Check Your Argument

I had not known that the phrase “check your privilege” had become common on college campuses until an opinion piece by Tal Fortgang, a Princeton freshman, went viral.  Fortgang observed that his left-liberal classmates deployed it in an attempt to silence his arguments about welfare or the national debt.  His essay in response detailed his family’s struggles, showing that privilege did not capture the complexity of their lived experience.

Fortgang writes with passion, but his piece does not get to the root of what is wrong with the phrase nor does it show how it reflects more generally the pernicious norms that infect many of our universities. (I consider the norms of society as well as the law of the state a fit subject for this blog).  Even if his family’s name had been Rockefeller or Frick, this kind of attack should not be welcome in intellectual discourse.

“Checking your privilege” does not impugn the logic or evidence behind any argument, but calls attention to the identity of the speaker. It is a variation on a classic fallacy–the ad hominem argument.  Plato’s contentions in The Republic are not in need of reformulation because he was an aristocrat.  Rousseau’s claims are not refuted because he treated his lovers and children badly.

Of course, in the political realm, we do often see attacks on the speaker rather than his platform.  There that method may sometimes be justified, because political office holders not only make arguments but wield power. Character may make a difference to power’s exercise.  But the often thinly veiled assaults on wealth or ethnicity, like some of those on Romney and Obama, were in essence appeals to prejudice and resentment.  They may well be the price we have to pay for democracy. But a university is concerned with refining reason not exercising power, and the political focus on the person should not be allowed to distort the contest of ideas.

This ubiquity of “check your privilege” suggests that political correctness is now entering a second generation and gaining a second wind.  While political correctness previously concentrated on race and gender, the new focus on inequality seems to have emboldened the campus left to put class back on the list of identity politics.  Of course, using the phrase “check your privilege” to cut off debate on campus is not nearly as destructive as what communists did to people who were from the “wrong” class. Many children of privilege then were sent to reeducation camps to reflect or were even silenced never to speak again.  But it stems from the same impulse to replace reason with power.

This new form of an old disorder also shows that despite the orthodoxy on many campuses many left-liberals remain very afraid of classical liberal and conservative dissent.  Just as students who protested Condi Rice’s prospective graduation speech at Rutgers showed strength in numbers but weakness in intellectual confidence, so do those who parrot this new campus slogan.  If your underlying argument is flawed, you do need a force other than logic and evidence to sustain your position.  Political correctness is an admission of intellectual frailty.

John O. McGinnis

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His recent book, Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the co-author with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

About the Author

Comments

  1. R Richard Schweitzer says

    “But a university is concerned with refining reason not exercising power, ”

    My dear fellow, given your resume and experience, past and present, that statement shows your unbounded optimism and goodwill toward your fellows in academe.

  2. djf says

    Could you give an example of “thinly veiled” attack on Obama’s “ethnicity” by the non-looney Right (i.e., excluding birthers and other self-defeating wingnuts)? The equivalence you seem to be suggesting in the relative viciousness of the two sides of the political spectrum is quite specious. As a strategy to induce leftist readers to give you a hearing, it is simply won’t work.

  3. nobody.really says

    Privilege is a useful concept grounded in sound economics: Resources are scarce – and perhaps the most scarce resource of all is human attention.

    Why do we see optical illusions? How could it possibly be adaptive to perceive the world falsely? I theorize that optical illusions work because the human mind uses heuristics that work most of the time within the environment to which we are socialized. I might say that I have “normal stimulus privilege.” Optical illusions expose us to a stimulus that is not common in our normal environment; our experience has not sensitized us to them – until we start learning about optical illusions. Now when I see a familiar optical illusion, I’m not as easily fooled. I’ve become “sensitized.”

    I enjoy optical illusions. But if I were living is a jungle filled with camouflaged predators, my casualness about optical effects could be fatal.

    How much of my attention should I give to the idea that a stranger on the street is going to shoot me? I give it almost no attention at all. I have “law and order privilege.” Clearly if I lived in a war zone, this might be a deadly attribute.

