The Personalist Project

In keeping with my efforts to love all truth and love it in all things,* I set out to see whether there were any grains of it to be found in that incessant admonition,"Check your privilege!"

The idea is that people ought to wake up to the advantages they enjoy because, by no merit of their own, they happen to be male, or straight, or Caucasian, or middle-class. If you belong to such a group, you might assume that good things come to you because you're especially intelligent or virtuous or industrious. But really it's just that people are prejudiced in favor of you and your ilk. 

It is true that the world is full of people who thoughtlessly take credit for their success, oblivious to the giants on whose shoulders they're standing--not to mention hardworking parents, a nice neighborhood, cooperative physiological wiring, their country, and their God. And the world is full of people who have no idea what others are up against.

On the other hand, the "check your privilege" mantra can serve as a handy trick for summarily shutting down unpopular views. The aim seems to be to make certain, select kinds of people so ashamed of their very existence that they're afraid to open their mouths in the first place. 

Where's the grain of truth in that?

Well, for one thing, it's key to recognize how good you have it (if you do)--not because guilty discomfort is an end in itself, but because that way you practice gratitude. (And gratitude does need to be, literally, practiced, just as surely as multiplication and conjugation.)

Recognizing your privilege need not mean feeling guilty, worthless, and inferior. Nor does it require shouldering personal responsibility for every evil your ancestors ever inflicted on somebody else's ancestors. Nor does it mean taking a perpetual vow of silence and invisibility.

But it can point us towards genuine self-knowledge. As C. S. Lewis says,  

Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man's choices make out of his raw material.

But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. ... All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was.

He adds laconically:

There will be surprises.

So acknowledging what others are up against can enrich self-knowledge. But more to the point, it can turn us in the direction of actually doing something for those others. Persistent stereotypes about "Catholic guilt" aside, the ideal is not the successful instilling of guilt feelings, but the accomplishment of good actions. 

So, lots of grains of truth to be found, it turns out--as long as "checking your privilege" gets you beyond dismissing and silencing the other guy.


*The motto is that of the International Academy of Philosophy, where I had the, well, privilege of studying in the Alps for three very formative years.

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Comments (5)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Apr 5, 2016 10:53pm

I wish I'd had that CS Lewis quote at my fingertips when I was writing about privilege and sin/virtue here last year! He says it so well. 

I do think that, however it is perceived, the central purpose to the idea of "checking your privilege" is what Lewis points to--it is to remind us both to be grateful and make the most of the advantages we have been blessed with, and, more importantly, to restrain from judging others for their apparent failures.

When modern activists point to privilege, their desire is often to encourage us to really *listen* to the stories and experiences of others, rather than impose our own template for life on people whose lives are different in many subtle ways. We risk being unjust to others if we assume that we are all starting from the same point.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#2, Apr 5, 2016 10:58pm

It occurs to me that the proper attitude towards others that awareness of privilege should foster is really one of respect for the mystery of the human person, a warning not to assume or judge what cannot really ever be fully known--the interiority, the incommunicability of the other.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Apr 6, 2016 10:42am

I agree too.

I've been thinking about the concept lately in comparison with the older one of "noblesse oblige"—trying to pinpoint similarities and difference.

I like the magnanimity and personal responsibility expressed in "noblesse oblige," just as I dislike the contempt that so often comes through in the demand that others "check your privilege."

On the other hand, that magnanimity assumes a superiority, which I guess easily becomes part of the problem. "Check your privilege" has the merit of challenging us to become aware of the illegitimacy of our imagined superiority.

Devra Torres

#4, Apr 6, 2016 11:48am

Kate, yes, I just read your older post and was glad I did. I think the problem is not in the message of "check your privilege," rightly understood, but in the way it's used as a tool to intimidate and manipulate people into silence. Insofar as it resists the tendency to make false assumptions about the world, as if each person's interiority is equivalent to everyone else's, it's not only legitimate but indispensable.

Devra Torres

#5, Apr 6, 2016 12:02pm

Katie, that made me think, because I guess I've internalized the idea of noblesse oblige as something hypocritical and condescending, as in this definition I found in the online Urban Dictionary: 

Literally means, "nobility obliges". It's generally used to imply that with wealth, power, and prestige come social responsibility. It's mostly used to refer to the wealthy who are condescending and shower their money and privileges upon those who don't necessarily want it.

Our landlord gave us a basket of fruit for Christmas, as his noblesse oblige.

I guess the idea is that people with "wealth, power, and prestige" make an illegitimate assumption that they're therefore better than everybody else. I think of a friend who contributed food for "the poor" at her parish, only to find that same food in a basket on her own doorstep on Christmas morning (I think it was), because it turned out she WAS "the poor"!

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