Check Your Privilege or Check Your Premise

“Checking Your Premise” is the concept that contradictions are not possible in rational discourse. To unpack this idea a little, if I believe a thing is both true and its opposite is also true then I need to rethink these ideas because I’m in a contradiction. Contradictions do not exist.

“Checking your privilege” is the idea that social rules can benefit or disadvantage a group I belong to and those benefits and/or disadvantages color my perspective. The implication is that if I believe something is true (in part) it is because of the social rules and the groups that I belong to. Therefore I ought to realign my priorities and/or truth values along the lines of my privilege.

Side note: checking your privilege has become a meme. An invention with some roots in women’s studies departments but tends to be used colloquially in a diverse ways. To some, it literally seems to mean racial or class guilt and oppressor status. To others, it is introspection and a sensitivity to the context of other people. I am deeply opposed to the former use because it confuses the concept of justice. I am very supportive of the latter because it is an illustration of righteous humility. I think the position of the supposed coiner of the term, Peggy MacIntosh, is someplace in-between those two positions. It is both that our culture is systematically racist, sexist, homophobic and that I ought to come to this conclusion by internal reflection about my privilege or lack thereof. In this post I’m attempting to formulate the way I see the meme used to shut down debate and while it touches on MacIntosh’s points; I’m not interested in directly confronting them here.

Back to contrasting these two approaches, I hope you are still with me. Checking a premise is the process by which you and I investigate the underlying components that get me to my conclusion. Checking my privilege is to say that my status of class, race, gender, affects my perception of that truth or falseness of a premise. It informs my priorities. Hence why black feminists are telling white feminists to check their privilege because black feminists see mainstream feminism as dealing mostly with the problems of whites.

The very nature of this blog as an anonymous medium is illustrative of the dilemma of checking privilege. If I say that the evidence suggests childhood vaccination is a net benefit to society, is this conclusion true to me, or is it simply true or false? Not knowing if I’m as privileged, white and well-educated as Greg Strandberg or if I am even more overly educated and melanin deprived. Would it matter? Shouldn’t opinion arise from sound premises and valid reasoning rather than my status?

What I don’t like about the concept of checking privilege (in this formulation) is what it does to truth and as a consequence, what it does to discourse. By checking privilege we are saying our norms can’t be challenged without reference to our persons. If we are arguing about truth, then we can get somewhere. I can make a claim, and then give you my rational for that conclusion. We can investigate the truth of these rationalities, and how they chain together in a logically valid argument.

On the other hand if you assert X to be true, and I can say, well that’s because you belong to Y group. We are at a non-starter, with no meaning to discourse except that we belong to systems which set us apart. If I have to start off a point like this I belong to X race, Y sexuality, and… then we have lost something fundamental. It says our experience is who we are, not our rationality and the interpretation of that experience.

Yes experience matters, yes my world is shaded by my color, sex and sexual preference. But it is not the whole of me, to say so is the best definition of bigot I’ve ever seen. And to say it acutally changes the truth-value of a given premise is what nerds call Polylogism. Scientific racism and eugenics had the same conclusion, that genetic race determined behavior. Marxism similarly believed that class determined the logic of economics, social order and morality. We rejected these ideas not just because of the systems they produced but because they are contradictory to the nature of truth seeking.

Again, when used to stir self-reflection and when there are tangible cultural bias to point to, I understand and appreciate at least part of the “Check your Privilege” point of view. But those components should not be used to shut down debate the way it is used so often in today’s climate. A great example here. Starts off great, self- reflection check, humility, and getting over yourself— check I like it. Then jumps to conclusions like “racism is impossible if you are dis-privileged” (albeit a post-modern bait and switch redefinition) and “political correctness is only offensive to privileged people”.

Now I want you to note, this whole article has been done in compliance with my first political identity article. Where identity and politics have been separated. I have not once addressed the question that, even if systems of white, male, hetro, cis, able and age privilege exist, what are we going to do about it?

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