The Limited Good Use of an Argument, Research Time, 09/05/2014

This blog entry isn’t much more than an endorsement of someone else’s writing, because the subject is something that I don’t always feel too qualified to discuss on my own. I’ve been told to check my privilege before, and sometimes I’ve found myself responding in a way that sounds more like Tal Fortgang than I ever wanted to. I’ve always been suspicious of the language of privilege, but I’ve never really been able to articulate those suspicions until I read one piece that gave me the right framework.

Nishin Nathwani’s article in the Harvard Political Review came a month after Fortgang’s egotistical piece was published (in the Princeton Tory, of all reprehensible names that publication could have chosen), called “On Privilege: A Leftist Critique of the Left.” It’s a long, informative, if sometimes philosophically demanding article that criticizes the currently vogue technique of the appeal to the notion of privilege. 

The Idiot, seen here in Akira Kurosawa's adaptation, is one
of my favourite books, the depiction of a set of characters
who have to deal with a marginalized person, a man
suffering from mental illness, in their wealthy, mannered
The criticism does not revolve around what is unfortunately the most popular perspective, which is that of the Princeton Idiot. I mean the term ‘idiot’ here in its most literal sense, that of the person so wrapped up in himself that he can’t understand anything around him. The basic idea behind the admonition to check one’s privilege is that before you declare what you consider to be an obvious perspective of a marginalized person, to listen to that person instead of simply deciding that you have figured out what they believe. It’s a rejection of the idea that pure reason could understand the perspective of a person, or at least that we can be confident that we can think according to such reason.

So it depresses me when a piece of rhetoric that is supposed to be used to shock people out of complacency becomes more frequently used to reinforce complacency. On one side, we have misusers of the privilege concept who reduce it to an ad hominem attack. It’s meant to open up a conversation that ultimately enlightens someone who was previously ignorant: one person listens for a moment to the perspective and experiences of a person whose identity has marginalized them to some degree. Instead, as in Nathwani’s example of a privilege-based dismissal of a criticism of Pride parades, an argument is not engaged with, but dismissed because of its origin with a person in a dominant group. Nathwani’s own point is that privilege discourse can too often reinforce the separation of those with different identities.

This is a delicate argument, and I’ll just refer you to Nathwani’s own piece (and link it to you again) for the details. But his central thrust is that ideological critique is the better way to critique a position that speaks illegitimately for another or behaves with condescension toward them. My friend the illustrious B. S. Nelson, when he shared a post of the article from my facebook wall, described one problem of an ideological focus in his comments: Which ideology is right? That question is open, and probably always will be. But critique via ideology doesn’t devote you to the vocabulary of critical theory, which often has troubles of its own. 

One can think in terms of critical ideology in a very simple way. When someone says something that is disturbing, offensive, or condescending, ask why they would think that way. What makes a person think the way they do? How has their history and the context of their lives contributed to the perspectives and ideas they express? 

This notion achieves what the basic purpose of the appeal to privilege does, without the danger of the critique slipping into an ad hominem attack through its form. It achieves what the best fiction does; it takes a complicated, unsympathetic character, and understands enough of him to perceive his humanity. Once this is done, even the most inveterate racist and fool can learn something, because you will have figured out where and what he is.


  1. I'd love to get your own thoughts in depth on this, Adam. Can you think of an example where this specific phrase was used in a debate of any sort to any observable benefit to anyone? (Seriously, would like to see proof of concept for it.) For my own part, it strikes me as an incredibly obnoxious term that I can't imagine ever using.

    I worry about a nostalgia for ideology. If our only goal is to turn the clock back fifty years to the heyday of ideology, then we'd do well to plumb the rhetorical depths for the most jarring and divisive tools we can find. We are privileged that our political environment doesn't include constant warnings that a mass of people want to nuke us (only bomb us a bit), so the temperature is down and we can got on with the serious work of analyzing/ challenging/ guiding governance and enriching society. What benefit is offered by ideology?

    I left the tradition of critical theory on classical pragmatic grounds: I could see that the capabilities for critique were so robust and the means for practical improvement of people's lives so modest and so utterly susceptible to the same critique that I couldn't imagine much getting done. In that case, the pragmatist splits and goes on to more fertile questions. The debate over the use of this term reaffirms that for me: if the phrase has proven useful, let's see some rough proof of its utility. The danger of the concept is obvious: "privilege" is relative and telling someone to check their privilege is normative; so each time the phrase is used, presumably we have to come to an agreement about relative privilege and coordinate our normative commitments, or else not talk to each other. Seems like a lot of not-talking will come from this, but then again we do put up with an awful lot of chatter these days.

    1. All excellent points Tom. Here are some of my brief responses.

      Privilege Being Used Well
      This essay by Stephen D'Arcy that I came across this Winter takes the concept and associated vocabulary of privilege (under the general heading of New Left discourse) and analyzes it quite well in terms of its benefits and drawbacks. I found the author's comparisons to the vocabulary of the radical Left of the 1960s-70s equally illuminating.

      The Usefulness of Ideology
      I make a point in my own post that I think Nathwani only makes implicitly: the ideology discourse he and I seem to be using is very different from its Cold War heyday. Essentially, it does to ideology that Foucault did to power. The old definition of an ideology was that as a false framework of beliefs to interpret all phenomena and experience that was essentially unfalsifiable by reasoning alone because everything, including arguments against it, can be interpreted as justifying its own framework. The concept of ideology at work in my understanding (and I think Nathwani's) removes the word 'false' from the above definition without substituting any other word. So the study of a person's ideology now becomes understanding the origin, history, and causes of a person's way of interpreting the world. We engage with it not using some higher form of reason, but pragmatic grounds: How does the framework of your thinking shape how you live? What do you gain and what do you lose by living according to this framework?

      I do, however, agree with you about how easily the concept of privilege and the requisite calls to check (or at least understand) one's own tends to contribute to divisiveness and conflict rather than coalition building, which D'Arcy's essay from January explains quite well.

    2. Oh yes, and here's the link to the D'Arcy essay.