What’s Wrong WIth a Little Privilege Checking?

By Graham Peterson

When you adopt the philosophy that all of the world’s injustices reduce to merely three dimensions of social categorization–race, class, and gender–you reduce the immense nuance of social tastes, traits, behaviors, and traditions, to the information conveyed in the demographic archetypes of a 45 second Tide Detergent ad.

When you then hunt for infractions drawn along one of those dimensions, the odds are that you will reliably find prey.  Everyone, of course, has traits that fall along these dimensions.  They are in fact the largest social categories one could draw without circling the entire set of all people.  So you are aiming at a large target, and people even in blindfolds can hit large targets.

This has the effect of producing paranoid people, because there is a constant opportunity to exercise these fears.  I used to do some minor league dealing a very long time ago.  It turns out that there are police cruisers everywhere, whether anyone is tailing you or not.  You can imagine: I was a very nervous guy.  Similarly, our world makes people’s races, classes, and genders immediately and publicly available, everywhere.  You can imagine: advocates are very nervous people.

All of this privilege checking thus encourages people to interpret one another’s behavior in the least charitable way possible, and to make blank accusations of one another’s motives on weak evidence.  To seal any leaks in this anti-social logic, the story goes that if someone gets defensive about having their privilege checked, they are indeed confirming that the paranoid privilege checker is correct.  Privilege checking, by definition, cannot be mistaken.

Now, the stated goals of diversity training, privilege checking, and so forth, were in the first place to encourage respect, tolerance, acceptance, and dignity among people, in the end to encourage one another to look past mere gendered, racial, and classist stereotypes.  The net result has been the exact opposite.  We have created a lazy excuse for people to disrespect, dismiss, and denigrate one another, and in the end to reify racial, gendered, and classist stereotypes.

It has to stop.

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30 thoughts on “What’s Wrong WIth a Little Privilege Checking?”

  1. Why would someone get defensive about having their privilege checked? It’s not a personal insult. It’s a reminder of the fact that their individual traits and behaviors don’t occur in a vacuum, ostensibly offered as a response to something they said or did that demonstrated ignorance or denial of that fact. Pointing out that a person is privileged relative to others makes no claim about the merit of their efforts or the content of their character. Acknowledging it in kind concedes nothing negative about these things. Misuses of the term are opportunities for education, because nobody — accuser or accused — should get a pass for being willfully ignorant of its definition and implications, but proper usage works as intended to underscore power imbalances in specific cases when the relatively powerful are being oblivious or obstinate. I suppose we could say that in the absence of all this privilege checking and diversity training we would be prosocially race-, gender-, and class-blind and accordingly empathetic and equitable: we simply begin with a perfectly spherical human in a vacuum…

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  2. I’m (not being snarky) not sure what it is you’re saying here ? If it’s that the rhetoric of privilege can be overused and annoying at times, then i’d agree. (I guess) Or that those who most frequently demand ‘privilege checks’ can at times be self righteous and unwilling to examine their own privilege, then I’d agree with you there as well. (To a point)
    But that’s about as far as I’d go. There is *obviously* a substantial amount of privilege built into gender, race and class. As there is into place of birth, whether or not you suffer from debillitating health problems etc. I don’t really see the problem with recognising this.
    If it’s simply that some people have annoyed you with their rhetoric, well sure, then just stop listening to those people. But I don’t think you can build a larger political philosophy (which you appear to be doing above) around this fairly trivial point.

    I’d see the concept of ‘privilege checking’ as akin to when my mother used to tell me to eat my dinner as there are people starving in the world, or recognising that when I could go of to university and other people I knew didnt finish secondary school,it had very little to do with my inate intellectual brilliance (though for some people it is) but because my family had greater resources, and/or were educated themselves so it was encouraged. This is a very simple unarguable concept, to my mind.
    (admittedly, before I became acquainted with the internet, I never really considered the privilege built into being male (and since I didnt grow up in a racialised country the privilege of whiteness), but I think the evidence for both is pretty strong. Particularly in the US, how could it be argued that ‘not being African American’ doesn’t make a whole lot of things substantially easier ? )

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  3. Both of these comments presume that I do not understand well enough the social history and theory of social structure that motivated privilege checking in the first place. That is not the case.

