists don’t owe your social justice agenda a damn thing is a great way to piss off your liberal audience.