    How much of my attention should I give to the idea that the fruit I pick up at the farmer’s market will make me ill? Not much; I have “First World privilege.” I made a mistake once in Mexico. It didn’t prove fatal, but it did teach me a lesson about privilege.

    Libertarians rant about the burdens government imposes on them – while never noticing the bumps that aren’t in the road, the gunfire that doesn’t break out every night, the infectious diseases that aren’t ravishing their bodies all thanks to government interventions. They also suffer from a form of First World privilege.

    Privilege is a form of ignorance. Again, often we’re rationally ignorant of things; we can’t focus on everything, so we focus on the things that are salient to us. The natural consequence is to be insensitive to things that aren’t salient to us – even when they may be salient to others.

    In short, ignorance (and privilege) are not moral failings – but they are failings. The admonition “Check your privilege” can be understood as an invitation to broaden your perspective. We can’t understand other people’s behavior if we fail to understand the things that are salient to them.

    Of course, “check your privilege” can also mean, “shut up.” College students haven’t changed that much.

      • LO says

        There’s more to it than ad hominem argument. The invocation of privilege begs the proposition that disadvantage is, ipso facto, unjust. Take every one of nobody’s thought experiments and replace the word ‘privilege’ with ‘advantage’. They still scan, don’t they?

        The linguistic shifting of ground is deliberate. Any number of factors can grant a person advantage, including skill, hard work, or dumb luck. Etymologically, privilege has its roots in the term ‘private law’, and carries the implication that some authority has granted it. Check your Marxism.

      • Steve Gregg says

        “Check your privilege” is not “an invitation to broaden your perspective” but rather simple bigotry, ie claiming that your opinion has no value because of who and what you are. A true thing is true regardless of its source. 2+2=4 if a street bum says it or if Einstein says it. To claim your argument can not be true because of who you are is simple tribalism. The proper reply to “Check your privilege” is “Check your bigotry.”

    • Weisshaupt says

      “check your privilege” always means shut up – because what they don’t want to talk about are the privileges they have – first and foremost the privileges of using government guns to coerce wealth and support from groups who would not willingly give them. This in turn provides the them “privilege” of being irresponsible leeches on others while enviously tearing down those who do better .

      Perspective and ignorance are not aspects of ” privilege” – Privilege implies entitlement. Anyone with perspective knows they are not entitled to clean water, clean food, health care, shelter or anything else they “need” because the world doesn’t work that way. They grew up and learned that you only deserve to consume value commensurate with what you produce and use yourself or trade with others. The government helps provide that clean food and water. People should pay for those services. Sadly, however, over 2/3 of our govt’s outlay goes to pay for the privileges of the parasitic, looting leftists to take what they did not earn.

    • John Link says

      “The admonition “Check your privilege” can be understood as an invitation to broaden your perspective.”

      That statement assumes that the speaker’s perspective is more broad than the person so admonished. Baloney.

      Ayn Rand would admonish YOU to, “Check your premises”.

    • says

      Libertarians also weep about the cures that are never developed due to regulatory capture by existing firms, about the corpses piled by war industry profiteers and their highly effective lobbyists (most of whom just passed through the revolving door from the Pentagram or CONgress) or the millions rotting in prison due to wars on (some) drugs driven by political calculation.

      Is “nobody really” such an outcome-utilitarian that (s)he couldn’t care less about how a salutary thing came about? How about we judge things as a whole, and ask how many tax-supported caged men are necessary to “pay” for a dozen filled potholes in the street? How many Hellfired wedding parties are needed to “pay” for some benefit bequeathed us by the monopoly squatting in Atlanta, GA (the CDC)?

      At least as a libertarian I’m fairly consistent in desiring a less coercion-saturated society.

  4. says

    Why do we see optical illusions? How could it possibly be adaptive to perceive the world falsely?

    Might I suggest another possibility? Optical illusions are not themselves adaptive but, like apophenia, they are the result of processes that are.