    “Pointing out that a person is privileged relative to others makes no claim about the merit of their efforts or the content of their character.”

    This is incorrect. If pointing out that someone is or correlates to X because he is white and male is not a personal slur, then neither is pointing out that someone is or correlates to Y because she is black and female. It is not acceptable to categorize individuals based on race, gender, etc. and hold them to the traits of that category — whether in service of or to rail against social injustice.

    “Educating” people when you feel they’re being obstinate or oblivious of the negative aspects of their race is no more appropriate for white people one believes are being condescending than it is or would be for black people one believes are being aggressive.

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    1. I don’t assume you ‘do not understand well enough the social history and theory of social structure that motivated privilege checking in the first place’, I’m saying you ignore it.
      And your argument on this point is completly contradictory to previous posts *where you have explicitely said* that arguement and persuasion is a social good.
      From the trolling post :

      “to denote a person with sincere beliefs who argues with strangers because of her desire to persuade and effect change..It is precisely this kind of trolling which is making us much, much smarter, and more tolerant. The opportunity people now have to match with one another in an ideological market, is unprecedented.”

      So argument and persuasion is a general good, except in this one case where it is a threat to social stability ? Your series of arguments make absolutely no sense when put together.
      Whether or not it is *equally* ‘wrong’ to essentialise a white man and a black woman also shouldnt matter going on your past arguments, where you have said explictly that no one should be called out on their racism. So if a white man is being ‘racially’ caricatured it doesn’t matter any more than it mattered what Donald Sterling thought about black people.
      Afaict your libertarianism seems to imply that once we remove the coercive power of the state, individuals will be able to cooperate and persuade eachother into some class of socially optimal outcome. Argument is good, because it leads to persuasion, and eventually a settlment on the most socially beneficial course of action. Except in this case, where argument is a threat to social stability, and nobody should ever call somebody out on their racism or privilege !! ??
      You’re arguing against individuals holding private beliefs and trying to convince others that their beliefs are correct. I cant make heads or tails how this fits in any coherent way into your larger political philosophy.

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  4. A first principle of persuasive arguments is avoiding insuting ad hominem, and that is what privilege checking amounts to.

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    1. ‘Privilege checking’ is not by nature ad hominem. *IT* can manifest itself in ways that are ad hominem, but there’s nothing built into the concept of privilege that leads to ad hominem arguments. You’re dealing in a caricature here.(ironically)

      This is irrelevant to your larger argument anyway (afaict) which is built around the idea of a ‘marketplace of ideas’ pushing out bad arguments (ie ad hominem ones) and settling upon the best. So it doesn’t matter if arguments about privilege are ‘ad hominem’ or wrong, the marketplace will punish those who make these arguments.
      The alternative explanation, however, is that a society built solely around cooperation and persuasion with no coercion (or ad hominem arguments) involved is not feasible.
      Or am I missing something ?

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  5. I made general points about what can motivate complaints about being told to check one’s privilege, but I agree with @ronanfitz that by advocating for absolute demographic-blindness you are aware of, but ignoring, the context it addresses.

    “It is not acceptable to categorize individuals based on race, gender, etc. and hold them to the traits of that category. ‘Educating’ people when you feel they’re being obstinate or oblivious of the negative aspects of their race is no more appropriate for white people one believes are being condescending than it is or would be for black people one believes are being aggressive.”

    “Check your privilege” doesn’t point out “the negative *aspects* of [one’s] race” or “traits.” It points out history and where a person’s race, class, or gender puts them — by no choice or fault of their own — within social constructs of power created and maintained by other members of one’s race. No white person would say “check your *lack of privilege*” to a black person one believes is being inappropriately aggressive. You’re conflating malleable individual behavior with unmalleable non-individual history.

    For example, the fact that you’re arguing race-blindness as a first principle is a demonstration of the privilege you and I as Whites have enjoyed having experienced comparatively insignificant systemic racism. Non-Whites don’t have the luxury of being able to pretend that race-blindness is a viable way to navigate life. That ideology presumes that “hey, no hard feelings, amirite?” should be accepted by the historically oppressed from a “hey, not all Whites…” member of the demographic that historically did (and does) the oppressing. We can’t wipe the slate clean just because we find distasteful the acknowledgement of racial context. A reminder of one’s demographic’s history is not a personal insult.

