Check your privilege.
If you've ever seriously dove into the world of internet "social justice" circles you've probably seen this term pop up quite often as a silencing weapon in debates and discussions. I myself first encountered this phenomenon last year when I started reading the Atheism+ forums and several Tumblr blogs dedicated to feminism and intersectional/kyriarchy theory.
Inside these blogs and postings I was presented with a theoretical model of society that almost read like some RPG statistics chart designed to calculate how much "Privilege" one has based on inherent traits like gender, skin color, neural capabilities and such. Based on these inherent traits, a person deemed to have less privilege than their discussion partner could, at any moment when they didn't like what they read, simply slap "Check Your Privilege" down as an instant win. This was the perfect derail, an unchallengeable claim (lest ye be banned) that the other has no qualifications and no right to speak to them on a subject because their higher degree of alleged privilege leaves them absolutely blind to the oppressions of the lesser privileged.
In the world of social justice dogmatism, Privilege is the ultimate sin, and many intersectional theorists seem to compete in a never-ending arms race of who has the most negative points against them. If person A is heterosexual white female, she can silence any white, hetero, cisgendered, neurotypical male at will by playing the privilege card. She, in turn, can be instantly silenced in the same fashion by a lesbian or bisexual woman, or any person of non-white ethnicity. Intersectional theorists in this regard can be described as playing a mental game of rock, paper, scissors wherein they try to up the ante over those whom they debate by declaring more oppression. You see, it's not so much the arguments in these debates that matter, because most of these people declare that they have the final answers before the first word was spoken, it's really down to who is making the argument.
To be clear, all of this is not to say that the concept of privilege itself is invalid, because obviously there are people in this world who are more privileged than others. Anyone with a functioning brain can see that in many instances there are people who suffer undue hardships because of the inherent traits they possess like their sexual preference, their ethnicity or any disabilities they live with. But the absurd, almost numerical and chart-like model of determining privilege and oppression utilized by these social justice warrior internet slacktivists has about as much relevance to dealing with real life flesh and blood people as an astrology chart.
It is with this in mind that I want to relate a brief story from my own childhood that deals with the subject of bullying, privilege and race that I think details in a small way why I think the "Check Your Privilege" crowd is fallacious in their thinking and application of their pet theories.
I was about 8 or 9 years of age when this story begins. I attended elementary school in your typical and boring middle class suburban neighborhood, although the way the districts lined up we got in our fair share of kids from lower classes as well. The school was majority White, although we had a pretty large chunk of Hispanic/Latino kids, some of whom had to be taught in special classes due to being behind the curve in English.
I was one of the "others". If the school ethnicity trends were displayed in pie chart form, I'd be in that tiny little chunk where they mix all the statistically insignificant groups together. I wasn't the only Asian kid in the school, but you probably could count on your hands how many Asian kids there were and not run out fingers.
For the most part I had a pretty normal experience in elementary school. I got along with all the White and Hispanic kids just as well as they got along with each other, and I never really had any issues pop up until 4th grade, when a girl who I'll call "Sally" was placed in my homeroom.
Sally was a rude and spoiled little girl, the kind who seemed to think everyone was beneath her. She was one of the most popular kids in class, always accompanied at lunches and recess by a pack of girls who seemed to function as a cult of gossip, and prone to teasing anyone they could to heighten their own status. In my 4th grade classroom, these girls were the alpha females, and Sally was their leader.
For some reason, which I'll never know, I became a target of Sally and she proceeded to make my school life a living hell that year. It started with the usual kid stuff like making stupid comments and jokes at my expense, but apparently I wasn't reacting enough to Sally's insults so she decided to get really mean and start making racial comments. She started calling me "Ching-Chang" in a sing-songy voice that sounded like the stereotypical Asian-immigrant-with-an-accent tone. Sometimes she would walk by me, pull back at the sides of her eyes and say "Hey look! I can be like Ching-Chang too!", usually to the laughter of her little clique of sycophants.
At first I didn't know how to react to her daily vitriol and race-based bullying. I would sometimes just walk home from school by myself in tears, unable to grasp why I was hated and mocked simply for being what I was born as. I often dreaded going to school because I was always outnumbered by these girls, and Sally seemed to take special delight in tormenting me. Unable to react, I felt completely powerless, and it didn't help that the teachers never seemed to notice just how vile and repulsive Sally's behavior towards me was. As the days and weeks wore on and the abuse continued, I began to develop a very ugly side. It wasn't that I was merely saddened or depressed by the treatment I received, I began to truly foster an intense feeling of hate for another human being for the first time ever.
Sally and her friends brought out a part of myself that was bitter and wished for nothing more than to lash out in revenge with extreme prejudice. I didn't merely want to get Sally back equally; to make her cry like she made me cry so many times. No, I wanted to punch her right in the face, I wanted her to bleed, I wanted her to fucking beg for mercy while I spat on and laughed at her. I fucking HATED that bitch! And make no mistake, I was far from some tomboy who could have bested Sally and her flock of sycophantic little twats by physical violence, in fact I was just as girly as any of them, and their numbers would have surely left me ruined if things came down to hitting.
