'Check your privilege' means 'shut your mouth'

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Article Highlights

  • We've all known forever that Princeton University is a place of many privileges.

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  • All of us need to ask ourselves whether our views are skewed, regardless of how privileged we are.

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  • It's a free country, and people can be as narrow-minded as they like.

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We've all known forever that Princeton University is a place of many privileges. It has recently gotten a new one: Starting an argument from there, filled with conservative sentiments and anecdotes, is now a surefire way to command the attention of the Internet.

Last time it was "the Princeton mom," Susan Patton, who wrote to the school's newspaper advising female undergraduates to spend more time finding a husband. Now it's Tal Fortgang, a freshman at the university, who complained about being told to "check his privilege" -- the prevailing campus lingo urging people to admit their advantages in life -- one too many times. (I was privileged to attend Princeton in the last millennium, before people used these words.)

Critics have been ferocious, and have largely missed the point. Sometimes they miss their own point. Mary Elizabeth Williams, a writer at Salon, says that Fortgang is only imagining that anyone has asked him to apologize for his privileges; a few sentences later, she complains, "Just what the world needs -- more unrepentant affluent people." So he isn't being asked to apologize, just to repent?

Most of the time, the critics are missing Fortgang's point. He didn't express resentment at having to consider the perspectives of women and minorities; he didn't claim to be vicariously oppressed because of the travails of his grandparents; he didn't deny the existence of racism or sexism or similar evils. And he didn't deny that he's privileged.

What he actually said isn't that hard to fathom, because he announced his target in his very first sentence: the use of the phrase "check your privilege" to "strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them."

It's perfectly reasonable to ask someone to consider whether their arguments or observations reflect the biases of privilege. Perhaps an upper-middle-class white man's claim about the hardships of poverty or the prevalence of racial discrimination reflects a lack of experience of those things, for example. But all of us need to ask ourselves whether our views are skewed, regardless of how privileged we are, because there are many possible sources of bias. Fortgang is quite right to complain that being obsessively on the lookout for white male heterosexual bias can obscure more than it reveals, in part by ignoring how much heterosexual white men can differ.

In any case, Fortgang didn't complain about being asked to reflect on the incompleteness of his worldview. He complained about the dismissal of opinions based on who was uttering them.

And while the phrase "check your privilege" could be used, hypothetically, to deepen a conversation instead of to shut it down, the critics don't seem all that interested in doing so. One of the most-linked critiques announces in its very first sentence that the author has been un-friending people who linked approvingly to Fortgang's essay.

It's a free country, and people can be as narrow-minded as they like. But they should know that they're proving Fortgang's point about the illiberalism -- on college campuses and elsewhere -- that's too often behind the cliche.

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