Privilege Checking is not without its merits but evidence not identity should be the currency of public discourse
I’ve already blogged this week about Tal Fortang, the Princeton undergraduate who has responded to being asked to ‘check his privilege’ by writing an article entitled “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege.” I took issue with his sentimental evocation of the American Dream not his core argument about privilege checking.
I’m not very sympathetic to Mr Fortgang as an individual: he comes across as entitled and self-regarding. However, he does have some good points to make:
- He is right to assert that he is more than a label. It is one of the paradoxes of identity politics that in trying to recognise our diversity it can lose sight of our individuality. We are too complex to be described accurately just by stating what our ethnicity, sex etc.
- He is also right to imply that being privileged does not mean his experiences are not relevant to debates. For example, if one were looking to understand social mobility then knowing why Mr Fortgang’s family was able to rise from poverty to affluence is as useful as grasping the barriers that stand in a less fortunate family’s way.
That said he falls down in some pretty significant ways:
- One of the strongest arguments against privilege checking is that the possibility that through research, listening, imagination and empathy one can appreciate another’s position without having lived it. However, Fortgang doesn’t seem to have any interest in doing those things. His article says nothing about the views or experiences of anyone outside his own family.
- He seems to treat questions of identity as a competition in which one tries to accumulate the maximum adversity as leverage for debates. I’m sure that’s how some people treat it but that’s not really the point.
- It’s basically irrelevant for the main point of the argument but I do find something pathetic about his co-option of the struggles and suffering of others. There is a big difference between experiencing something yourself and your relatives having done so.
However, for all the discussion it generates I can’t get too worked up about the merits or otherwise of privilege checking. The reason is that it seems that the arguments where it is most relevant are the least impressive to start with.
The importance of the identity of a person making an argument is directly correlated with the extent to which they are drawing on their personal experience. And arguments that rely on personal experience are inherently suspect. For starters, asking someone to treat your anecdote as evidence is requiring them to trust a) that you’ve not made it up and b) that you’ve remembered it accurately. Then there’s the very real possibility that you can represent the exception rather than the rule. For example, Fortgang tries to use the fact of his own family’s social mobility to argue that America is a meritocracy. As I hope I demonstrated in my previous post, this is demonstrably false. I did that using primarily statistics from reputable sources. Therefore, I would submit that how privileged I am is irrelevant to the merits of my argument.