Recently a friend shared this article with me, from an apparently “right-minded” college news source. Apparently it is on the issue of being unfairly told to check one’s privilege, apparently by “ethnic and feminist studies” college students, because apparently people with real majors don’t care about such issues as racial and sexual inequality. The article goes into a piece by Tal Fortgang, who says those telling him to check his privilege have got it all wrong and that his family really has had it rough, being that they immigrated to this country with under humble circumstances after facing persecution by NAZI Germany. He essentially says that being told to check his privilege over looks what he and others have had to go through and arbitrarily judges people who have had to work hard for what they have. On some level I agree. It is certainly fallacious to use such a phrase to silence people or judge or dismiss them and I think the author is right for saying so.
I think this is an excellent and perfectly valid point. Unfortunately Fortgang does not leave it at that. He says things like:
” I condemn them for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth, and for declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them “stigmas” or “societal norms”), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies.”
“Assuming they’ve benefitted from “power systems” or other conspiratorial imaginary institutions denies them credit for all they’ve done, things of which you may not even conceive.”
I would think that someone whose recent family history includes victims of persecution by a foreign government would not be so dismissive of what people have had to go through in this country. It is not a conspiracy theory to recognize the obvious fact that racism and sexism have had a huge influence on our culture and that the negative effects of these prejudices are still with us. I object to the implication that the recognition that some groups have historically been treated much better than others and that the effects of this are still with us is an appeal to some sort of imaginary power structures disturbing. It is, for example, a reality that non-white Americans have a history of not only being subjected to violence, but also denied countless opportunities made available to white Americans in this country. I am sure countless white Americans have without their knowledge benefited when one of their recent got jobs, promotions or the opportunities to move into good neighborhoods, because they were white and the only other contenders were of some other race. It is undeniable that racism and sexism have unfairly distorted the distribution of wealth and power in this country. This was done through state and private actions and both behind the scenes and out in the open, but recognizing this does not require an appeal to any conspiracy theory or imaginary institution.
I also think that those who are questioning how meritocratic our system is, have a pretty good case. Anyone familiar with this blog will have a good understanding of why I believe we live in a society where the rules are largely slanted in favor of economic elites and established businesses. Simply put we are not living in a free and competitive, meritocratic market, but a plutocratic one, and once again no conspiracy needs to be invoked to explain or recognize this. That is not to say hard work in one’s field does not pay off, but some of us do have to work harder than others and often success is as much about who you know as it is what you know or how hard you work.
I’ll even take it a step farther and say that I am not sure I want to live in a meritocracy. Ideally, I would like to live in a system where anyone can support themselves while doing only a small amount of work and having vast amount of free time. As I have indicated here and in my various post at abolishwork.com I think such an arrangement is technologically feasible and desirable. That is not to say that those who put a lot of effort into a given line of work, should not be able to reap the rewards of such activities or be celebrated for their expertise, but I question the extent to which such merit should lead to the domination of society.
That said, I may be getting old and as a result I have neither been told to check my privilege nor told others to do the same. While agree that using such a phrase can be needlessly judgmental and a poor tactic for facilitating conversation, I find that the author of this piece undermines his point by smuggling in some troubling baggage into the piece.