“Check Your Privilege”: The Tournament!

“Check Your Privilege” is the modern rebranding of political correctness, which in turn was an aggressive rebranding of “consciousness raising,” and THAT was just plain old cultural Marxism. It’s the idea that society is inherently homogeneous, and therefore automatically represses those who are–to use the modern word–”others.”

Certain people, so the theory goes, accrue privilege simply by being. Their social status, gender, race, sexual habits, class, religion, and so on make them a de facto elite, who oppress the other by their mere existence.

We’re told to “check our privilege,” which is a shorthand way of saying, “Shut up, white boy, and let the transsexual black Muslim homeless dude tell you how things REALLY are.” Those who are perceived to be part of the mainstream are thus devalued, and the marginal uplifted.

Privilege allegedly affects all of our perceptions. Some of us don’t have to worry, say, about being pulled over for “driving while black,” or facing a higher likelihood of sexual assault because we’re women, or being told to move along because we’re wearing shabby clothing while sitting too long in park.

This freedom means some of us are rendered unable to comment on any issues because our privilege blinds us to their reality. It automatically eliminates our empathy, imagination, sense of fairness and the right, and moral codes. It colors everything we do, and is even more oppressive when we pretend not to have it.

Of course, if you mouth the right pieties and agree with the right social policies and political leaders, those blinders fly away on wings of angels, and you become one of The Enlightened.

It’s intellectually dishonest, logically inconsistent, and psychologically and sociologically incoherent.

That’s why I am, for the first time, linking to Gawker, a site I really detest. They have, however, done something ballsy and wonderful: A Privilege Tournament:

Privilege: so sweet to have. But even sweeter to not have. Privilege has its benefits, but the lack of privilege confers that sweet, sweet moral superiority. With that in mind, we have decided to determine who, exactly, has the least privilege of all.

These days, teary privilege confessionals pour forth from the lips of college students in equal proportion to the fiery critiques of our grossly unjust world that pour forth from the unprivileged masses. None of it, however, is very scientific. This is the privilege bracket. It is like an NCAA bracket, but without the privileged assumption that you know about sports, which are an inherently masculine-dominated, ability-privileged activity. Here, we will pit eight categories of non-privilege against one another, tournament-style. Each round, the least privileged will advance. At the end, only a single category of non-privilege will be left standing. Or, more likely, unable to stand.

It’s like a modern version of Queen for a Day, a game show in which women told stories of personal and financial ruin, with the most miserable winning … I dunno, a lifetime supply of Chinet.

Who will be the LEAST privileged? Muslims? Gays? Bulimics? Amputees? Prisoners? I can hardly wait to find out. And no one will be able to dispute the results because SCIENCE!

Ideologues can stand a lot of things, but mockery is not one of them. The “check your privilege” gibberish has dribbled out of the university over the past few years, along with other attempts at social manipulation like microaggressions and breaking human sexual experience into ever-multiplying identity groups.

With Gawker’s highly trafficked Privilege Brackets, the idea finally bottoms out and the absurdity is revealed.

Do I expect it “Check Your Privilege” to go away now? Of course not. Progressives don’t surrender their tools quite so easily, and the Priesthood of Academia will continue to preach their gospel of hate.

But I do know that the idea has finally passed its sell-by date, and like hyphenated-Americans, it’s now just another thing to mock.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Dale

    The Gawker tournament reminds me of the old Monty Python skit in which a group of men try to outbrag each other about the poverty and adversity of their childhood.

    I agree with Thomas that the phrase “Check your privilege” got overused, often by people who didn’t really understand the concept but for whom it was simply a verbal weapon. Too often it was, as Thomas points out, simply a way of silencing those you disagreed with. If not actually tied to identity politics, so popular in the 1980s, it may have been an outgrowth of it.

