'Check Your Privilege': Whom Are They Kidding?

The "Check Your Privilege" poster series from the University of San Francisco is a grotesque form of bigotry.  By design, it imputes or ascribes to an individual certain characteristics based solely on group membership, while ignoring the individual's distinguishing traits – which is the very definition of bigotry.

Taken together, the set of privileges chosen by the authors reads like a textbook application of modern intersectionality – multidimensional political correctness as a tool for social power and oppression – and embodies the condescension and dominance that permeate the intersectionality model.  The authors neglect to include any "privilege" challenging the authors' own academic position or worldview, placing them safely outside the privilege structure and consequently unassailable.

For the observer who recognizes the checklist's bigotry and condescension and is offended or insulted by it, the CYP authors attempt to defuse the issue with a claim that the instrument exists for noble purposes.  They establish this point with reassuring language: "Becoming aware of privilege should not be viewed as a burden or source of guilt, but rather an opportunity to learn to be responsible so that we may work toward a more just and inclusive world."

But whom are they kidding?  This very language cements the fact that any rejection of their viewpoint is a corresponding failure to take an "opportunity to learn," which in turn constitutes an "irresponsible" rejection of "justice" and "inclusion."  Who wants to be that?  Turning the point around in this way illustrates a key oppressive feature of the CYP.

It necessarily follows that simple "awareness" of one's privilege will not be sufficient – follow-on action is obligatory.  This is because, by accepting the CYP instrument, the "privileged" individual's "consciousness has been raised," such that a commitment to action (no doubt "remedial" in nature) is now a moral requirement.  If the commitment is not made or does not lead to action, the individual becomes a reprobate.  Behavior modification through guilt, shame, and embarrassment is the real objective of CYP.

In contrast, the authors casually assert that "Check Your Privilege" seeks simply "to raise student, faculty, and staff awareness around social inequalities and privilege."  But any such lightweight claim is specious.  CYP's instructive value is meaningless if not to manufacture guilt and place blame.  In practical application, there is no meaningful distinction to be drawn between "consciousness raising" (compelling guilt, inflicting stigma) on the one hand and the latent but unmistakable goal of outright activism in the service of "social justice" on the other.  This is especially noteworthy in an era in which many educators believe that their role is to do "anti-oppressive work" and in which "words equal violence."  If consistency means anything in academia, is "Check Your Privilege" by these standards not a form of bullying and a work of violence?

Beyond the contrived veneer of righteousness that surrounds it, the entire CYP method is an ingeniously deceptive tool of power and oppression.  "Check Your Privilege" is a trap – namely, an example of a "kafkatrap," described by Eric S. Raymond.

Raymond defines a kafkatrap as "a form of argument that is so fallacious and manipulative that those subjected to it are entitled to reject it based entirely on the form of the argument."  CYP is what Raymond would call a "Model P Kafkatrap," which asserts: "Even if you do not feel yourself to be guilty of {transgression X}, you are guilty because you have a privileged position in the {transgression X} system."

Raymond (emphasis in the original): "For the model P to work, the subject must be prevented from noticing that the demand to self-condemn is not based on the subject's own actions or choices or feelings, but rather on an in-group identification ascribed by the [author] of the kafkatrap. It is essential ... that the subject's attention be deflected away from the fact that no wrongdoing by the subject, about which the subject need feel personally guilty [or over which the subject has any control], has actually been specified."  Moreover, the purported CYP privilege transgressions are never stated with enough precision to be fairly refuted.  The subject becomes a victim of the method.

"Check Your Privilege" can also be seen as an adroit leveraging of "Master Suppression Techniques" conceived and refined by Norwegian psychologists Ingjld Nissen and Berit Ås, respectively.

After Berit Ås: "Master suppression techniques are [five or seven, variously] strategies of social manipulation by which a dominant person or group maintains such a position in a hierarchy."  Examples germane to CYP:

Making invisible: diminishing the "privileged" individual through marginalization

Withholding information: intentionally not defining what the "privileges" mean, and changing the definition when convenient

Heap blame/put shame: using humiliation to subjugate the "privileged"

Threat of force: because the logical extension is "check your privilege – or else"

If the CYP subject tries to assert his individuality – rejecting the imposition of guilt by group membership – the assertion itself will be seen as an affirmative demonstration of the subject's denial and guilt.  There is no way out for the innocent victim of a "Check Your Privilege" exercise.  Its manipulative underpinnings could hardly be more insidious.

In addition to helping conceal its function as a tool of social justice power, the fact that "Check Your Privilege" lacks any acknowledgment of the academic – meaning "informed" and "expert" – power position of its authors is telling.  Either they do not recognize their implicit claim of higher privilege or they acquiesce in its concealment.  If the authors cannot accept this reality, they are hopelessly unable to carry out the introspection necessary to objective, useful, and productive academic pursuits.

It is unfortunate but not surprising that academics fail or neglect to acknowledge their own privilege.  Prevailing theories that teach that all text and language is structured by power provide ample rationale to dismiss arguments favorable to the "conventionally privileged" at the cost of distorting or suppressing rational thought and subversion of the roles of dispassionate educator and researcher in favor of activism.  As one commentator has said, "[s]adly, the pernicious ironies of privilege talk are generally lost on those who claim to be most aware of privilege.  Moral indignation has a way of obscuring sober reasoning."

The offensive hypocrisy of "Check Your Privilege" is that it perversely applies bigotry in an ostensible effort to eradicate bigotry.  It surreptitiously seeks to neutralize targeted forms of social power, yet of course it is itself a tool of "social justice" power – or "institutional oppression," to use its authors' term.  The CYP method is ultimately dishonest, and its outcomes can be "triggering" and harmful.

"Check Your Privilege" is a calculated weapon of the culture war and a work of activism, arguably reflecting a degree of intellectual duplicity and abuse of standing, unworthy of recognition as respectable academic output.  Instead, its authors need some consciousness-raising of their own.  Wholesale rejection of their work would be a good start.

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