In early April, Princeton University student Tal Fortgang wrote an article for the Princeton Tory discussing the concept of privilege and how the phrase “check your privilege” is used to shut down conversations. The internet seemed to collectively discover that article last week, when Time republished it online, and the New York Times also featured his article in a review by two of their staff writers. Fortgang even appeared on Fox News after his article peaked to discuss it with Greta Van Sustern.
The response is somewhat predictable: conservative outlets have praised Fortgang for his article, and liberal ones tore him to pieces. A few outlets bothered to ask the significant question of why the article was republished by Time in the first place. Others went off the deep end, trying to blame the article on the horrifying dark-money machine that bankrolls the “Campus Right-Wing Outrage Industry,” the Collegiate Network.
(Full disclosure: The College Conservative is also a CN-supported publication. If Mr. Weinstein could please inform us where the massive piles of ill-gotten dark-moneys that we apparently should have received from CN are kept, it would be greatly appreciated.)
It’s pretty clear by now that Time only posted the article to generate a news-cycle controversy like this one, and that their strategy worked. However, the article does give us an opportunity to once again look at the concept of privilege and see how it has been winding its way through academia.
Unfortunately, Mr. Fortgang missed the mark with his article.
Of all the publications I have read who have editorialized Mr. Fortgang’s work to date, Vice has published one of the most even-handed assessments. Writer Harry Cheadle attributed the article’s success to two reasons: the truth in its argument and the poor way in which it was argued.
1. [Fortgang] expressed something that many conservatives feel on a deep level, which is that the discourse of “social justice” (the current catchall phrase used to describe pretty much everyone to the left of the Democratic Party) warps language and belittles their views. … I think there is some truth to this line of complaint, actually: It can seem like left-wing activists have built their own vocabulary and grammar, and if you don’t use their language and agree with them on everything you are scorned and insulted. When they call you “ignorant” they don’t mean that they want to educate you into enlightenment; they want to shame you into shutting the fuck up.
2. Fortgang is not a bad writer for a 20-year-old, but he makes a lousy argument that’s easy to dissect. … It’s nice to praise an America that allowed your Jewish immigrant grandfather to build a business, but it’s useful to recognize that that at the same time in America, black people were being denied loans and forced to live in racially segregated slums—you’re meant to check your privilege by considering other people’s stories, not your own. Just as conservatives could read Fortgang’s words as empowering and an antidote to the liberal thought police, lefties could quickly throw together takedowns and attract readers by pointing out all the ways that this college kid is a big dumb wrong jerk.
When I wrote about privilege around this time last year, I made a very similar point. Privilege as a sociological concept is something neutral and academic; it can be understood and applied constructively regardless of political affiliation or personal background. Understanding it does entail some realizations about how it applies to one’s self, but that goes for any academic discipline when the student takes it seriously.
The problem is that privilege is too frequently weaponized into a political form. People use “privilege” as an excuse to shut down debates over ideas because one side hasn’t “checked their privilege” enough to see how deeply wrong they are.
Identifying both the neutral nature and the weaponized form of privilege is the balancing factor that Fortgang misses. Fortgang, instead of more exhaustively engaging the concept of privilege, jumps right into his own personal frustration with the people who weaponized privilege against him:
I do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line. But I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive.
Much like a child who was goaded by a playground trickster into getting himself into trouble, Fortgang fell for the trap laid by those who first attacked him by telling him to “check his privilege.” Either through their own ignorance, through intentional misuse, or both, the liberal-leaning folks who told Fortgang to “check his privilege” took the concept of privilege out of the neutral and academic–which, by their own design, was where it was supposed to exist–and made it into their own personal blunt object. Fortgang, in turn, responded in the same personal terms in his article, and came out looking like an idiot when the collective playground of the internet started laughing at him for doing something stupid.
But here’s the bigger problem: the online right, like lemmings, followed Fortgang off the intellectual cliff without even batting an eye.
Fortgang, hopefully, will take this episode as an opportunity to learn from his own mistakes and figure out how to more effectively fight back against people who try to attack him on the grounds of his personal privilege. However, conservatism as a whole needs to take this as a lesson as well: the right, especially the online right, has the frequent impulse to personalize issues before thinking them through. Conservatism needs more thinkers and leaders who are willing to take the time to be thoughtful and fight back on the left’s own terms.
Conservatives need not fall for the traps that are commonly set by liberals in order to make us look like the uninformed hicks the left stereotypes us to be. Fortgang, regrettably, didn’t succeed in that regard. Let’s try to get it right where he failed.