    • gabe says

      And Nobody’s examples appear to offer conclusive evidence of just how broad is the field from which apophenic conclusions (syntheses) may be drawn.
      I wonder what privilege would be attached to my fondness for good Washington State wine!

  5. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    The phrase certainly is a kind of ad hominem, but it is more than that. It is also a kind of argument that presumes that self interest determines thought. It can be summed up in the adage “where you stand is determined by where you sit.” In that sense it is of a kind with simple Marxism, or really any kind of materialism. Many utilitarians and main stream economists make the same kind of assumption. Given the prevalence of this kind of intellectual assumption across so much of our public discourse, I don’t find it surprising that young people at places like Princeton replicate it. Sadly, I find it pretty much across the political spectrum–the Left has no monopoly on this kind of slipshod thinking.

    • Zippy says

      The left has no monopoly on slipshod thinking, particularly if you include politics and popular culture. But it has very high market share.

  6. gabe says

    When all else fails try humor or try Nobody’s implicit mantra: Check your ignorance!!! – applicable to all who appear to know everything (right or left)
    It does simplify the world, doesn’t it! And thinking is SO burdensome, anything that permits us to act without thought must be good, right?
    So I submit that “illusion” is not as my friend Nobody claims – accidental or incidental – but in far too many instances – willful.

  7. Arlington Hewes says

    “…strength in numbers but weakness in intellectual confidence…”

    The word you’re looking for is “cowardice”

  8. Faceless Commenter says

    A retort is needed. I suggest:

    “I stand by every word I said.”

    No defense, no explanation, no apology. Just a simple reassertion.

  9. Steve Johnson says

    No, the Left must check their Ad-Hominem. The Left has been profilgate in the use of fallacy to cement together their disperate ideology….

  10. tim maguire says

    There are no wisdom prodigies. Kids are stupid and that’s ok; kids are supposed to be stupid. Part of the job of the university is to mold them into thoughtful adults ready to join the adult world. We shouldn’t be blaming the students.

    But universities have abdicated their responsibility (while continuing to take the money they get paid to perform). Instead of helping the students develop their better tendencies, they have chosen to nurture the students’ worst. Rutger’s rejection of Condi Rice was driven by an absurd “radical” professor, the kind who could only have influence in a tenured academic system. The ubiquity of “check your privilege” is not the fault of the students saying it, it is the result of the university’s decision to not teach them better.

  11. says

    The whole point of “political correctness” is to sidestep the actual argument and ignore facts, and to stifle free thought and the expression of ideas.

    Those who commit to it are actively engaging in a curious activity: self-brainwashing. By allowing others to dictate their speech, they are surrendering their intellect to someone else. This weakness is not uncommon in socialistic societies. However, it has no place amongst a free people.

  12. Tim C says

    A good article, and it surprised me that you teach law at NU where they are most infamous for getting convicted murderers freed so they can sue the county and get 1/3 of a fortune.

  13. JoyO says

    Political correctness is a serious threat to our First Amendment rights. As Americans, we have a duty to ensure the liberties and freedoms we inherited from our parents and grandparents are preserved for our children and grandchildren. If we do not do, we will lose these rights to the totalitarians who want to control everything we say, think, and do. Thank goodness this young man spoke us. We need a thousand more students across the Nation speaking up against the universities and colleges who want to restrict the Constitutional rights of their students and, oftentimes, want to brainwash them into accepting social justice and equal poverty for all.

  14. Dave says

    Rather than the attack fallacy ad hominem, I would suggest that “check your privilege” is more the broader genetic fallacy wherein an argument is rejected solely on the basis of its origin or genesis. If, for example, you are a white male or a Republican, what you say has no standing in academia for that reason alone. A former student of mine at Berkeley said that one of her classes voted not to allow white males speak.

  15. Tom in SFCA says

    I believe civilization loses when we get drawn down the leftist rabbit hole.
    Hence my approach:
    Leftist: “Check your privilege.”
    Me: “Fuck off!”