This internal furnace of anger and hatred brewed within until one day when things came to a head in class and I finally snapped. Out of nowhere I started screaming at Sally from across the room when she was doing that fucking slanted eye thing at me and I just couldn't take it anymore. I don't remember now what I said but the teacher ended up pulling me out of class immediately, and while in the main office I was asked why I had the outburst and a few month's worth of tears and emotions came pouring out as I explained in full detail what had been going on. Following this cathartic release I was still sent home early for disrupting class, but it became the talk of the school over the next week that Sally got pulled out of homeroom that day too after I was gone and was present in a very unpleasant and tear-filled conference with the Vice-Principal.
After this event Sally went out of her way to avoid me. There was never any actual conflict resolution as we never talked and never worked out our differences. I guess you could say Sally's run-in with the school authorities caused her to dial back from outwardly shooting ballistic missiles of hate to being in a state of silent cold war, and for the rest of my 4th grade year we were pretty much dead to each other.
This pretty much wraps up my tale of this particular episode of my childhood. You may now be asking just what any of it had to do with the commentary on privilege-checking and social justice at the beginning of this blog post.
Well, if I were a proper social justice slacktivist, I would claim that this story was one demonstrating the inherent White Privilege. Sally, the White girl, was using her status and her place in the Privilege pecking order to bully and harass a person of a minority ethnicity. This narrative is true if we're just discussing Sally the individual, but what happens so often in the world of social justice internet slacktivism is that Sally's racist behavior gets applied universally to all the other White people in her peer group. Sally becomes not a case in one mean little girl acting terribly, she becomes an avatar for an entire ethnicity, a case study of the "White +2" offense stat overriding and oppressing the "Asian -2" defense stat.
While most sensible people could see that these broad and sweeping generalizations are a poor methodology to discuss social issues, such tactics are adhered to dogmatically in social justice warrior hubs. These people end up alienating the allies who are alleged to be privileged by default, shaming and demonizing them for things they had no control over, all the while infantilizing and portraying all people of the minority groups as perpetual victims who need special treatment. In this framework, you are not an independent and free-thinking adult with unique circumstances, you are either an oppressor or one of the oppressed.
Social justice warrior 101 would claim that because Sally behaved as someone blinded by her privilege, that all the other White kids in her peer group were blinded by privilege too, regardless of the fact that some of them maybe had abusive parents, came from welfare level poverty or potentially suffered from a learning disability, all of which would, in real life, put them in a less fortunate situation than the one I was raised in.
And in real life, I wasn't the only girl bullied by Sally. Sally also liked to pick on another White girl whom I will call Janet. Janet was a nice girl, but awfully quiet and definitely not a social butterfly. Janet would be considered a geek by most standards, something I knew firsthand because she and I were friends who often sat together at lunch and hung out on the recess yards, playing games and talking about all the normal stuff that grade-school aged girls talk about. Janet, in privilege theory charts, would probably be tied with Sally. Both were White and both came from 2 parent middle class households, but Sally liked to bully Janet just as much as she liked to bully me, and in doing so I seriously doubt most people would legitimately think Janet was more "privileged" than I was.
However, in the world of Tumblr-style social justice, Janet, no matter how much her life was being made miserable in the same fashion mine was, would always be inherently more stained by the original sin of Privilege than me because of our ethnicities. Janet would be accused of inherent superiority and of benefitting from the same racist privilege that permitted Sally to torment me, even though Sally was also tormenting her. If Janet participated in the comments sections of one of these Tumblr blogs or the Atheism+ forums, and dared to question how she was more privileged in this scenario, she would be shot down, attacked and villified for not accepting preconceived dogmas. She would be told that she just doesn't grasp basic social justice 101 and that she needs to be re-educated, and then she would be permabanned in the most visible and attention-seeking way possible, an example to all others just what the price is for speaking heresies.
When one creates hierarchies based on sweeping generalizations it's almost inevitable that they will make gross errors of logic on the individual level with their categorizations. In the narrow-minded world of extreme social justice theories people lose their individuality and become a mere set of comparative statistics to be measured against others. The problem with this is that human interactions and cultures are far too complicated for such easy classifications and simplistic modelling. Every person is a messy and unique mix of experiences, biological influence and nurturing. To try and create an entire social theory based simply on a few universally applied points is an exercise in futility that will inevitably produce very bad results.
I've gone on for too long already to detail why I think it is that the social justice crowd at places like A+ and Tumblr makes these sorts of errors (I may go into that in the future), but I will say I don't think they have bad intent. I think they genuinely believe that they are fighting the good fight against systems which are stacked against people for inherent traits, but they fail to see they are also pre-judging people and categorizing in the same fashion as the sexists, racists and homo/transphobes they claim to be at war against. It's a shame that any and all dissent aimed at these people is decried as being harassing, rape apology, racism and hate, or is silenced before anyone can point out the problems. So often in the world of online social justice slacktivism it's rare that one lets logic and reason interfere with emotions and beliefs.