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Ramble: Check Your Privilege: Political Correctness Returns


Do you remember the Political Correctness fad of 1990s? Where language needed to be deconstructed and reconstructed to avoid hurting people’s feelings and protecting cherished sacred cows? Like all sociologically driven fads designed to bring about change it started from a sincere place in making people recognize that language shapes thinking, and personal biases are in turn reflected in the language we chose to use.

From its roots English is a Politically Incorrect language. The history of words capturing the essence of the patriarchal and xenophobic societies that contributed to the development of English. This is why the gender-neutral pronoun was “he/him/his.” Yes there is a real gender-neutral pronoun of “it”  – but that is also the pronoun for an animal, vegetable or mineral. We generally find that being referred to as “it” doesn’t really work. There is also the use of “one” as a pronoun, so that one might say “one can drive 10 miles and get to one’s house.” The use of “one” often simply creates an awkward sentence reeking of third person distance.

English historically tended to create categories of people by ending the name of the grouping with “man”. As in: human. From there we go quickly into fireman, policeman, postman, milkman, and of course “the man.” Overall that historical bias of English made the other half of “man” (also know as “woman”) feel rather excluded. So words began to evolve to reflect a new reality of gender-equity. We know have firefighters, police, postal workers, and no more milkmen of any kind. Some words are harder to evolve so we do still have humans and humanists. And we still have women (although it may now be spelled womyn).

That evolution of language stirred some waves, but it was when that evolution of language morphed into Political Correctness that things went over the top. Short people became “vertically challenged”; fat people became “plus-sized”; and Christmas became “happy holidays”. The reality is that English did need to evolve to make words more inclusive, and ultimately simply more accurate in usage. The backlash against “politically correct” language eventually turned the phrase “Politically Correct” or “PC” into a pejorative term.

So here we are and look PC is dead; long-live “Check your Privilege”.

Now in the normal sense of the word a Privilege is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” However, in this case “Check your Privilege” is all about an academic sociologically based reinvention of the word. Basically in this new context a “privilege” is to quote Wikipedia: “Privilege is the sociological concept that some groups of people have advantages relative to other groups. The term is commonly used in the context of social inequality, particularly with regards to race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability and social class.[1] Specific elements of privilege may be financial or material such as access to housing, education, and jobs,[1] as well as others that are emotional or psychological, such as a sense of personal self-confidence and comfortableness, or having a sense of belonging or worth in society.[2] It began as an academic concept, but has since become popular outside of academia.[3]

This concept of “privilege” actually has a lovely earnest and hopeful framework holding it up. Unfortunately the original clarity of the concept has been hijacked so that “Check your Privilege” is now simply a quick slap to shut-down an opinion one may not want to hear. The original goal of making people aware of social and cultural privilege was to make individuals aware of societal inequities that may create barriers or exclusions for some groups that do not fit the “norm.”

The current use of the term has turned that around so that those labelled as being “privileged” have an unearned advantage that has been enshrined as a societal norm. The phrase “check your privilege” is then used as a warning bell that the speaker has no right to speak on a topic because the speaker is viewed has having no “real experience” and so is speaking from a blind-vantage of “privilege”. A quick interjection of “Check Your Privilege” is just a clever way to say “Shut Up!”

The beauty of this quick slap-down is it can be quickly wielded at any time by identifying an individual as being part of a pre-defined “elite” group that has unfettered access to “privilege”. The most used categories is north american culture are the privileged properties of being “white”, “male”, “able-bodied”, “attractive”, or “christian”. If you can be slotted into any of these categories then you are auto-magically privileged no matter your real life experience.  It does not matter that you may never have been treated as a “white” or a “christian” if by appearances you can be slotted into the category. Please note one cannot pick their own category – others must decide for you if your are “white”, “male” and so on. Your own personal life experience does not matter – only the external view of those that dis-like your opinions matter.

This of course makes the entire concept of social privilege suspect and distracts from the real disparities that do exist in our cultures and societies. Yes there really is sexism, and racism, and a host if other biased concepts and attitudes in our world. Attempting to shame people, or even to guilt individuals, because of a “perceived” membership in a societal group does nothing for the discussion, and simply makes individuals invisible. My experience of the world is not your statistical analysis of the world!

A normative value will always exist in the middle-ground of a society – meaning that there will always be those that exceed the norm and those that are below the norm. Yet all individuals will fall on different parts of different measurements! Meaning no one person is ever fully privileged by all a society has to offer.

This is why the cry of “Check your Privilege” – like the PC fad from before – has gone off the rails. It takes a good idea, and then goes OCD on the implementation. If you think you can tell me to “Check my Privilege” the reality is it is your own “holier then thou” sense of entitlement that needs to be checked. Go check yourself – but please not in public.

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8 responses

  1. Sean OConnor | Reply

    Hi, sorry to bump an old thread. I live in New Zealand and have been blissfully spared the phenomenon of people yawing on about privilege until late last year. I was wondering, has the ‘privilege’ fad peaked / died out in the USA yet?

    I’m partially just interested in buzzword lifecycles and thought this would make a good case study, but am also trying to figure out if I should purge my social media contacts of people who spam out posts about privilege. If it hasn’t yet peaked in the USA then the lifecycle must be 3 years long at least.