  16. MissAnthropy says

    “Check your privilege” is an all too typical rhetorical truncheon of the Left. Typical because it refers to some nebulous and undefined — but absolutely extant they assure us! — social and cultural phenomenon that can be applied whenever they feel like it. It’s rather like what Global Warming has become. “Global Warming” is now responsible for any anomalous weather, from unusually warm to literally the very opposite.

    “White privilege” is one of those pieces of received fact, and the Left’s response to contradictory information is merely to double and then triple down on the assertion. Until the coronation of Obama I used to view liberals as people I disagreed with on a reasoned basis, but always felt like there would at least -be- a debate in the public arena. Now I see them for the totalitarians they are, emboldened by the ascension of a new generation of standard bearers into dropping the carefully constructed pretenses of the past.

    I have no doubt that the American Left will send their ideological opponents into mass graves if given the opportunity. They have a blood lust, and have preemptively absolved themselves of wrongdoing through the construction of moral imperatives exemplified by such things as “check your privilege”.

  17. says

    “Check your privilege” goes somewhat beyond an ad hominem attack in that the charge is not only irrelevant to the argument, it is non-refutable. Take a look at the comments to Tal’s essay: How many people have “proved” his privilege by pointing at his article denying it?

    There may have been a useful point to be made by considering “privilege”, but as normally used it simply means “shut up, white boy” and is what Eric Raymond termed a kafkatrap (http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=2122).

  18. nobody.really says

    Wow. Feeling defensive, are we?

    I had hoped that the examples I offered might diffuse some of this. I admit it: I’m susceptible to being fooled by optical illusions. I take minimal protective measures against assault. I failed to guard myself against getting some typical gastrointestinal malady while in Mexico. In short, I’m willing to acknowledge that I don’t know everything. I also argue that a degree of ignorance is rational and, in any event, inevitable. Nevertheless, I strive to avoid defensiveness.

    Not a popular perspective here, I see.

    Let’s take another run at this: Consider examples from folk tales, TV, and film.
    In Freaky Friday, mom and daughter fight, each of them frustrated that the other one can’t make a little more effort to help them get along. Then they magically trade bodies. The plot is just an excuse to force each character to realize how little she understands about the other’s circumstances and perspective. They must literally “walk a mile in the other’s shoes.”

    And the realization is mutual. Neither is the hero or the villain. They were both ignorant, that’s all. Each person could be said to have the privilege of ignoring things that were vitally important to the other. And when the exercise was over, they each came away with a new understanding of the other’s perspective. They were sensitized.

    This same theme appears in other traditional stories: Prince and the Pauper. Country Mouse and City Mouse. The point is not that one person is virtuous and one is evil; the point is that neither has the perspective of the other. They are mutually ignorant – until circumstances prompt them to broaden their perspectives.

    Now, to be sure, there is often a class dynamic at play. Two somewhat contradictory factors influence this:

    1. Stories become popular if they speak to the circumstances of the majority. Which story is likely to become popular: A story about a guy struggling with a demanding boss who doesn’t understand the constraints he must operate in? Or a story about a boss who must deal with subordinates who inexplicably can’t get things done on time? Even if I *am* that boss, I likely spend most of my day worrying about how to please *my* boss, not worrying about my subordinates. Thus, in stories about hierarchy, most of us are prone to identify with people struggling with their superiors rather than with people who *are* the superiors.

    2. But in stories that are not about hierarchy, we’re more likely to talk about kings and princesses than about peasants. Check your TV: How many shows are about working-class people – and depict them accurately? Heck, Friends was a show about a marginally-employed barista living in a penthouse apartment in NY with copious free time. Nobody watching the show would come away with any realistic knowledge about the life of a NY barista. Basically, it was a princess story.

    Thus, kings and peasants are both ignorant of each other – but not equally so. Any given subordinate is likely to have a greater perspective of the circumstances of any given king than vice versa.

