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On Liberal Campuses, A Point of Personal Privilege

As it turns out that for ideas the privilege police don’t like, we can never check our privilege enough.

The chickens are finally coming home to roost on the liberal campus. After two generations of academics concocting elaborate justifications for shouting down unfavored ideas, the students have begun reading the script back to them flawlessly.

Last week a small mob of Rutgers students and faculty forced Condoleezza Rice to withdraw from her planned commencement address by slandering the former secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and provost of Stanford University as a “war criminal.”

At Dartmouth, another mob of students took over administrative offices in February with a list of demands after declaring that “systems of oppression” including “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism—are deployed at Dartmouth and beyond as forms of institutional violence.”

At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, students recently demanded that their professors and peers undergo “mandatory privilege and power training” because of what they described as “really negative classroom experiences” due to a curriculum insufficiently drenched in discussion of “race, gender, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, ability, religion, international status, and power differentials.”

And at Brown, when then-commissioner of the NYPD Ray Kelly attempted to speak last fall, “protesters stood with their fists in the air and began shouting in unison, after which neither Kelly nor…two administrators present…could regain control of the auditorium.” Kelly was a racist, the students later explained, and “We protected our rights to feel safe on the campus we now call home.”

Administrators at the first three schools seem mostly have caved to the students, and although the adults in charge at Brown professed to be shocked and appalled by the disruption, it is hard to see why. For years, the universities have been teaching their students to shout down ideas and assert all sorts of new rights by means of ad hominem attack.

The academics don’t put it that way, of course. They call it critiquing “privilege” and “power structures.”

A freshman at Princeton University, Tal Fortgang, recently sent the Internet into distemper with an op-ed critical of this trend, in which he slammed his peers for constantly telling him to “check” his “white privilege.” His argument, however, mostly missed the outrageous part of the “privilege” doctrine. He thinks his classmates and professors employ the buzzword to diminish on the basis of race his personal accomplishments. What they really intend to diminish, of course, are his ideas.

Peggy McIntosh, now of Wellesley, popularized the “privilege” concept in her earnestly-titled essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.” McIntosh argues that whites such as herself enjoy unearned advantages such as the ability to go “into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can deal with my hair,” or to be “late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.”

That you may never have considered these colossal privileges is no accident. “Whites,” McIntosh says, “are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege,” assets to which they are “‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”

“Whiteness,” she continues, “protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence which I was being subtly trained to visit, in turn, upon people of color.” If she was visiting hostility, distress, and violence–yes, violence–upon people of color, just imagine what we must be guilty of!

Our very thoughts, the “privilege” doctrine holds, are shaped profoundly by these experiences–so profoundly that we can overcome the unrecognized prejudices they create only by being hyper-aware of them. Thus when someone tells us to “check our privilege” in the course of a discussion, they’re attempting to argue that inherent traits of our birth–race, gender, economic status, and on and on–have determined our ideas for us.

The corollary to this doctrine is that since our ideas are inescapably the product of our whiteness, maleness, tallness, you name it, they need not–should not–be taken seriously. The democratic decisions they’ve justified are equally meaningless.

Does all of this nonsense sound a little…familiar? It should. The “privilege” trend grafts the modern academy’s obsession with race and gender onto Marx’s old attack on the capitalists: “Your very ideas,” he writes in the Communist Manifesto, “are but the outgrowth of conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class, made into law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economic conditions of the existence of your class.”

This is the very same conceit that underlies the smug self-satisfaction Fortgang, the Princeton student, observes in his classmates. His ideas are not his own, but they have escaped the cave.

Like Marx’s economic determinism, the privilege doctrine–essentially racial/gender determinism–maintains that the prevailing culture and institutions are “designed” to protect groups with “power”–the bourgeoisie, the whites, the men, the heterosexuals, the cisgendered (look it up)–and to “oppress” the others.

As you’ve probably guessed, McIntosh carries this theory to the same radical conclusion as Marx: our democracy, culture, and institutions are morally illegitimate instruments of oppression.

“It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage,” she writes, “is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain…the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all.” This lie, she says, “props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.”

It’s a sign of how corrupt the modern academy has become that the faculty not only takes such writing seriously, but founds whole courses of study on it. Note the vague constructions that rely on passive voice to leave the identity of the racists ambiguous, as I have emphasized above. It’s the same evasion racialist commentators employ when they speak of the “system” being racist, or of “structural racism.” Indeed, it’s probably no coincidence that “privilege”–a concept that transfers the seat of prejudice from people and the laws they pass to the impersonal “structures” or “invisible systems” of society–emerged just as most obvious forms of prejudice disappeared.

It is increasingly difficult, these days, to put the finger on very many actual racists (the fact that Don Sterling’s comments count as “news” suggest he’s the exception that proves the rule), and fortunately the “privilege” literature, with its passive voice and all, doesn’t require us to. It’s enough for proponents to gesture vaguely about “microaggressions” (the very term an admission of putting every interaction under a microscope with racial filters) and to claim without proof that whites, males, et al are complicit in perpetuating “systems” for their own benefit.

The argument is incoherent as it is disrespectful, denying us agency in our own thoughts and attitudes. The astonishingly arrogant suggestion that we “check our privilege” thus insinuates that the idea we have put forward is both bigoted and the result of prejudice we are too mindless to recognize.

And it turns out that for ideas the privilege police don’t like, we can never check our privilege enough. We’ll never express the thoughts in a way that no longer merits ad hominem appeals to our race, gender, or economic status. Don’t even try.

Moreover, no amount of little trauma we might suffer seems to count for anything when it comes to these unapproved ideas. When we are late to a meeting, of course, we are certain it reflects badly upon ourselves at the very least, if not our entire generation. When we have trouble finding a good barber, we are plagued by the thought that our genes are to blame. And when we express an though, we are frequently asked if it isn’t because of the color of our skin…

Yet these indignities consistently fail to count as trump cards when we remind our interlocutors how privileged they are not to have endured them, and suggest they examine how that privilege might have affected their thinking.

Is it any wonder, after decades of steeping eager minds in hypersensitivity and sloppy argument, that this is what the students finally regurgitate upon the liberal campus? That we have Harvard students begging for the reeducation…er, “orientation” of their peers? That we have Brown students who accuse their professors of being “complicit” in racism? That we have Dartmouth students who believe peaceful Hanover to be host to “systems of oppression” and “institutional violence”?

It no longer seems correct, in light of such events, to continue to call these places “liberal arts” universities. What they really teach, as their own students will testify, is prejudice and intolerance–the art of illiberalism.

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