“Check your privilege” has become a mainstay of social justice rhetoric. Assumed privilege is also a presumption behind microaggression accusations now seeming to sprout by the second. Those employing the terms frequently describe them as reminders to be empathetic and sensitive, elevating social relations. But they are often little more than assertions that others are members of an oppressor class, fundamentally mistaken in their views and responsible for a cornucopia of complaints.
The “kinder, gentler” version offers a sometimes-useful reminder that you might be including some inappropriate assumptions in your understanding, because something that may be sensible for you, given your characteristics and circumstances — i.e., your privilege — may not be sensible for others, leading to insufficient consideration of others and therefore erroneous evaluations.
Max Borders has described the latter meaning (or demeaning) as:
Your rights and opinions are invalid and you have no real complaints or suffering because you belong to X group. Or … you are obligated to pay because people who look like you in some ways did bad things at some point.
In other words, others need not listen to, much less respect, your arguments. Further, your inherent “wrongness” sacrifices your rights and property to satisfy those claiming to be oppressed, an aggression justified as undoing your alleged privilege or responding to your microaggression.
How are we to judge between such dramatically opposed interpretations?
The key is that, where confusion reigns, better evaluation requires clearer, more accurate understanding. That demands a real, ongoing conversation. So ask what would be entailed if “check your privilege” or its microaggression progeny was intended to advance such a conversation.
When such terms are used to preemptively cut off communication by stopping those who disagree from being heard or taken seriously, neither clarity nor empathy will be improved. So they must not end discussions; they must facilitate more complete conversations.
By themselves, the terms say you are wrong in your understanding and views, and too self-absorbed to notice. However, they leave how and why unspecified, beyond somehow relating to membership in an allegedly privileged group defined by accusers. Progress toward better understanding requires several additional steps.
Such progress would require specifying precisely what faulty premises, assumptions or arguments a person holds to, as well as why they are inappropriate for the issues considered. The appropriate premises to replace them would then need articulation.
How the “new and improved” premises would alter one’s conclusions would need to be demonstrated, followed by considering the appropriate remedies based on the alternative analysis. It would have to explain how proposed remedies were not merely “more for me” gambits, connected to the rationales offered only by self-interest. It would have to justify any special privileges to be created now for those claiming victimhood status, including any coercive impositions on members of supposedly dominant or victimizer classes who had nothing to do with the “sins of their fathers.”
When “check your privilege” and microaggression claims communicate that we should think carefully about others’ circumstances, which may be far different than ours, and be empathetic, it can be a useful reminder in advancing mutual understanding. But it can bear good fruit only as the beginning of a far deeper discussion.
In contrast, when they are used to peremptorily declare victory in social justice disputes, they assert special privileges for speakers to define themselves as morally superior and disqualify those who disagree from any consideration, without any coherent argument. And when that social demonization is leveraged into coercive imposition of “solutions” at the expense of those they decide must make it up to them, it undermines social cooperation, by undermining the rights upon which it is built, without advancing understanding or empathy.
Gary Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University and a research fellow at the Independent Institute. His books include Lines of Liberty (2015), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).