Recently, you may have read an article or two about Tal Fortgang. He’s a Princeton freshman who wrote a piece for an on-campus publication (I’d never heard of) called “The Princeton Tory,” Tal questions the request to “Check your privilege.” Although he’s a white male, he points to his his family’s persecution in the Holocaust, and subsequent economic and professional success. He thinks, “It’s not privilege, it’s character.”
We’ll get back to him, but let me say here, Tal, I am very sorry for your family’s losses. The Holocaust should not be forgotten.
In the meantime, TIME magazine republished his piece (fanning the flames with a new title, “Why I’ll Never Apologize For My Privilege,”) various Huffingon Post contributors rebutted, and so Princeton’s name was yet again associated with a controversial diatribe. (See “Princeton Mom.” We had already suffered through Dr. Oz’s daughter’s The Dorm Room Diet,” let’s hope this is a trifecta and we’re done. But I digress.) More immediately, many of you emailed asking for my reaction.
In fact I was trying to ignore the whole thing. But you guys were right. A Princeton grad and parent who started a blog called “Privilege” should probably speak up. With full disclaimer that I am not an economist. Again, if you haven’t read the article, it’s here. I find a few points in the whole discussion, and only a few, incontrovertibly true.
1. Is Privilege All? Is Privilege Nothing?
Can we draw any absolute and logical conclusions? For example, if I am privileged, am I guaranteed success? Well, no. If I am privileged and successful, is my success due solely to my privilege? Unlikely. Conversely, if I am disadvantaged am I guaranteed failure? No. And, if I am disadvantaged and in trouble, is that trouble due solely to my disadvantage? Ah. Very, very, difficult to say. It’s the most painful crux of the argument, it depends on how broadly and over what span of time you assess privilege or disadvantage, and I don’t find enough data yet in this world to answer definitively.
Besides, do we even want a world where political forces are all that matter? “Hey kid, don’t bother getting out of bed, it’s out of your hands anyway?” Alternatively, can we believe in the converse, where individual choice is all? Unless we’re Ayn Rand?
3. When Faced With Complex Unanswerables, What Do Reasonable People Do?
We reasonable and probably middle-aged sorts, when faced with complex problems, might jump straight to, “Let’s not focus so much on who is right about cause, effect, and politics. Instead, let’s think about how to behave.”
Because we all know a real discussion would be long. It might involve statements like, “Yes, I was born in material privilege but also emotional scarcity. Don’t tell me that means nothing.” Or, “Yes my parents had wealth, but ethnicity keeps me forever Other, in America.” Or, “Just because a few disadvantaged people raise up without help, doesn’t mean those who cannot are lazy, or morally bankrupt.” Or, “Your disadvantage is not my fault,” answered by, “Not yours, but your culture’s, and therefore your responsibility.” And, “Does it do any good for the privileged to shame all the disadvantaged, or for the disadvantaged to shame all the privileged?”
To me, it’s that last concept, shaming, that’s incontrovertible. Shaming and all the other ways people can act badly towards each other. The privileged and the disadvantaged have different paths to productive behavior – the privileged can become generous, the disadvantaged brave. We have different paths to destructive behavior too – if we believe only our privilege, we’re entitled and disdainful, if only our disadvantages, blame-centric victims.
And here’s where it ought to be easier, and therefore more severely expected, for the Privileged to behave well. Good behavior almost always means you have to lift your head up from your immediate needs and feel for someone else. And the resources of privilege should mean we’ve got capacity to do exactly that.
Human nature makes it easy to be a jerk. Privilege ought to remediate. If privilege, over time, leads to better behavior, then self-interest, a biological force we can’t escape, becomes a force for good. If privilege leads somewhere else, well then we’re in trouble.
So Tal, yes, those kids who tell you to “check your privilege” all the time, are maybe being jerks. And maybe you are too. You’re young. I forgive you, and I appreciate that you have the guts to speak your mind. I too get tired of being told my privilege defines me, given how life feels to she who lives it. But with privilege, however acquired, comes responsibility.
You have to approach the conversation with a generous spirit.
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