    A more reasonable approach, I think, is encompassed in the concepts of kyriarchy and intersectionality. They recognize that all of us have elements of privilege and disadvantage. Recognizing the different forms of privilege, and not simply assigning blanket status of Privileged to a person is necessary to begin an exploration of how institutional privilege actually plays out. Such an exploration requires that we step away from an easy designation of individuals (or even categories of persons) as victims or as oppressors.

  • Heloise1

    Thanks. A well thought out response but a voice in the PC wilderness I’m afraid.

    Still, such voices have a way of echoing down through time, don’t they? .

  • TomD

    Very good essay…but I really like “hyphenated-Americans”. There is a basic equality on the right side of the hyphen. Also, intermarriage makes it more cumbersome: my granddaughter is genetically a German-Hispanic-Jamaican-Native-Polish-American (with the Hispanic- and Native- parts both based in Costa Rica and Peru), and culturally is also an English-FrenchNorman-Irish-Scottish-Slovak-Welsh-American. I hope to make it to her wedding and first child to see what we add! See: do that enough and hyphenated-Americanism implodes, but it won’t until you make the effort.

  • Tom

    Time for some Yakety Sax.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    Well, that’s really the point, isn’t it? Given America’s racially diverse history, present, and future, the idea of a hyphenate means someone has fixed on one element of their heritage and defined it above all others, probably for ideological reasons. Tiger Woods was widely condemned–even by Colin Powell, who is also of mixed-race ancestry–for refusing to dishonor his Thai mother by identifying as African-American. Barack Obama is as much white as he is black. Racial mixing will accelerate to the point where these hyphenate categories are absurd. Future generations will simply dispense with them and look at this as a backward time of unhealthy racial obsessions akin to dividing people into quadroons, octoroons, etc.

  • Heather

    I also enjoy occasionally seeing black people in other countries (like Brits of Carribbean extraction) referred to as “African-American.” It’s very silly.

  • Jakeithus

    For probably 75% of the categories, I either didn’t understand what they mean, or was completely clueless about the privilege/lack of privilege facing those groups. Basically, I was massively uninformed in regards to making any knowledgeable decision about the privilege a person might have.

    It sounds like a pretty accurate picture of our society’s discussion around privilege to me.

  • gilgilliam

    Clearly, this contest is tainted by creator privilege through their subconscious choice of which privilege categories to place head to head. Shouldn’t they multi-vote, or pairwise analyze to determine the “winner?”

  • guest

    Are you seriously trying to argue that there’s no such thing as discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class or religion? Because if so, you’re an idiot. An idiot without any empathy or interest in how people are actually suffering.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    Soooo… you didn’t read a word I wrote, did you?

  • Iota

    I’m probably stupid but I don’t understand why what Gawker did is “ballsy and wonderful.” To me it looks like using the exact same basic mechanism. The mechanism of thinking about people as faceless classes.

    The standard discourse of political correctness uses people by herding them into classes that are then pitted against one another, whether they will or no. Their individuality ignored, made an ideological point or just bulldozed. In standard PC-speak there is no John Smith, Anne Green, Mustapha Sayed, Markus Holmes, Amanda Kay (all fictional names). Instead, there is a “Muslim, Gay, Bulimic, Amputee, Prisoner”.

    A reaction against political-correctness can use the same mechanism, herding people into faceless classes, so we can have a laugh. But this is hardly constructive, if afterwards you aren’t better primed to see a John Smith, an Anne Green, a Mustapha Sayed, a Markus Holmes, an Amanda Kay. You’re not dismantling class based thinking, just moving it around.

    Why not just ditch the whole thing and try to cultivate and encourage habits of seeing a person as a person, first name last name, problems and talents included? It might be a little much to excerpt of Gawker, perhaps (I don’t read normally them, so I wouldn’t really know) but if so then why settle? “Fighting ideologies with mockery” still sounds like being focused on abstractions, not persons. What’s so worthy about that, in comparison to PC?

    Am I missing something important and brilliant here?

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    You’re over-analyzing. They’ve taken it to its logical conclusion by forcing it into a trite format like NBAA brackets to show the inherent ridiculousness of identity politics over individuals.

