Earlier last month, Tal Fortgang, a Princeton freshmen from New Rochelle, NY, wrote a piece called “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege” for the conservative student magazine, The Princeton Tory. In it, Fortgang rejects the notion that he should apologize or downplay his status as a white, American male in today’s society. He writes that those asking him to “check his privilege” – a phrase he has apparently heard numerous times during his first year at the Ivy League university – discount the struggles his family endured to get him to where he is today.
The article quickly gained national attention as commentators either raced to decry his words or rushed to defend him. Honestly, I commend Fortgang for sparking the conversation and congratulate him on his success, however much I disagree with his message.
I will say that, on one specific point, I do agree with him. His frustration with being told check his privilege is rooted in the idea that the phrase nullifies his opinion simply because there is someone out there in worse circumstances than he is. In short, he doesn’t like having his opinion discounted. He would rather it be valued just as much as those of his peers.
And this isn’t an unfair request. No one wants his or her voice silenced. We in the West are easily among the most “privileged” and we certainly think we have a right to our opinions. We, as a nation, wouldn’t enjoy being told that we should be quiet simply because we have had, on the whole, a more comfortable upbringing than, say, your average Afghani.
However, it likely would be fair to say that, because of our Western background, we may not fully grasp the entire scope of an issue that affects a person whose existence is completely outside of that domestic scope. It’s the same for Fortgang. Because of his childhood in New Rochelle – a city Business Week once named one of America’s best places to raise kids – Fortgang may not entirely comprehend the wider context of privilege in this country. That doesn’t mean Fortgang should be told to shut up or to “check his privilege;” it means that he should take note of others’ experiences while sharing his own and then use that knowledge to construct an informed perspective.
That lesson isn’t just for Fortgang, but rather for all of us. Each of us lives in a world in which, most of the time, we’re the heroes of the story. As such, we act in our own interest and believe we’re doing the right thing. We know the circumstances that lead to our decisions and why at the time those seem to be the correct actions to take. We all carry our regrets, but often enough, many of us see our journey as the best possible outcome given our options. Why question the validity of our opinions when they were formed by the experiences we’ve had, especially when most of us tend to think them to be built on good choices?
It’s precisely because of this tendency to positive, circumstanial self-evaluation that we need to question our perspective. Just in the same way you think you’re right, so too do I. Therefore, it’s important to question our assumptions when forming an opinion about issues that affect more than just ourselves.
Perhaps it’s time for all of us to step back and question our own assumptions. Are our opinions based on anecdotes from our own experience? From news articles that we stopped reading once we determined how to fit them into our preexisting perspective? Or, did we attempt to incorporate perspectives outside our own? Do we consider factual, empirically verified evidence? Or, do we ignore such evidence in favor of what our intuition tells us? Have we honestly assessed the role of our own hard work vs. the benefits of the nurturing environment around us?
Answering such questions is a tricky prospect. But, at its core, it’s not that difficult. What’s more, many of the people I meet – especially those who are perhaps 35 or younger – now seem more willing to listen to others’ experiences than ever before. Perhaps it’s the frustration with a deadlocked political system or irritation with an ineffective fourth estate, but the more I talk to people, the more they seem to want to find common ground on the bigger issues we all face.
Maybe that’s just my personal experience though. Maybe it’s different for you. Like Tag Fortgang, however, I am grateful when I can express it and not be silenced. I don’t want to be told to check my privilege, but it’s only fair that I, and he, and you check that we are not forming opinions based on personal experience alone.