Tal Fortgang has gotten more attention than he likely assumed he would. He wrote a piece for his college magazine titled Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege. It made enough waves that Time magazine ran the article, and Tal ended up with an interview with a national media outlet.
His comments sparked leftist rage because he dismissed the notion that he had “white privilege.” He argued that his grandfather, granduncle, grandmother, and father worked hard to achieve what they had. These things were not afforded to them because of “white privilege” but because they strove through many hardships to get them. Tal cited his grandparents experiences in Nazi Germany as prime examples.
None of that mattered to his critics. Violet Baudelaire sums up the general response from the left:
You claim you’re tired of people telling you to “check your privilege”, and in response, you have written a long diatribe about how because your ancestors dealt with some shit it means you’re not privileged like all these people think you are. Then, you go on to explain all of the ways in which you think you are privileged, throw in some solid nonsense about reverse racism, and end up coming to the ultimate conclusion that:
It’s not a matter of white or black, male or female or any other division which we seek, but a matter of the values we pass along, the legacy we leave, that perpetuates “privilege.” And there’s nothing wrong with that.
I’d like to explain to you how you have completely missed the most basic definition of privilege; why you, like so many others, immediately got offended at the idea that you have somehow had it easier than others and leapt to your own defense without trying to listen or understand what someone was truly saying.
Let us see if Violet can do this without ironically proving Tal’s point:
Privilege is when you get conscious or unconscious benefits from a demographic trait about yourself that you cannot control. These benefits may be overt (getting paid more as a man) or they may be covert (being able to walk down a street alone at night without fear of violence). I want to stress the last type of privilege. A privilege does not have to be something positive; it can simply be the lack of something negative.
That would be a ‘no’. Let us start with the basics. If one has a privilege, by definition one should be able to control it. This is the point of wealth privilege. Having money does not afford one privilege; being able to use that money to benefit you in ways poorer people cannot does give one privilege. The entire point of privilege is to be able to exploit it. If you cannot, then it is not a privilege.
Violet realizes this, hence the two examples she gives. However, neither of those examples prove her point. The reason most men are paid more than women is because men are more likely to ask for more money, more likely to work overtime, and more likely push for promotions. The idea that men can walk down the street alone at night without fear of violence is so laughably moronic that it is tempting to take Violet to a bad neighborhood, put her on the roof of a building, and let her watch what happens to men who think they have nothing to fear. Not only do men fear walking alone at night, they have good reason to. They are significantly more likely to be victims of strangers’ violence than women.
Privilege is not personal. Privilege is institutional and cultural. It is macro. You have privilege because you are part of a group that has privilege.
If that were true, why tell people to “check your privilege?” It has nothing to do with them personally, correct? They have no direct control over it, correct? In most instances they are not even aware they have it, correct? So what are they checking and why should they check it?
Violet offers an answer:
Checking your privilege doesn’t mean anyone is asking you to say “I only have things because I am part of privileged groups”.
Yes, it does. Violet stated that above. I will quote her again: “Privilege is when you get conscious or unconscious benefits from a demographic trait about yourself that you cannot control.” She then gave two examples and implied those things only happen because of said “privilege.” Contrary to Violet’s poorly thought out retort, the concept of “privilege” does mean that a person with “privilege” should assume they only achieve things as a result of said “privilege.”
Let us see if Violet explain why this is not true without contradicting herself again and without condescension:
You may be in Princeton, but it seems like we should probably put this in really simple kindergarten examples for you. In the simplest, crudest metaphor I can think of, let’s say you’re a fully abled person in a race against a man with only one leg. You train a long time, run really fast, and beat him. No one is saying you shouldn’t be proud of working hard or running so fast; all we’re really asking for is that you admit that maybe having two legs fucking helped a little bit.
That is a ‘no’ as well. It is also a terrible analogy because obviously a person with two legs has an advantage in a race against a person with one leg, assuming the one-legged person is not using a vehicle. The same is not true of “privilege.”
Violet’s example ignores that a one-legged person who trains can potentially beat a two-legged person who did not. Simply having two legs does not automatically afford a person a benefit. It would not help an obese two-legged person or a paraplegic two-legged person or one suffering from MS, polio, or any other number of illnesses. It would not benefit a person with two legs but one foot or no feet. It would not help someone with one or two broken legs. It would not help someone with one or two artificial legs.
These may seem like petty retorts, yet they represent the broad spectrum of people’s lives. Yes, having two legs can be an advantage, assuming the person is in top form. But it is not a privilege unless it is abnormal for people to have two functioning legs.
Again, Violet realizes this and tries to equivocate:
Using this metaphor, let’s again break down some other arguments you can’t really use. For instance, just because some one-legged people are faster than some two-legged people or manage to race doesn’t mean that it is still not, on the whole, easier for two-legged people to walk and run. Again, privilege deals with macro level institutional and cultural ideas, not anecdata.
Again I ask: why are people told to “check your privilege” if we are not talking about people’s individual experiences?
Violet decides to switch gears and attack another point:
If your grandfather only had one leg, but you had two, you don’t get to claim that you do not have two-legged privilege. Having ancestors that endured hardships is important only if either you endure those same hardships or if those past hardships have continued on today in the form of discrimination based on your shared characteristics.
