March 7, 2017
If you have paid attention to the resurgence of identity politics in recent years, you no doubt have heard the phrase “Check your privilege.” It is a favorite in the lexicon of the group my good friend Ahmer Israr has dubbed the “alt-left.” The saying calls attention to what Thomas Sowell calls the “cosmic differences” of the world, asking that those who are more fortunate at birth recognize their luck, and then, of course, shut up.
The “shut up” part is essential. It’s what alt-leftists really want when they tell someone to check their privilege. Take note that this reminder is only necessary when he-who-is-privileged disagrees with alt-left thought.
To the alt-left, it is unacceptable to speak the wrong opinion about any specific hardship if one has not experienced that hardship. Men’s opinions on abortion fall on deaf ears because men cannot understand the difficulties of women, unless the man is pro-choice. Rich people’s opinions about the poor don’t matter unless they support a vast welfare state as the solution. White people can’t have any valid opinion on race relations in America unless they preface their thoughts by saying that institutional racism runs rampant. The argument from the alt-left is that these groups are inherently privileged, and that they have no right to speak if they don’t have the right opinion.
It’s easy for the alt-left to silence someone by calling them “privileged.” Calling someone privileged is today’s version of calling them racist; it requires no proof, and lest they want to be deemed privileged for eternity, they had better end their dissent with whoever accuses them. Convenient.
But on top of the rudeness of telling someone essentially to shut up, “Check your privilege” has inherently bigoted implications. Assume for a moment it’s not all about the “shut up” clause of the Privilege Contract. Assume for a moment that a stranger or even an acquaintance tells you to check your privilege and actually means it. They want you to look into your past and recognize all the nice things you were given at birth and as a child. What, as if they know better than you the opportunities you were given?
No stranger or acquaintance knows you or your past. Barring what they see about your race, sex, or sexual orientation, they can’t know about your privilege. So the alt-left assumes that white people are given a social blank check at birth, that men have all the power, and that straight people never face adversity the way gay people do?
On the contrary, in this country of 320 million people, there are plenty of successful black people, poor white people, powerful women, powerless men and people of all sexual orientations in a variety of circumstances. Telling a white man to check his privilege because he’s white, when he might come from rural poverty in West Virginia is like giving a black man special treatment because he’s black, even though he might be from Beverly Hills. Is that not bigotry?
I have no problem with an internal and individual effort to recognize those cosmic differences. After all, only the individual knows what they are. “Check your privilege” is a rhetorical strategy used by the alt-left to destroy ethos and make people feel bad about things they can’t change. It is a form of emotional manipulation. If it were instead an internal mantra reminding us that we may have been born on third base and that we shouldn’t confuse that with hitting a triple, I would be all for it.
Gratitude is important in any culture. It helps us remember where we are and how we got there. I certainly don’t ever want to forget that I could’ve been born into any other family or in any other country, but I wasn’t. I was born to a family with a mother and a father who love me and each other, in a country with a constitution written to limit government.
The “Check your privilege” culture is backward. The alt-left tells others to check theirs and forget their own, wasting as a rhetorical synonym for “shut up” what could be a valuable internal reminder in an endless battle for modesty. Humans want to be God. That’s why the alt-left is bent on controlling your life, and that’s why Adam and Eve bit into the forbidden fruit.
To keep in mind and heart a sense of gratitude is a reminder that we didn’t get where we are alone—and while we weren’t there for all the toils of our parents or grandparents, and we didn’t experience the adversity our great-grandparents faced, we can remember it all the same. They did it for us.
Alt-leftists tell those who disagree with them to check their privilege, but forget to do so themselves. In contrast, modest men and women understand that every day they experience the benefits that their families and the founders of this country fought for, and that they have a responsibility to build on those efforts.
We need to stop the collectivist focus on traits people can’t change. To give more or less credence to someone’s ideas based on their skin color, sex or religion is to ignore the content of that person’s character and the quality of their ideas. The next time someone tells you to check your privilege, smile and say you do, all the time, and then tell them that that doesn’t mean you’re going to shut up.
David Warne is a first-year student studying economics and English, and is an Associated Student Government senator.
Articles in the Opinion section represent the views of the individual authors only and not the views of The Santa Clara or Santa Clara University.