When a young Princeton freshman penned an essay last week to protest those who advised him to check his privilege—the idiom, if you’re not familiar with it by now, suggesting that the sort of chap who goes to Princeton would do well to stop and consider the ways in which his experiences may radically diverge from those of less-fortunate folks—the Internet reacted as it knows best, with one part mockery and three parts partisan lambasting. Especially vocal were voices on the left, decrying the young Princetonian as an entitled and insensitive jerk.
Liberals may have found Fortgang’s tone obnoxious; still, they shouldn’t dismiss his argument so quickly. If we examine the exhortation to check our privilege, what we’ll find is a worldview that is anathema to anything that even remotely resembles the tenets of progressive thought.
To begin with, because liberal politics, like all other seriously practiced beliefs, is not just about convictions but also about instincts and moods, its adherents should reject, right off the bat, any conversational strategy, no matter how well-meaning, whose inescapable outcome is the quelling of conversation. This should be particularly true on college campuses, costly little oases of free inquiry where the young ought to be unfettered in working through their ideas. Telling a young person that his or her opinion is tainted by association—with a social class, say, or with an ethnic group—is a heck of a way to start a conversation or promote further inquiry.
Quite the opposite, cry the privilege-checkers! The phrase means no harm, merely a gentle reminder that you, dear white and male and straight and wealthy dude, have no idea what it’s like to have people look at you a certain way for no other reason than who you are. This sounds innocuous enough. But it isn’t—it assumes that human beings ought to approach each other as blank slates, without fear or prejudice, forming an opinion only after they’ve had the time to construct an independent assessment of each other based on nothing but observable facts.
If human beings behaved that way, our reality shows would all be lengthy and contemplative documentaries about reasonable people logically and respectfully forming alliances with other reasonable people. Thank God the species doesn’t act that way. Instead, as several studies have shown, we apply stereotypes as helpful means of making sense of our increasingly complex environments and then, for the most part, let our preconceived notions evolve. This means that all of us, from the meekest panhandler to the sturdiest Princetonian, are subjected to a measure of bias. And while race, gender, and socioeconomic class fit neatly everywhere from the tired tropes of identity politics to the narrow syllabi of academic departments, other forms of privilege, far less political but just as potent, go unchecked by the same cats who pounced on Fortgang.
What to make, for example, of the fact that the hottest among us—irrespective of their sex or their skin tone—are far more likely to get hired, far more likely to earn promotions, and far more likely to enjoy a meatier salary? And, while we’re at it, why not demand that our athletes check their privilege and recognize what life is like for us obese schlubs who couldn’t make a jump shot if our lives depended on it, or that our neurosurgeons hang their heads low in sympathy with the legions of morons whose knowledge of medical science begins with ER and ends with Grey’s Anatomy? This is no joke: Athletic ability and intelligence are both likely to hoist one up the socioeconomic ladder; shouldn’t they, too, be acknowledged at every step?
The answer, of course, is no. If we stop at every step to remind ourselves of the ways in which we are different we may as well demand that every chat begin by acknowledging the intangibility of language or that every first date commence by addressing the impermanence of life on earth. Better to do as we have done until the lords of grievance sauntered onto the scene and assume that each of us has his or her own path and that divergent circumstances make for diverse experiences and point of view.
But diversity, that sterling principle of our culture, is precisely what the privilege-checking throttles. To make an example of Fortgang once again, to assume that he, the grandson of a poor Jewish immigrant, stands shoulder-to-shoulder in the same privilege bracket as the grandson of, say, a well-heeled patrician just because both are white men whose parents can afford a good college is to assume that neither is able to transcend the happenstance of his birth and that both, despite having grown up in such radically different traditions, arrive at a conversation with precisely the same point of view, shaped exclusively by their skin, their cocks, and their cash. It is, in other words, to deny that diversity is even a possibility. And that, I hope it goes without saying, is a deeply illiberal thing to do.
Liberals looking for an alternative to the drivel that is privilege-checking would do well to stand on one foot and recall old man Hillel’s dictum about not doing unto others that which is hateful unto you. It remains a far more eloquent expression of empathy, because rather than emphasizing the lines that divide us it insists that we focus instead on the profound things we all share, that set of fundamental common emotions that allow a young girl in Bangladesh to sink into Hamlet and be moved to tears by words and ideas written by a white man who died nearly 400 years ago and a young man in Princeton to imagine, despite having never been rejected or suspected or subjected to mistrust of any kind, what life is like for someone else.
Real liberals, then, should rage with Fortgang rather than at him. They should focus not on the vagaries of identity but on concrete and observable injustices, such as the fact, for example, that nearly three-quarters of all black Americans are born to unwed mothers, and that children raised by single parents are significantly more likely to end up in poverty or suffer from a host of other behavioral and social problems. Real liberals should seek to help these children rise, so that some years from now one of them, too, might attend Princeton and reflect, as Fortgang had, on the glories of living in a country that permits families to go from manual labor to Ivy League in just one or two generations. That’s a real privilege, and it’s one that all of us, but liberals especially, should embrace.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.