Tal Fortgang has offended the offense-takers. The Princeton University freshman wrote an essay for a student publication, since reprinted in Time magazine, skewering the progressive trope “check your privilege.”
If you haven’t been told to “check your privilege,” you don’t spend enough time on college campuses, or on progressive websites, where the phrase is considered a debate-clinching rejoinder suitable for any occasion. It is an injunction to admit the privilege — whiteness, maleness, heteroness, middle classness and some other-ness — behind any uncongenial point of view.
On websites, people with presumably too much time on their hands do for “checking your privilege” what Judith Martin does for etiquette — describe an elaborate system of rules for how the privileged can appropriately interact with the nonprivileged. It’s Emily Post meets Michel Foucault. Or “Ms. Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Politically Correct Behavior.”
One feminist writer explains that “just as you have to learn a bunch of new terms for things like science class, so too do you need to do so for non-privileged groups.” It evidently never occurs to them that treating the “non-privileged” as an alien class incapable of having normal interactions with other people is itself deeply insulting, but all is fair in the fight against privilege.
After being told to “check his privilege” a few times, Fortgang writes, he checked the family background that had produced the rank privilege he enjoys as a white, male Princeton student. He found grandparents who barely escaped the Nazis and came here with nothing, a father who earned his success, and parents who passed along their faith and belief in education.
“That’s the problem with calling someone out for the ‘privilege’ which you assume has defined their narrative,” Fortgang writes. “You don’t know whose father died defending your freedom. You don’t know whose mother escaped oppression. You don’t know who conquered their demons, or may still [be] conquering them now.”
The push-back against his essay — which has generated incredible attention, including a profile of Fortgang in The New York Times — has featured the snotty in the service of the ridiculous. The collective response could be summed up as “Please, try to check your privilege again.”
Fortgang has been accused of objecting to the mere insistence that he be polite to people different from him, although there’s nothing in his piece that justifies rudeness. He has been attacked as making himself out to be a victim, “the Rosa Parks of Ivy League white guys,” although all that he’s asking is that people judge him and his views on the merits. He has been told that he doesn’t get just how privileged he is, since he has never suffered — and presumably never will — the travails of his grandparents.
But Fortgang doesn’t deny that. His essay acknowledges all the privileges he has had; only he considers them a good thing. What he writes about is the process whereby — to accept the left’s stilted terms — the socio-economically nonprivileged become privileged in this country.
If “check your privilege” were merely a call to be grateful for what we have, or to acknowledge the struggles of people who start with nothing or are considered outsiders, it would be unremarkable. But it carries the noxious assumption that race, class and other characteristics determine your worldview, and it is used as a cudgel against one point of view. If a white person says affirmative action is a wondrous tool of justice, or a male says we desperately need more legislation to fight the “pay gap,” he is unlikely to be reprimanded about the nefarious hidden influence of his privilege.
Tal Fortgang scored a direct hit against one of the more mockable expressions of political correctness, although it won’t make a difference to the people who come up with and try to enforce these ever more absurd strictures. They never feel compelled to check their inanity.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.