I had not known that the phrase “check your privilege” had become common on college campuses until an opinion piece by Tal Fortgang, a Princeton freshman, went viral. Fortgang observed that his left-liberal classmates deployed it in an attempt to silence his arguments about welfare or the national debt. His essay in response detailed his family’s struggles, showing that privilege did not capture the complexity of their lived experience.
Fortgang writes with passion, but his piece does not get to the root of what is wrong with the phrase nor does it show how it reflects more generally the pernicious norms that infect many of our universities. (I consider the norms of society as well as the law of the state a fit subject for this blog). Even if his family’s name had been Rockefeller or Frick, this kind of attack should not be welcome in intellectual discourse.
“Checking your privilege” does not impugn the logic or evidence behind any argument, but calls attention to the identity of the speaker. It is a variation on a classic fallacy–the ad hominem argument. Plato’s contentions in The Republic are not in need of reformulation because he was an aristocrat. Rousseau’s claims are not refuted because he treated his lovers and children badly.