Earlier this week, I made the (arguably poor) decision that commenting on a Facebook political post was a good idea.
A friend posted a snippet of Ben Carson’s recent interview on “The Mark Levin Show” on the radio, in which Carson called white liberals “the most racist people there are” for stereotyping the political beliefs of blacks and other minorities as exclusively liberal and ostracizing those who don’t conform. One commenter had cited his own experience with a black friend who had been viciously attacked for her libertarian political beliefs, and another had sarcastically rebuked him.
I asked the sarcastic commenter to unpack her statement a little further, and she replied with a short list of liberal social positions that conservatives apparently oppress on a regular basis, but that she claimed she would never convince us of on Facebook.
She signed off by curtly telling me: “Check your privilege.”
Wait, what? Excuse me?
I am well aware of the arguments made in academic and social discourse regarding “white privilege,” the notion that white individuals in society benefit from certain social or economic norms in a way that people of minority groups do not. I am actively studying liberation theology and feminist theology right now, and I am very much aware of these critiques of society. Society is predominately white and male in origin and it structures itself such that minorities and women are at a disadvantage.
The concepts of white or male privilege, however, are still something I find highly suspicious.
Such claims forward the same sort of racist or gendered undercurrents that are found in actual anti-minority and anti-women statements but under the guise of academic objectivity.
To be fair, there is in fact an entire sociological narrative at play here that revolves around the tension between white Europeans and non-whites in the development of social structures, government institutions and the like.
I agree that society does still suffer from certain forms and expressions of racism and sexism that need to be addressed. Ultimately, at the end of the day, all I want to do as a human being and a Christian is to be able to look other human beings in the eye, shake their hands, love them as people and work with them to make the world a better place.
But because I am a white male from the dominant religious group in an economically well-off nation, none of that matters because my mere existence oppresses others.
I can’t fathom how this became an acceptable chain of thought. Think about it for just a minute: it’s wrong for me to make pejorative claims about the social status of black people based on their race (which they had no control over being born into) or of women based on their gender (which they also had no control over being born into), but it IS somehow appropriate to make pejorative claims about the social position of white people based on their race (which they also had no control over)?
Unless, of course, that person confesses the sin of their own existence and agrees to the political ideology of the oppressed party in question.
And therein lies the rub with this whole scheme. The poster who told me to “check my privilege” wasn’t commenting on my race or my gender directly but did explicitly mention my political ideology, conservatism, in her statement.
Politics, I think, is the real crux of the “privilege” issue. Consider abortion as an example. It can’t be that I have moral concerns about the status of an unborn fetus as a unique being such that I believe fetuses may deserve some legal protection.
I just want women to remain barefoot, pregnant and in kitchens across the land. If I truly cared about women’s rights, I would become a hardcore social liberal and abort all the babies.
The problem with the “privilege” argument is that it doesn’t constructively forward any sort of political or social discussion. All it serves to do is assign someone’s person or beliefs an “oppressive” status that somehow undermines their validity – even if their opinions are logically accessible, well-reasoned and potentially beneficial to society. The “privilege” argument is an ad hominem attack on the other individual’s character, one of the worst kinds of logical fallacies. It’s like calling someone a racist and thinking that means you’ve won a debate.
If we really want to further constructive conversations about major social and political issues, we can’t spend our time assigning deconstructive labels to one another based on our ideologies.
We’re going to differ in perspective and disagree; it’s part of the human condition. Instead, we must constructively engage with one another and seek to proceed through our discussions reasonably.
Without rational, level dialogue, we will never actually succeed in making society a more just place.
David Giffin is a second-year Masters in Theological Studies student at the Candler School of Theology from Charleston, Ill.
Cartoon by Mariana Hernandez