The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 5:41:26

Check Your Privilege? An Obnoxious Mantra’s Grains of Truth

Devra Torres, Apr 05, 2016

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.