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  6. And there it is: I’m allegedly upset about privilege checking because I’m a privileged white person. It’s an unfalsifiable theory because any argument against it is construed as evidence of its correctness. And it is therefore a garbage theory.

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    1. It seems to me that you’re upset about privilege checking because you’re willfully ignoring what privilege means. Does privilege not exist in your philosophy? Do you prefer some other way of (or term for) acknowledging historical context, or is that context not worth acknowledging in the first place?

      If you do accept the concept of privilege in some form, how do you define it, in contrast to what’s been offered in above comments?

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    2. Or, could you offer a scenario, real or imagined, to illustrate the insulting ad hominem your OP laments — in only general terms — as well as the defense you felt (or would feel) compelled to offer in that scenario?

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    3. I’d put it more as a question: do you think that some people are more privileged in contemporary American society by virtue of their race/gender/socioeconomic status? If so, do you think this fact is relevant to patterns of social phenomena?

      As you ponder your answer please remember that in huge numbers of statistical analyses of many different social behaviors race, gender, and socioeconomic class are statistically significant and substantively large predictors of Y. Therefore, what social scientist could omit them from her analysis? That is knowingly biasing the results, and any inferences made in such a context are untrustworthy.

      That doesn’t mean that Argument White Male Makes is automatically wrong of course, but it does mean that arguments need to be understood within the broader context within which they are made. If privileged people make arguments that — coincidentally or otherwise — would raise their status even further, it is not an ad hominem to point out that such claims are self-serving. You seem to understand this when you point out that the extreme versions of these claims are sometimes made by “leftist academics”, which is also a social signifier (albeit more fine-grained than race).

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  7. An entire lexicon of social thought was written about the explosion of occupational distinctions in the 18th century, which has only continued today. There are exponentially more social categories accruing to occupation, in any one of them a ton more information, than race. This effect explodes even further given other social categories. This makes race, gender, and so forth on of the weakest and noisiest proxies for information about anyone’s preferences and constraints there are. That is, indeed, the whole point of the “just because I’m black I don’t _______” stuff we learned in health class as kids.

    What’s interesting about the statistical significance and magnitude of race and gender variables is that a senior sociologist in my department constantly harps on the fact that regressions including these variables usually have extremely tiny R^2. I haven’t seen enough of this work to comment on the empirical standing of them as predictors for various behaviors.

    But just from the theory of the matter, take any sample and choose four groups randomly. Then reassemble it and choose two groups randomly. Assign dummies. Regress. You’re working with so little variation, but casting such a wide net, that I don’t doubt you’re going to get a lot of Betas that look like they’re telling you something.

    I’m not an idiot, and I don’t dispute racial profiling by police, racial profiling in job applications, and racial profiling when people first meet one another (same goes for gender et al.). The trouble with these measurements is that the claim goes from: “look at how people use conditional inference on extremely noisy but easily observed proxies of one another’s behavior when they’re matched in a low information environment” to “these same conditional inferences are obviously persistent no matter how much time and space two people have shared, giving them an opportunity to gain information across a variety of other variables like occupation, marital status, fashion sense, music taste, college major, volunteer and religious association, criminal and other behavioral background, blah blah blah blah.”

    So yes, I think, like any thinking person does, that race, class, and gender matter, and especially much in some very troubling situations like confrontation of police with black and brown people. I also think they matter WAY less than a bunch of left academics with social advocacy tunnel vision have thought they do, to the exclusion of the entertainment of any range of alternative hypotheses.

    Moreover, none of this speaks to whether a bunch of concerned people who think they’ve got the brochure of race and gender correlated behaviors and verbal slights down pat, actually have license to run around policing other people’s behavior — making conditional inferences on PRECISELY the same logic as racists and sexists, but in reverse.

    You’ve got to be confident that race class and gender either ABSOLUTELY DOMINATE the motivations and conditional determinants of EVERYONE’S behavior, such that you can pretty much throw a microaggression dart with your eyes closed and hit the target correctly — or have such a superior sense of your own judgment that you think you can adeptly pick out “microaggressions” when they happen — in order to think that it’s a good idea to become an anti-social, wonton scold.