    But there are occasional counter-narratives. In Big, the 7-yr-old protagonist magically turns into an adult, and must abruptly adapt to an adult’s world. In Educating Rita and Working Girl, a working-class woman is thrust into an upper-class world. In each case, the protagonist can be regarded as having gained in status. But in each case, the protagonist is attached by his or her former colleagues for having “changed” and lost the old perspective. And it’s true. That is, in each case, the former colleagues are privileged to be ignorant of the new stresses in the protagonist’s life, and of the new perspective this has imposed on the protagonist. That is, people in a socially subordinate position are the ones demonstrating privilege.

    And, of course, there are countless stories about ambitious people who rise from low status to achieve their goals, only to realize that they hate the burdens of the life they have achieved — to realize that they had made presumptions based on ignorance, privileged not to have to worry about these pressures. The fastest gun in the West, who now must worry about being the target of every other ambitious gunman. The ambitious actor who becomes a movie star, and who is now surrounded by sycophants and cannot have an honest conversation. The mail room clerk who becomes the CEO and is surrounded by back-stabbing rivals. Again, it is those in the subordinate roles who dreamed of life on the top, making presumptions based on ignorance, privileged not to have to cope with those pressures.

    (I’m told Downton Abbey also features this theme, with people downstairs failing to appreciate the problems – especially financial problems – of the people upstairs. Haven’t seen it myself, though.)

    Do these examples help?

    • Zippy says

      Nobody, I can tell you are well-educated and steeped in popular culture. But your analogy is rather strained. In Freaky Friday there were specific things that Jamie Lee Curtis and her daughter knew of which the other was unaware. Switching places allowed them to learn these new things.

      “Check your privilege” isn’t used to point out some specific lack; rather “white privilege,” “heterosexual privilege,” “male privilege” etc. are an amorphous goo with no tangible content. “Check your privilege” is just a way of saying “shut up I don’t want to listen to what you have to say and I don’t have to because you are white/male/heterosexual/whatever.” If there were actual content to the claims, they could skip the “check your privilege” and say “I believe there are facts of which you are unaware and which weaken your argument. They are a), b), and c).”

      Of course, most of the black/Hispanic/gay/transgendered students at Princeton, Harvard, and other elite schools are themselves of upper middle class or upper class extraction. Few of them have been significantly disadvantaged because of their race or whatever factor they are harping on.

  19. Stephen J. says

    It should be granted that the broadening of perspective is a good thing in itself, especially when it yields actual relevant information that can contribute to solving problems. Insofar as “Check your privilege” is used to mean “There are obstacles you are overlooking due to lack of practical personal experience with the situation/issue you are addressing”, it can be a valid critique.

    The problem is that in practice, “Check your privilege” tends to be used far more in these *in*valid ways:

    1) As shorthand to skip over the valid critique above to the invalid dismissal/conclusion of, “Because of your differing experience nothing you say needs to be considered as a serious critique,” without bothering to explain why or distinguish applicable observations from inapplicable ones.

    2) In a consciously unbalanced fashion that insists, or more deceptively merely tacitly implies, that the information gap due to differing experience is entirely one-way, and that the “lower-privilege” participants in the discussion neither can nor need to learn anything from the “higher-privilege” ones, nor need they deem the interests or problems of the “higher-privilege” status worthy of consideration when compared to the “lower-privilege” interests or problems.

    3) Based on a blanket assumption that the status of “high privilege” necessarily correlates to demographic group (race, sex, creed, orientation, class) on such a reliable basis that all given individuals of a “higher-privilege” group can be justly imputed with that privilege (and thus its ostensible blindness and irrelevance as an active participant).

    4) On a sliding scale that allows users to set the dividing line of “higher” vs. “lower” privilege as convenient to a particular discussion or issue (a phenomenon known as “intersectionality” in social-justice circles). A young black man may find himself of “low” privilege in a discussion about racism, yet abruptly find himself shunted into the “high” privilege position if the discussion turns to sexism; a wealthy gay man will be of “low” privilege in a same-sex union argument but of “high” position in an argument about class and taxation; and the bitter infighting among feminist factions by orientation, class, and race is already well-known, yet never acknowledged as a point worthy of criticism suggesting that mere “privilege” is too simple an assessment mechanism. And are Christians “privileged” or “disadvantaged” in today’s society? The atheist wanting to run for President will see this issue one way, the Christian baker being sued for not wanting to bake two men a wedding cake another; yet those who trot out “Check your privilege” never act as if there can be any doubt which way the “privilege” distinction should apply.