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    1. The concept privilege is going strong. As I indicated there are merits to the conceptual idea of privilege as a group phenomena. It is the imposition on individuals where the academic inspired conception of privilege fails. An individual lived experience may not reflect the group norms. In fact, the norm is almost always a narrow band within a group. There are always just as many below the norm as are above the norm. The beauty of measuring society through statistical lenses.

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  2. If the term “check your privilege” is used to shut down unwanted opinions or exclude certain demographics from contributing, it’s utilized aggressively and incorrectly. Given that people who are invested in social justice can sometimes be both angry and wrong, just like anyone, this is not surprising. However, in my experience this is not typically what is actually happening.

    In discussion or debate in a public space where only viewpoints from a particular demographic (such as only POC or only women or only LGBTQ+ people) are accepted, this tends to be established up front. If no dissenting opinions are accepted, such as on a support forum, this should also be stated. When CYP is invoked, it is therefore typically for the charitable (if perhaps snarky) purpose of alerting the person to the fact that their opinion appeared to come from an unchecked position of privilege, and allowing them a moment of reflection rather than having their thesis immediately and viciously cut down to size.

    The people who cry that “check your privilege” is chronically used to attack or silence them and others are people who refuse to read this charitably as a suggestion to improve the quality of the discussion, and instead insist their opinion ought to be treated with as much respect as anyone else’s, lived experiences and internalized biases be damned. These are people for whom the very notion that they’d be required to do a mental self-inventory in order to have their opinion on someone else’s experiences heard and validated is next to criminal. Typically and unsurprisingly, they are people who have come to expect that unprivileged people should simply accept their opinion as fact at face value.

    The common suggestion that privilege does not truly exist and is instead a symptom of class differences is also failing to see the overlap between different types of privilege – for example, that people with economic privilege also tend to be white, able-bodied, attractive, Christian, cis-straight men. This is not always true, of course, but all of these are checkboxes which correlate with greater wealth, political power, social advantages, etc.

    Privilege is neither good nor bad but you should be aware of it. And sure, there are economic privileges and those can be tied to gender — your rich white 1%er, for instance — but the focus on economics as a primary overriding privilege ignores the fate of women around the world who are /not privileged/ just by being born female. Women, for instance, regardless of their economic status, are abused and assaulted more often by their partners. They are killed more often by their partners. Those kinds of issues transcend class.

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    1. That sounds like a whole lot of internalized bias on the subject. Probably because everyone who is alive has internalized biases – mostly to do with the fact that “we are all the heroes of our own story.”

      If privilege is truly neither good nor bad – then what exactly is the point of demanding “Check Your Privilege”? As soon as that is invoked it has passed judgement on the other, and the others point of view without actually understanding anything about the speaker.

      Being white, male, christian and attractive does not make someone magically wealthy. Most of the North American economically wealthy (as in the 1%) are historically wealthy because of the head start these families had in exploiting the riches of a colonial land. They have maintained that head start – and even increased the gap over time.

      And we will just have to disagree about the impact of economic status on violence. Women are more likely to remain with an abusive partner because they have no economic independence – and so these women will then be exposed to violence more often. And as the abuser is empowered the level of violence tends to escalate. The reality is there is a direct correlation between poverty and increased violence (http://cjr.sagepub.com/content/18/2/182.abstract).

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      1. I’m not sure where you are seeing bias in my argument other than I believe that privilege absolutely exists and that in lots of ways, the privilege of just being male trumps many other privileges.
        Suggesting that women are more likely to remain with an abusive partner if they are economically disadvantaged doesn’t address the statistics that show they are more likely to be abused in the first place, does it?

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      2. I was paraphrasing your own argument about “internalized bias” – that entire paragraph passed judgement on all those that have trouble with the phrase “Check Your Privilege”. A circular reference back to your own use of generalizations on that paragraph to create a straw-man.
        I would point out all along I have said there are indeed inequities and real need for change. Just because I find the hammer of “Check Your Privilege” is inappropriate does not mean I am blind to the bias that exists. So yes my point on women’s economic status does indeed not fully address the alarming statistic. However, I would also point out numerous studies have shown that addressing poverty would reduce violence, would empower more woman to walk away from abuse, and would allow children to grown up in environments where they see less violence being modeled. By the way if you look at total violent crimes (not only domestic crimes) males are more likely to be the victims of violence then women. In the USA in 2010 of the 12,996 murder victims 10,058 were men. And 90% of murders are committed by men. In addition: Of the female murder victims for whom the relationships to their offenders were known, 37.5 percent were murdered by their husbands or boyfriends. (http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2010/crime-in-the-u.s.-2010/offenses-known-to-law-enforcement/expanded/expandhomicidemain)

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  3. Well that was thought provoking!
    My bug bear these days is judgemental people who think they can categorise others without having the first idea of what their life experiences have been ~ what they have been through or are going through.
    It is wearying when others have perceptions/expectations/demands/ which are inaccurate/unrealistic/unreasonable!
    There I feel better now.

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    1. Glad my little post helped you vent 🙂
      I will admit I am being a bit over the top on the subject – I just find working at a University I hear the phrase being swung wildly like a club to beat down those viewed as “privileged”. With the implication that all those that are in a position of power AND not from a minority group of some kind are in their position by good fortune and not through personal fortitude and merit.

      I also really dislike misuse of language – the word privilege is being misused. And that makes me think of 1984 and double-speak.

      Liked by 1 person

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