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    1. Your instructor seemingly does not understand what R^2 means (and does not mean). If there is a low R^2 in the presence of substantively large and statistically significant coefficients those coefficients should not be discounted in any way. It only says that the scatter around the slope line is “relatively” wide, where the “relative” is typically not specified (because we do not observe the data generating process). Which is not surprising in highly diverse settings! Most applied researchers more-or-less ignore R^2 altogether except in clean experimental settings (which do not exist in observational settings). In multivariate analysis — particularly with panel data — it’s all but useless.

      If you have not seen enough of these studies to know their conclusions then perhaps you should just stop commenting on these issues in this way until you are better informed. You will encounter such studies in the future I am sure — or at least I hope! They have been replicated repeatedly, so your “take some samples and shuffle them and you’ll probably get spurious results” comeback doesn’t apply even if it made statistical sense (which it doesn’t really, although I know what you were driving at). That’s why I referred to large bodies of literature rather than just one study in the first place. I know poli sci way better than soc, of course, but if I was trying to predict voter behavior, or party membership, or turnout, or protest activity, or education level, or preference over tax policy, or any number of other things I would have to include these “crude” category variables or else a reviewer would crush me.

      And yes, these are very large effects — not sure what you mean by “ABSOLUTELY DOMINATE” — in many settings. 90+% of African-American voters chose Obama, while 80% of Tea Party members are white. Try explaining that without reference to race. These are extreme cases in some ways… in other settings a more nuanced story is needed but even then the same pattern may be present even if weaker: libertarians are (on average) richer and whiter and more male. The social sciences are still overwhelmingly male and white (more in econ and poli sci, less in soc and anthro). None of this is determinative, but we use statistical analysis precisely because it is a rigorous way uncover general patterns in a variety of contexts. Social scientists have been doing it for a long time and we’re pretty good at it.

      By contrast, you are attacking a perceived (not demonstrated) general tendency using allusion and anecdote. That’s not good social science.

      (I’ll be traveling over the next few days so I probably won’t be able to respond further.)

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      1. That’s precisely it. You can correlate race and gender to other massive and crude social categories like a binary outcome on whether someone likes a black public figure, but you can’t correlate them to smaller ranges of personal preferences and behavioral tendencies, which is what matters at the level of individual interactions. I know it’s difficult to imagine after reading the Nth paper on voter preferences, but there is more to the world than race, class, gender, and election cycles, whether you dump the rest of the world into your epsilon or not.

        Everything else I said about how people make conditional inferences about one another’s behaviors and coordinate with one another remains unaddressed. And that’s ultimately what any aggregate statistical study is getting at — individual mechanisms — unless you assume a priori that large-aggregate social structures wholly or nearly wholly determine people’s behaviors. But then that would be to assume what is to be proved. Not that sociologists and political scientists who love social constructionism have never shown up to that party.

        Showing said individual mechanisms would seem especially important in a world in which people, like presumably yourself, are using the aggregates you mentioned to infer one another’s psychology at the water cooler and tavern and interact with one another (you were talking about how they interact with a ballot sheet, or a college entrance exam). So no, I don’t see how we get from your reading of the quant poli sci literature to walking around calling people out for being latent sexists and racists.

        Color me shocked that when people align with cultural symbols on a national stage, ignoring or logrolling a variety of preferences in order to form temporary tribal alliances in order to cast a vote in an otherwise meaningless national election, they tend to sort along racial lines. Clearly this situation is representative of the majority of routine behavior people take part in when encountering one another!

        I made a variety of theoretical points based on my own reading of economic and sociological theory that you ignored in order to pick on a point that I transparently reported wasn’t even mine in the first place, and then you suggested I just not say anything if all I have to say is things repeated from my instructors. When you reply to the rest of what I said (which is the majority of what I wrote), rather than cherry picking an argument you feel comfortable defending because it’s all you came to the debate with, we might have a discussion.

        Until then, it’s just vague allusions to droves of papers you’ve apparently read and assertions of your authority here while willfully ignoring the majority of my argument.

