The phrase “check your privilege” has been bounced around a lot over the last year at McGill. Take the example of class. Suppose someone says something along the lines of “poor people need to work harder” and their peers will quickly remind them that they need to keep their “privilege in check.” From what I understand, the spirit of telling someone to “check their privilege” in these cases is to suggest that the way people view the world is often subjectively coloured by their socioeconomic background. I sympathize with that. It’s certainly true that where we grew up and the circumstances we come from can shape our political perspectives. So far so good? Maybe not. As valuable as it can be to acknowledge our biases, I think that this is far outweighed by the injustice of framing a person’s opinions as a product of their socio-economic status. If someone is wrong, it is because they’re wrong, not because they have failed to “check their privilege.”
Sticking with the example of class, imagine the inverse situation. Someone says something along the lines of “to hell with rich people, they’re all a bunch of vultures,” then what? If the person in question comes from a working class background, then, according to the logic of “check your privilege” we should tell them to “check their poverty,” right? Of course, this is something you never hear anyone say, but it’s the implicit suggestion of the idea of “check[ing] your privilege.” It’s unfair to anyone, whether they come from ‘privilege’ or not, to judge their opinions simply on their socio-economic background. When we suggest that someone’s opinion is a reflection of their background, we also implicitly restrict viewpoints to being merely products of circumstance, rather than free, individual thought.
Our obsession with privilege has even greater ramifications. Another conversation I frequently hear in one form or another is the discussion of “where” people’s political opinions come from. In this regard, much of McGill students’ (and, admittedly, I spend most of my time around Arts students) discourse about political perspectives and career objectives comes across as a sort of ‘cleansing of family sins.’ What I mean here is when people frame their ambitions to work for some thankless, heroic job in a deprived area (e.g. the developing world or a poor neighbourhood) as “Well, I come from privilege, so I feel an obligation to help the world.” Again, this is a perspective I sympathize with. I can imagine how growing up in relative splendour can leave one with a feeling of guilt considering the state of the world. However, thinking of one’s ambitions as a sort of noblesse oblige or moral imperative is a dangerous line of thought.
In this respect, imagine another conversation. Three students are hanging around in between classes, and talk turns to the eternal Arts question of “So what do you want to do after you finish school?” Two students answer that they want to help others as a way of paying back for their privilege, and that they feel this is a sort of moral duty. What if the third person in the conversation doesn’t come from a wealthy background? The guilt of coming from a privileged background ironically creates the savagely elitist notion that being wealthy means you have a greater obligation than anyone else to be morally virtuous. In aiming to create equality within society by paying moral reparations for wealth, we paradoxically reinforce the notion that having wealth grants one an unequal moral burden.
Of course it’s admirable to want to make the world a better place, whether you are wealthy or poor. It’s also naturally oftentimes more possible to do good when one has the privilege of a good education and a financially secure background. I simply think that we should not judge ourselves and our peers—politically or morally—based on where we come from. If someone is wrong, it’s because they’re wrong, not because they’ve failed to “check their privilege.” If someone is virtuous ,it’s because they are a good person, not because of where they come from. We must engage with arguments, not identities. If we believe in a society where everyone has the same rights and access to opportunity, then we cannot allow ourselves to believe that morality is socio-economically determined.
In the words of David Foster Wallace, “Defining yourself in opposition to something is still being anaclitic on that thing, isn’t it?” In this sense, to harp on about one’s privilege and to base one’s actions around compensating for privilege is still to be bound by the idea of it. If you believe that the institutions of social privilege are an evil, do not let your actions be controlled by them.
To be ‘opposed’ to privilege is still to have privilege determine your thoughts and actions. If you want to volunteer or work in the developing world or the inner city, do so because you think it is the right thing to do, not because you come from privilege, or feel you have to compensate for it. To oppose something is not the same thing as to be emancipated from it. The cruel irony of contemporary discourse on privilege is that the same people who hate the institutions of privilege also let their guilt (stemming from these same institutional privileges) control their actions. You are then a slave to your own privilege, and you have perpetuated the very elitism you claim to fight.