But Where Does Privilege Checking Come From?

By Graham Peterson

The argument for privilege checking is, on its face, that people who are unaware of their prejudices need to be educated about them.  The argument is that it’s not a personal slam, and that nobody means to make people feel shame whence being checked.  But I think that’s dishonest.

First, the phrase “checking,” in its modern incarnation is a slang that came off the street, the idea being that one checks someone else before a fight happens, or checks oneself before a fight happens: “yo, check your boy.”  I think people check other people’s privilege for the same reason people load onto Twitter to blast characters like Cliven Bundy, and for the same reason people used to party in the town square while some poor ass had his limbs torn off.

There is an argument in Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society about the mechanics of punishment, that in ye olden days punishment was the expression of the collective conscience — that is, values we all (or very most of us) share — punishment mostly meant to reaffirm group solidarity, more so than to mete out individual harms proportionate to whatever crime was committed.  Now don’t miss the subtlety of that claim.

The idea here, against, say, the kind of rationalist doctrine coming out of Aristotle’s rhetorics, is that people do not arrive at or maintain their beliefs because of transparent persuasion, but rather that we affirm beliefs by shitting on people who don’t believe the same things we do — and that we really get to doing some affirming with our most closely and widely held beliefs.  Those deepest and widest, indeed, get codified into laws, and draw approbation mitigated through some representative of the community like a court or tribunal.

It’s come to light for me how profound of a message this is in the sociological cannon: the majority of the beliefs we hold, we do so unconsciously, and indeed communicate the majority of those beliefs through varying degrees of reciprocal approbation and punishment of defectors, which signals to other people in our tribe what the Correct way to behave and believe is (I’m stretching a small chapter of Durkheim pretty far here).

And this is, really, what’s going on with the privilege checking and the mobs jeering and shaming.

There is wide and deep agreement among a majority of Americans that enormous harms have been done to women and minorities in very recent history, and many who hold this belief, perfectly rationally, hope to restore justice by punishing people.

Maybe what upsets some about this effort isn’t so much a blinkered disagreement over the history of sexism and racism, but a disagreement over who, when, and how people ought to be punished for that history.  Moreover, the tension between the therapeutic niceties about “educating” people and engendering “compassion” in the midst of an informal tribunal that’s transparently designed to deface accused racists and sexists, is untenable.

The question becomes: is this mode of punishment, however functional it may be, an optimal way to signal and mete out social values?  I maintain that it is not.  Punishment ought to be our last, not our first resort to maintaining and conveying our beliefs — especially those beliefs that most people are already in agreement on.

Durkheim and the sociologists are right – we’re decidedly not an amalgam of delightful, pontificating gentlemen debating our beliefs.  Not exclusively.  Not even majorly.  But if we do not aspire to a higher form of the communication of values and maintenance of the dominance of beliefs than gossip and cheering over the torture of heretics in the public square, then we lose the precious bit of reason and consideration that we do have to work with as humans.

And that would be a sad thing indeed.

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