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      2. Okay, I’ll do your whole OP. From the top:

        “When you adopt the philosophy that all of the world’s injustices reduce to merely three dimensions of social categorization–race, class, and gender–you reduce the immense nuance of social tastes, traits, behaviors, and traditions, to the information conveyed in the demographic archetypes of a 45 second Tide Detergent ad.”

        That is a strawman. As your basic premise is a strawman everything else that follows does not obtain. But you want to be taken seriously so I’ll keep going.

        “When you then hunt for infractions drawn along one of those dimensions, the odds are that you will reliably find prey. Everyone, of course, has traits that fall along these dimensions. They are in fact the largest social categories one could draw without circling the entire set of all people. So you are aiming at a large target, and people even in blindfolds can hit large targets.”

        Now a strawman “you” is doing something… almost sensible? It’s hard to tell from context what this paragraph is supposed to mean. A non-commital caveat you toss in to make it harder for people to criticize your overall thrust.? If so it’s an old, but ineffective, rhetorical trick.

        “This has the effect of producing paranoid people”

        Why? How do we know this is true?

        “because there is a constant opportunity to exercise these fears”

        Is there really? What fears? What opportunities? What kinds of exercise?

        “I used to do some minor league dealing a very long time ago. It turns out that there are police cruisers everywhere, whether anyone is tailing you or not. You can imagine: I was a very nervous guy.”

        Personal anecdotes are completely irrelevant to any broader argument you might wish to make. To demonstrate why I’ll counter with one of my own: I manage to not live in constant fear of the Liberal Gestapo despite being a privileged white male. See? This is why we do not argue by anecdote.

        “Similarly, our world makes people’s races, classes, and genders immediately and publicly available, everywhere.”

        *Our World* does this? What kind of identification is that? How could Our World have agency to “make” anything “publicly available, everywhere”. What does “publicly available, everywhere” even mean?

        “You can imagine: advocates are very nervous people.”

        I can imagine it? I guess I can. I can also imagine non-nervous advocates. I’ve even met a few. (Who’s doing the gross generalization NOW?)

        “All of this privilege checking”

        All of WHAT privilege checking? This is the first time you’ve mentioned privilege checking. You don’t say what you mean by the phrase — although I think I can decipher the code — or to what “this” refers.

        “thus encourages people”

        What is the means of this encouragement? Who/what is doing the encouraging? What people are affected?

        “to interpret one another’s behavior in the least charitable way possible”

        The least charitable way POSSIBLE? No, I don’t think so. Overstatement is also poor rhetoric. (But then it still isn’t remotely clear what you’re talking about.)

        “and to make blank accusations of one another’s motives on weak evidence.”

        This has definitely occurred before, but is the cause really “All of this privilege checking”? I’ve seen the comments section on right-wing blogs; accusations of the same sort are made there despite a distinct lack of the kinds of privilege checking you are talking about (at least the ones I think you’re talking about), thus making me think that the causal story you’re advancing might be missing quite a lot. I know your response will be that you mean the right-wing ones too, but in the context of your previous posts you clearly don’t.

        “To seal any leaks in this anti-social logic, the story goes that if someone gets defensive about having their privilege checked, they are indeed confirming that the paranoid privilege checker is correct.”

        What “anti-social logic”? You have not described any logic at all so far. And what “story”? You have not given us a story. Meanwhile, Donald Sterling says he is not a racist. And yet he has a long pattern of saying racist things. What conclusion should we reach? Suppose we decided to take his word on it… which word should we take?

        “Privilege checking, by definition, cannot be mistaken.”

        Still don’t know what “privilege checking” is, hence do not know what the definition is or whether it could be mistaken. I strongly suspect, however, that this is a false statement however you meant it.

        “Now, the stated goals of diversity training, privilege checking, and so forth, were in the first place to encourage respect, tolerance, acceptance, and dignity among people, in the end to encourage one another to look past mere gendered, racial, and classist stereotypes. The net result has been the exact opposite.”