    As Stephen Karlson notes above, ultimately it is just another form of, “Easy for you to say,” which is not always an invalid critique. But it does not disqualify, ipso facto, the response of “Yes, that’s true. Does that make me wrong?”, and too many users of the phrase act as if it does.

  20. nobody.really says

    Fun topic. I hadn’t really put these thoughts into words before, so this is fun for me. Please bear with me. I expect I won’t be quite so long-winded the next time we discuss it.

    I will again assert that privilege is a useful concept. I have wondered if other people have missed that point.

    But upon reflection, *I* may have missed the point. The real topic of this post was not privilege per se, but the admonition “Check your privilege.” And Zippy (among others) raise a fair question: What is the point of that admonition? I had initially thought of it as a useful way to introduce a critique grounded in lack of perspective. But Zippy points out that you could skip this throat-clearing step without loss of content. And indeed, people here attest to the dynamic that the phrase “Check your privilege” provokes people to put up defenses. Not a great way to have a discussion.

    So, it the phrase useless or worse? Maybe — but maybe not.

    1. People who study speech know that throat-clearing is not useless. It serves as a way to attract the audience’s attention, to expect words to follow. Perhaps people who say, “Check your privilege” have learned that this is a useful way to get the audience’s attention. Perhaps they have tried statements such as, “I think your argument is undermined by certain facts that may be outside your perspective, such as the following…” but have learned that people are unwilling to pay attention to such statements unless they have a punchier introduction such as “Check your privilege.”

    (Admittedly, this part is pure spit-balling.)

    2. As Zippy points out, “Check your privilege,” just by itself, does not convey much of an argument. It tells me to broaden my perspective — yet, without more, relies on me to supply my own broader perspective. Yet, curiously, I often can.
    In short, the phrase may not serve as an argument; it may serve as a reminder of an argument that is presumed to have been delivered earlier. It might be offered in the same sense as “Your fly is open.”

    Thus, even if I’m utterly baffled when someone says “Check your privilege” without elaboration, it doesn’t follow that she’s saying it out of bad motive. She may simply be mistaken about my perspective. It may be the equivalent of saying, “Your fly’s open” to someone who has just put on pants for the first time and simply doesn’t attach significance to the fly.

    3. But finally, yes, it’s entirely possible that someone will offer me the simply in a desire to lash out at me.

    First reflection: It’s hard to anticipate how I would be able to distinguish this circumstance from the other, innocent uses of the phrase. Indeed, since I experience the admonition as an ad hominem attack, I know that I’m going to be prone to respond defensively.

    Second: Even if I am confident that the speaker is simply lashing out, it does not follow that I need to respond in kind. It’s an option – but hopefully not the only one.
    Yes, perhaps someone is trying to gain some status at my expense, and nothing more. I suppose such people exist — but I’m not sure I’ve met one. Most people I’ve come to know have complicated emotional lives. When they lash out at me, they have their reasons – even if those reasons have little to do with me. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

    If someone wants simply to show disdain, she will typically say, “Fuck off” or somesuch. In contrast, “Check your privilege” doesn’t have the same vitriol. I have to suspect it’s triggered by something more than a desire to show disdain.

    People are status conscious – especially conscious of subordinate status. When I feel subordinated, I have a visceral reaction. My stomach tightens; I become tongue-tied. So if I’ve said something that triggered this reaction in someone else, I wouldn’t be surprised not to get a well-articulated rebuttal in response.

    I don’t mean to say that I must defer to people’s barely-articulated feelings. But it’s an option – provided I have sufficient strength to offer it.

    Yes, people have said “Check your privilege” to me. I didn’t like it. But they have never been a threat to me. Provided I could control myself, I really had no need to try to control them. Generosity of spirit is a powerful response, too.

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