There’s an odd thing about privilege-checking as it has evolved into a shaming slogan, a sort of taunt. Shame only works if the target has an internal sense that the moral argument of the shamers is valid, or if the shamers reflect an overwhelmingly dominant social consensus such that it takes an iron will to refuse to be shamed.
But “privilege” as a concept essentially takes its cues from a deep body of pre-existing social theory and social history that dissects the origins and continuing maintenance of inequality. Much of that body of theory argues that in some fashion or another, inequality is functional to the individuals, groups and institutions that sustain it, that it is the product of self-interest. Part of the point behind that general argument is to aggressively dissent from other bodies of theory that see inequality as the natural outcome of meritocracy, competition, or intrinsic pre-existing differences between human beings, to argue instead that inequality has a history and is an active creation of social processes and institutional power.
It would be possible to argue that inequality is both a product of historical circumstances but not self-interested, e.g., that it is an emergent or unintended (if undesirable) outcome of processes and actions that were undertaken for other reasons. To the extent to which that is true, calling out privilege might be a genuinely educational gesture, and one where it’s plausible that the person named as privileged would have no vested desire to defend that status.
For the most part, this is not what progressive or left social theory would argue. The assumption is that the privileged benefit from their privilege, and therefore have every reason in the world to defend or maintain it. So what could possibly get them to do otherwise? Only one of two possibilities, broadly speaking. Either the mobilization of sufficient coercion or force by the victims of inequality such that they can compel the privileged to surrender some or all of their status, or the possibility of convincing the privileged that their status is either morally repugnant or is ultimately more of a risk to their long-term social existence than a more equal disposition would be.
If it’s about mobilization, the only benefit to privilege-checking is painting a bullseye on a target, of making a threat. At some point, making threats casually without the power to back them up is at the least futile, at the worst incredibly dangerous.
If it’s not–if there is some possibility of persuading a privileged person to assist in the abrasion or surrender of that privilege because that’s a thing they ought to do–it’s worth considering what that implies about the act of privilege-checking itself, and many other kinds of related communication.
If the “ought to do” is “because if you don’t eventually there’s going to be a revolution and you’ll be worse off than if you aimed for a soft landing from inequality”, then that’s just a deferred threat, to be taken seriously to the extent that the person making the argument can mobilize evidence about the inevitability of that outcome.
If the “ought to do” is because inequality is morally wrong and there is a hope that even its beneficiaries can see that, the question is: morally wrong how? Potentially for a range of reasons, some of them complementary. Morally wrong because perhaps a democratic society requires some form of rough equality to work, is premised on the notion that all people are created (and therefore should remain) equal. Such that anyone who professes to believe that a democratic society is preferable to any other ought to believe in the active maintenance of equality. But perhaps more because inequality’s consequences hurt people, both in absolute terms in terms of affordances and necessities they cannot access and relatively because they see others who have no greater merit or right enjoying vastly greater privileges.
E.g., privilege-checking arguably works only because or if it’s assumed that the person being called out is compassionate or can be morally moved to compassion.
Here we come to other problems. First, this doesn’t sit entirely well with the notion that the privileged are rationally self-interested in protecting their status. At the very least, to privilege-check as an invocation of shared morality implies that self-interest is never a sufficient explanation of social outcomes and even less of consciousness.
Second, the moral appeal only works if it is shared. It is undeniably true that members of marginalized groups cannot systematically discriminate against, that people of color cannot be racists or women be sexists, in the sense that this argument is typically made. Because to discriminate requires organized social power. It is not true, and is usually not claimed by activists to be true, that people cannot be cruel to one another as individuals. Power is no security against feeling personal and emotional pain, and relative powerlessness is no guarantee of interpersonal emotional virtue.
Early celebrations of online communication embraced it as a many-to-many medium, a wholesome democratizing alternative to the one-to-many structure of earlier forms of mass media. What that characterization obscured is that in some cases, the Internet functions as a many-to-one medium, magnifying and focusing the attention of crowds on individuals.
The problem is that such attention is often not compassionate in its imagination of that individual, even when it is coming from crowds who act in the name of a politics that requires a belief in the possibility of compassion even in those who have no necessary reason to feel it. If you call for people to worry about the injustice of inequality, to feel moved by the immorality of privilege, and believe that it is possible that this call will be heeded, then that requires an ethic of care. Anyone who worries about privilege has to be at least as compassionate as they hope the privileged might be.
In a many-to-one appeal, even if the many are just a handful of activists with little to no social power and the one is an intersectionally powerful person, it has to be possible to imagine that the awakening of compassion will be mingled with feelings of panic, sadness, and fear. The critique still has to be said, not the least because status, privilege and inequality are social facts that need to be spoken about with the same precision and clarity that we devote to talking about the chemistry of covalent bonds or measuring the absolute neutrino mass scale. But calling out privilege shouldn’t be an act that requires hardening the heart or relishing a hope for social exclusion. Which means also that it should be the exact opposite of a flip or easy rejoinder, never the progressive equivalent of a sneer or a call to silence.
Perhaps that means “check your privilege” is a phrase to retire because it invites that kind of ease, a lack of awareness about what that statement hopes for and requires. If it’s not an expression of an ethic of care, trying to radar-ping the world around it to find out who else shares or might share in that ethic, and not a threat with power behind it, then what it usually leads to is the moral evacuation of a conversation and the production of a sort of performative austerity, of everyone in a community pretending to virtue they do not authentically embrace and avoiding the positive or generative use of the forms of social power they might actually have genuinely privileged access to.
A part of Grasping the Nettle.