        What is the evidence for this claim? I don’t think it’s controvertible that our society is more respectful, tolerant, accepting, and dignified than it has ever been precisely for the reasons you have been bemoaning: the removal of prejudicial opinion from bourgeois discourse. What you want, or wanted in your previous post, was the opposite: more unpunished bigotry allowed in the public sphere — which is (by definition) less respectful, tolerant, accepting, and dignified — for the dubious purpose of persuasion.

        “We have created a lazy excuse for people to disrespect, dismiss, and denigrate one another, and in the end to reify racial, gendered, and classist stereotypes.”

        Who is “we”? What is the “excuse”? How is it lazy? How is the disrespecting, dismissing, and denigrating done? How are stereotypes being reified? Why the universality of your claim?

        Throughout all of your posts in this series you have been prone to generalization, innuendo, vague allusion, lazy language, and (what appears to be) baiting. We all know you enjoy trolling — whatever floats your boat — but when it’s this self-contradictory it’s completely ineffective.

        “It has to stop.”

        Not sure if it has to has to, but it really ought to.

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      3. You’re not even trying to discuss the issue anymore, and you’re certainly not addressing anything I said in good faith. Have a great trip. I hope it’s more relaxing than this.

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  8. Here’s a great example. I just got some Mexican food. The girl at the counter made change without the register and forgot to give me a $5. I gave her a smirk and said, “do I get a five?” She realized immediately what she’d done, and gave it to me, smiling and apologizing, feeling embarrassed. I’m smiling and telling her not to worry about it. Then to ease the tension more so, I throw a joke in there (that isn’t really a joke because almost nobody can make change without an adding machine anymore, and I bartended for a long time), and said “I can’t make change either.”

    Now, she could have turned around and complained to her coworkers that I assumed she was innumerate because she’s a young Mexican woman, that it was indicative of my smug and obstinate privilege. She could have gotten stern with me and said, “I know how to add.” Or hell, she could have taken a picture of me and started a twitter hashtag — that brand of “activism” has been going around now too.

    But instead, she recognized a good natured joke that was meant to sympathize with her mistake and relate to her as a human being, because it turns out I have about zero interest in someone’s gender and skin color while I’m ordering a fajita special and an orchata, and she has apparently has about zero interest in the skin color and gender of a guy asking for his change.

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      1. When you have aggregate data on “micro-aggressions,” rather than an Olympic long jump, from a few decades of regressions on election cycles — to the heroic construal of alleged underhanded comments into national social media frenzies — we can talk about whose data qualify. Until then, this is the kind of crushing evidence on your side of the table:
        https://www.michigandaily.com/opinion/viewpoint-twerking-poor-taste
        http://jezebel.com/fuck-cupcakes-475125988

        I addressed, and confirmed that I don’t dispute the results of, a variety of experimental and observational studies (mass incarceration and arrest rate statistics, the resume experiments, and so forth). But according to you I just haven’t read anything, am arguing that variation in people’s melanin and dialect correlate at 0.0 to all other social phenomena, and am talking above my pay rate.

        You, and your cohort, are the ones making the strong empirical claim here, not me. I admitted a significant and positive correlation between race, gender, SES, and a variety of other social outcomes. The claim from the privilege police, though, is that these variables are massive, and that they are so massive indeed, that they preclude a variety of alternative explanations of people’s behaviors and preferences — so much so in fact that anyone with a high-school education and allegiance to the correct political party should have no problem identifying these glaring-obvious, large magnitude, problematic variables in one another’s behavior and moreover have an ethical duty to correct them.

        I’m not the one reaching here, and I’m not the one who lacks evidence for my claims, which are extraordinarily modest compared to yours.

        I’m making an empirical conjecture based on theory that has to my knowledge not been entertained by anyone before, and for which I only have studies I’ve read and my personal experiences to conjure with. Last time I checked, that’s just fine social science, especially when the standard of most of the people I’m debating with are “fuck cupcakes because dainty women and SHADDAP IF YOU DON”T AGREE I’LL MAKE MY TWITTER FRIENDS HATE YOU!!!”

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      2. “You, and your cohort, are the ones making the strong empirical claim here, not me.”

        “I’m making an empirical conjecture based on theory”

        ??? So are you making an empirical claim or not?

