A few months back, a young Princeton undergraduate named Tal Fortgang penned an article for the campus newsletter entitled, “Checking My Privilege: Character As The Basis of Privilege.” In it, he questioned the popular use of the phrase “check your privilege,” claiming it is used more often as a conversational checkmate than a valid attempt at exploring the nuances of a worldview. He cited his own family history as evidence that crudely-drawn definitions of privilege often fail to make room for heritage, generational sacrifice, and personal accomplishment.


Fortang’s article took a stick to the metaphorical hornet’s nest that is identity dialogue in the public sphere today. Reaction was swift, passionate and more than a tad partisan. “Salon” responded in a thoroughly Salon-esque fashion, penning a rambunctious, astonishingly simplistic exercise in glorified name-calling and trying to pass it off as legitimate analysis. On the other side of the Internet aisle, conservative blogger Matt Walsh essentially did the same thing. The Atlantic penned a hyper-self-aware congratulatory note to itself for rising above the Jerry Springer-esque digital back and forth on the issue by labeling the whole privilege discussion an exercise in highbrow identity issue brinksmanship by a bunch of privileged, educated elites who use words like “cisgender” in casual conversation and read periodicals, like The Atlantic.


Lost amid the weirdly specialized hysteria on the topic is the reality that Mr. Fortgang’s absorbing, articulate and somewhat oblivious article does indeed raise some fascinating questions. What role does upbringing, race, class, wealth, etc. play in the formation of our personal philosophies, particularly in the foundational assumptions that frame the lenses through which we gaze at the world? Is checking our privilege even possible? How do we use such phrases to raise the quality and deepen the nuance of public dialogue rather than turning legitimate discussions into cheap sloganeering?


For people such as your admittedly white, male, and privileged correspondent, exhortations to “check your privilege” function as worthy and needed reminders to examine the roots of our philosophical presuppositions. Our starter kits of character traits and personal experiences intimately shape and mold the way we view the world, often in profoundly subtle ways that are not immediately obvious or easy to tease out. Consistently revisiting and re-examining the foundational assumptions we reason outwards from can only produce wisdom and the sort of gentle humility that is the graceful hallmark of a truly open mind.


Checking our privilege, then, becomes a deeply useful exercise in introspection and intellectual self-analysis. By forcing ourselves to take nothing for granted while welcoming nuance and complexity, we can foster the sort of quiet awareness and empathy that transcends debate and establishes a meaningful human connection.


On the flip side of the issue, we should avoid using “check your privilege” to stifle debate and dismiss opinions out of hand. This fails to do justice to the astonishing complexity of human experience. It demands that individuals somehow fit themselves and their worldviews inside the pre-fabricated, overly simplistic modern identities we’ve built for them. Furthermore, abusing phrases like “check your privilege” transforms a laudably robust sphere of social discourse into the “thin, univocal culture” Alan Noble warned of in a recent Atlantic article. The marketplace of ideas should always be characterized by strenuous, intellectually rigorous dialogue rather than snap judgments, spite and manufactured straw men.


It is no mystery that we improbable homo sapiens are profoundly different from one another. The real mystery lies in our ability to put aside those differences and foster real connections, meaningful dialogue and personal growth. When we achieve this, we are truly engaging our best selves. When we achieve this, we actually stand a chance at investing the public debate on privilege and identity with real depth and weight.


What do you think about “check your privilege”? Is it a valid rebuttal to unexamined assumptions or is it a roadblock to meaningful discussion? Start the conversation in the comments below or connect with me on Twitter @aa_murph