That supports Tal’s point. As a Jewish person, the hardships his grandfather and father face do still affect him today. Or are we to pretend that antisemitism vanished at the end of WWII?
What no one who responded negatively to Tal’s comments bothered to do was actually read them. This is not some rich kid to had everything handed to him. This is someone whose father:
[…] worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living. I can say with certainty there was no legacy involved in any of his accomplishments. The wicker business just isn’t that influential.
His family had to earn their way to their current social position, and now that Tal is there he is accused of being handed that position. That is incredibly frustrating. If liberals want to understand what it feels like, imagine working hard for years to earn a scholarship to go to college, graduating, and using that degree to start a successful business only to have someone tell you that all your achievements resulted from affirmative action. It is insulting, no?
That how “check your privilege” makes people feel. The phrase diminishes the struggles they faced and reduces all their hard work to little more than an unearned benefit.
Violet tries for a sucker-punch but fails:
For instance, you admitted you were privileged because you felt like your parents and grandparents made sure you were educated. Looking deeper, I can reasonably assume that there is a huge likelihood that that involves financial privilege; no matter how wonderful a parent, someone who has to work three jobs in order to put food on the table is less likely to have time to spend learning the alphabet with you, or even possibly to be educated themselves. Looking deeply at things you’re offering up as the ways in which you are privileged are going to show you that you are in fact privileged in the ways that you just denied.
Tal is not using privilege the way Violet does. He is using it to mean “an honor.” Had Violet bothered to read what Tal wrote she might have caught that. Instead, Violet is so wrapped up in taking Tal to task that she ends up proving his point: this is about forcing him to apologize.
She also shows that this argument is about little more than sticking it to the other side. The purpose of forcing people to apologize for their “privilege” is to humiliate them by making them put themselves down. When they refuse, liberals respond like this:
Acknowledging privilege is hard (not as hard as not having privilege, but baby steps here), in no small part because it forces you to acknowledge other people don’t have it, and that things are pretty shitty out there. It’s a lot easier to yell “reverse racism!!!” than it is to sit down and fucking stare the realities of actual racism in the face. It’s easier to feel the victim than it is to feel like the bad guy. All you’d like to do is keep staring at Megan Kelly’s breasts and being blissfully oblivious that the world is a sad, fucked up place and dealing with your feelings of guilt that you got an okay deal?
Insulting people is not a good way to convince them of your position. It is, however, an excellent way to show you cannot defend your position. So is repeating the same thing ad infinitum while contradicting your own point:
Again – I want to take this opportunity to remind you that privilege is not personal. You’re not the bad guy. When someone says “white men have done bad shit”, no one is saying “you, dude in front of me, are the reincarnation of Satan and I personally blame you for everything”
For the third time: if “privilege” has nothing to do with the individual why are individual people told to “check your privilege?”
No one who argues that “privilege” exists believes it happened a long time ago in vacuum far, far away. All of them assume it continues today and every member of the group benefits directly, on a personal level, from it. Violet admits this when she writes: “If our two legged man is black and our one legged man is white, he’s still got white privilege.”
No part of her rant against Tal was about “privilege” on a macro level. It was specifically about the “advantages” Tal and other white people experience as individuals as a result of said “privilege.”
If this were really about macro-level concepts, then the moment Tal stated he did not experience the things associated with “white privilege” that would end the conversation. It would be no different than when someone argues that U.S. citizens possess wealth privilege as a result of living in the wealthiest (not for long) nation in the world. Few arguing that would take issue with apoor person from Detroit stating that they do not benefit from that wealth privilege. Arguing otherwise would imply that poor Americans really are not poor.
Violet ends by trying to use Tal’s words against him:
So if there is one thing I want to leave you with, it is your own quote:
In the same way your appearance doesn’t tell the whole story, neither can you judge anyone else’s story based on their appearance. You wrote this article because you felt people were treating you and judging you unfairly, and you wanted to be able to tell your story; to share the parts of you that weren’t obvious because of your appearance.
And so does everyone else – especially people from groups who have historically been silenced or disregarded.
That is an excellent condescending remark. Everyone wants to share their story, but only certain groups of people get to do it by silencing historically heard and regarded groups first.
Instead accepting that Tal’s experiences do not match people’s expectations, the left responded by slapping him down. They proceeded to tell him that they knew more about his story than he did, basing that solely on his sex and race.
In short, they judged his story based on his appearance.
And like those people, Violet adds a heavy dose of head-slapping stupidity:
So when someone says “check your privilege”, what they mean is embrace and admit that you have preconceived notions and a specific world perspective, and to set those aside for a second and just listen. You wrote this entire article because you felt judged and un-listened to simply because of who you were and where you came from. Ironically, this is exactly how those you’re railing against feel too. If you want people to listen to you – truly listen, without judgement – begin by doing the same for them.
Otherwise you’ll just look like a complete fucking asshole when you write a hypocritical article completely missing the point of everything.
I suppose Violet would know given that her response makes her look like a complete fucking asshole who wrote a hypocritical article ironically proving Tal’s argument.