        What is your theory… Jezebel overreacts to things sometimes as a form of clickbait? Pretty sure people have come to the same conclusion before. I stopped reading it a long, long time ago for just this reason. Or is it that some people in academia are skeptical of people from traditionally privileged groups? Again, that ground is well-trodden.

        I have made no claim, other than that broad categories (race, class, gender) have been found to be meaningful predictors of behavior in a wide variety of social settings. This is demonstrably true. You even acknowledge that it is true in some of your comments (and your OP, kind of). The problem is that you *appear* to deny this — or think it basically *irrelevant* or otherwise minimize it — starting with your first paragraph in the OP and continuing throughout.

        Nor have I anywhere suggested that you have read nothing. I know very well that you have. Nor have I misconstrued your argument *as written*. If I’ve misunderstood it then you haven’t explained it well, which is generally a marker of poor exposition. But ask yourself what conclusion you wish people to take from your OP and comments. Is it that structural inequalities are still a significant societal problem, using the resume experiments etc. as supporting evidence?

        No, I don’t think that’s your point at all. Your point is that there is another really big problem, perhaps as large or even larger (you referred to “lynch mobs” before, and “police” and other violent coercive groups before): those who would point out those inequities and oppose those who perpetuate them. Obviously I disagree with that conclusion, for precisely the reasons I give: there is broad macro evidence of structural inequalities in one direction but not the other.

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      3. “Obviously I disagree with that conclusion, for precisely the reasons I give: there is broad macro evidence of structural inequalities in one direction but not the other.”

        Give it time. Anti-racism and anti-sexism have crescendoed as dominant social norms (rightly), and are now being enforced on precisely the social mechanics that the former dominant norm was on race, class, and gender. In order to enforce these norms, just like those desperate to keep marriage between whites and whites once did, people are stepping around formal processes of adjudication in universities and communities, and excepting usual norms about politeness in informal conduct with one another.

        You believe this is deserved and necessary because of the urgency of remedying the remaining social injustice in the world. I am pointing out that there are a myriad of other “significant and meaningful” correlates and motivations of people’s behavior than the political hobbies of the 20th century. But a social movement bent on justice, which has no concept of when reparations have been paid and the social ledger is balanced again, will inevitably turn into tribal feudalism and score settling, like it has throughout history.

        I don’t have to tell you, Marc, Amanda, my brother, or any other educated person else reading this that mitigating conflict outside of such cycles of retributive punishment, and demarcating precise infractions and the debts accruing to them, with transparent methods of repayment, were the foundation of legal civility.

        And I don’t think it takes a very long glance at the way racism and sexism are being dealt with these days to understand that it is precisely these rational and dignified mechanisms, e.g. formal adjudication of harms (like say trying rapists in criminal courts rather than in front of college administrators) or upright persuasion (like say dragging Donald Sterling onto a talk show to discuss race with his players or another public figure, rather than just shooing him away) that are being excepted and discarded.

        A group of counter protestors held up a sign after Fred Phelps died saying, “We’re sorry for your loss.” That’s how you respond to bigots, not by playing their ostracize and destroy game.

        It really seems to blow people’s minds that I could have such a thorough background in the magnitude of social abuses, a deep connection with the communities in question, and an eye on their well being — and still maintain my principles of rational discourse and consistent legal principles. That, to me, is strange, considering it is precisely that persuasion and the exercise of those legal principles that have afforded women and minorities the large margin of progress they currently enjoy, and any margin of progress they or anyone else can expect to enjoy in the future.

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  9. (Can’t reply above so it’s going here.)

    How dare you accuse me of not paying sufficient attention to what you wrote in one breath and then, when I respond to every single paragraph of it by pointing out how totally under-specified and overly general your post is, accuse me of not acting in good faith? I have very real issues with your argument, Graham, and that’s poor form. As is tossing off my arguments by associating me with a “bunch of left academics with social advocacy tunnel vision” that you know I do not belong to.

    It’s really hard to know what kind of discourse you’re interested in when you employ super-high-charged language and then protest as soon as someone objects, asks for evidence, or suggests that you *just might* be over-stating things.

    All to say, if I’ve not been discussing the issue it’s because I can’t tell what the issue is, other than you think that broad categories matter less than some unspecified others think matter for… something.

