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.