  • Iota

    If the only virtue is mockery, then… I don’t generally buy just mockery as worthwhile, much less wonderful – IMO it works for people who already think the thing mocked is worth mocking, for those who generally like it, and for the easily intimidated . – preaching to the choir, the trolls and the deserters.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    I like to celebrate Banned Books Week by banning commenters. I guess I should have foreseen that this post would draw in the drive-by trolls with the empty comments. I’ve been flushing them and will continue to flush-n-plunge as they come through.

    Please check the combox policy: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godandthemachine/about-comments/

    Add something, ask something, agree, disagree, what-have-thee, but don’t just stop and lift a leg and then trololo along. You don’t want to be wished away into the cornfield, do you? http://akorra.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/its-a-good-life.jpg

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    I disagree. I think sometimes the emptiness of an idea can be revealed more readily by mockery. If the idea is not empty, then the mockery fails.

  • Iota

    Yup, we disagree. I don’t believe there’s a universal standard for how mockery fails. If it did generally fail when something is worthwhile, then say (to choose what we both presumably believe is very, very worthwhile), atheist mockery would patently never work. And in general, reductio ad absurdum could never be used effectively and fallaciously at the same time.

    If you (generic, not personal you) praise people when they leave an idea, without deeper reflection, just (or mainly) because it can be soundly laughed at, what do you do when they come and tell you they started thinking that maybe believing in God is a bad idea, because, essentially “so many smart people are making all those memes”?

  • ahermit

    Yes I suppose the priveledge card can be overused and tiresome. But no more so than the constant whining about “PC” whenever some uncomfortable observation about about discrimination is made. Being white male and middle class really is an advantage in North American society; as has been observed elsewhere some of us are playing the game on “easy” settings…http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/

    Recognizing that fact is not being “PC” it’s being realistic.

  • Roki

    The main problem with “privilege”, I find, is that it only describes a single axis of human relationship: power (assumed to be oppressive) versus powerlessness (assumed to be oppressed, or at least submissive). There is no room for complementarity, or for genuine diversity, in a world seen through the categories of “privilege”.

    This is, I think, one of the points of the Gawker joke.

    A deeper problem, not unique to “privilege”, is the whole problem of identity politics/scholarship: the reduction of a person to a category. A person has the ability to relate to many different situations in many different ways, and not every person who fits into one social category or another will relate in the same way. Categories such as race or socioeconomic status or sexuality may allow a broad statistical shorthand, but they do not actually address the complexity of the human person – that is, they place a theory or a model above a reality, and therefore are doomed to fail.

  • http://janalynmarie.blogspot.com/ Beadgirl

    Yeah. The brackets strike me as funny, because I have seen people try to argue in all seriousness “I’m more oppressed than you are!”, but that doesn’t mean privilege doesn’t exist.

  • guest

    I read the entire thing. Answer my question.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

    I read your post twice and I’m still not sure what your point is.

    If you’re arguing that having privilege doesn’t meant you can’t make meaningful contributions to the conversation, then I agree. If you’re arguing there is no such thing as privilege, then I’d say you’re very wrong.

    Perhaps you’d be so good as to clarify your intent?

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    “Answer your question”? You’re a frigging anonymous poster demanding my time to clarify a perfectly clear post? Get bent.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    You know it’s been perfectly clear to everyone not locked into a certain mindset that assumes those things which divide us are the most important things of all. It’s a condemnation of the identity politics that break people into little self-selecting groups and pits them against each other like some kind of PC Hunger Games.

    Privilege? Everybody has some. Some more than others. What is the nature of privilege? In America, it really just comes down to money and power, which trump all. The rest is just people arguing over the scraps.

  • AMoniqueOcampo

    You do not know how many times I’ve seen this phrase on Tumblr. BTW: Do you have one?

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    Do I have Tumblr? Or privilege?

  • AMoniqueOcampo


  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    Nope, never tried it.