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    1. Well this is an unfortunate misunderstanding, then, because your rhetorical analysis above seemed entirely focused on my presentation, and appeared to be designed to mock my presentation and tone more than to actually attempt to understand what I was saying and respond. In short: it looked like you were playing dumb in an effort to make my argument look incomprehensible. I apologize.

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    2. “It’s really hard to know what kind of discourse you’re interested in when you employ super-high-charged language”

      To be fair, it’s hard to refrain from using ‘charged’ language when the rest of this thread consists of people lining up to announce what they feel about Graham’s personality, moral virtues and privilege and accusing him of trolling for stating mildly contrarian views.

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      1. No one has accused him of trolling. Or said anything about his ‘personality or moral virtues.’
        His privilege sure, but in fairness that’s what the post is about.

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      2. It’s all good – it’s clear by now that everyone is and has been making a good faith effort to engage a decent conversation given the heightened emotions of the matters at hand.

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  10. I’m not an academic, and many of these comments use jargon that I can’t unpack, so I’m a bit lost after all of this… which is fine. I still have these questions:

    1. The OP closes with “It has to stop.” Graham, is it your belief and assertion that “check your privilege” should not be uttered in any circumstance? Are you just generally annoyed and troubled by its growing prevalence, or is its conceivable *misuse* as some kind of nuclear argument-ender where you take issue?

    2. You referred to the social justice movement having no measure of (or concern with?) when the power/privilege books are balanced, so to speak. That’s pretty broad, and maybe I missed the evidence for that claim. For people focused on the vast racial disparity in incarceration, for example, do you think they wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care if the numbers started matching the demographic proportions “on the outside?”

    3. Am I understanding correctly that your primary argument is about a slippery slope — that demographically-focused criticism will someday tip the scales the “wrong” way into some kind of tribalism replete with metaphorical “lynching” (BTW, it’s distracting to see that term continually co-opted for shock value) even after those books are balanced?

    4. I don’t agree that these broad demographic correlations trump all other considerations, especially in interactions between familiar people. Where did that come from?

    This is the kind of example I was requesting:

    The other day I read a comment thread on FB about Voter ID. Many people were up in arms: “This is ridiculous; it’s not that hard to get an ID! @&%#% Democrats!” Judging by their avatars, every single one of them was white, non-elderly, apparently able-bodied, etc.

    I would consider this an appropriate venue for an argument based on their (willful?) ignorance of the significant burden of obtaining an ID for many people outside their familiar demographic — orders of magnitude more people than have or could fraudulently vote in the current absence of an ID requirement, provided everyone’s professed concern is proportional representation based on fair elections.

    If I responded with, essentially, “check your privilege,” would it be appropriate for them to respond that I’m being hypocritically racist? If responding with the “check your privilege” theme wouldn’t be appropriate in your view, what would be my alternative?

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    1. 1. I believe the intent is approbation and ending discussion, not the ostensible education. I think it is ridiculous for people to expect such shaming and condescension to be taken as an invitation to learning and dialogue.

      2. This is a longer discussion, but no, I think social justice advocates generally update their demands without recognizing progress that’s been made. I have been attacked multiple times by rooms full of people for pointing out the political and economic liberties women and minorities now enjoy relative to 60 years ago. I’ve seen it happen to other (non white) scholars. Similarly for aggregate statistics showing that violent crime and victimization rates are dropping. Advocates seem to take for granted that the only way to motivate change is to continue to frame social issues as an unmitigated crisis.

      This is dismissive of the agency and progress people have made and as I see it does nothing but damage the constructive discourse that would lead to further improvements, and erode the equal application of social and legal norms that afforded these people (and frankly all of us, because we were all broke peasants who lacked the franchise at one point) liberties in the first place.

      3. Precisely.

      4. That is a comment on the research program of the academic left in anthropology, sociology, and political science — which has been undeniably dominated with the demographic categories listed in the last 50 years.

      I would respond to such a person by explaining that getting an ID can be onerous. I don’t see why the person’s background and life experiences that may or may not motivate their argument need to come into play . . . unless one wants to embarrass and shame someone for not recognizing how she has accidentally oppressed people with her obstinate naiveté.

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