Check Your Privilege.

The internet.

I love the convenience, I love that I am able to view amazing images of the Philae lander, for example, or read really inspiring work, or listen to people making music in their loungerooms. These are things I might otherwise never have seen, or if I had, only when the television showed them to me. The internet is truly wonderful.

But sometimes, I need a break from it, because in among all that wonderful knowledge, there is a whole lot of annoying stupidity.

And sure, I guess the internet has been a platform which is unedited and open to everyone with a connection, so there is going to be a range of views and opinions and perspectives with which I don’t agree. But I’m more concerned, not so much with those opinions with which I don’t agree, and more with those with which I normally would agree, but for the way in which they’re phrased.

Our day-to-day lives are enriched by other people’s experiences, whether that is online or in person, and through the internet, I’ve come into contact with many people whom I might otherwise never have met. This has meant I’ve learnt about all sorts of different issues which I don’t ever meet in my regular life. And that’s fantastic! I’m now much more educated about questions of sexuality, gender, racism, equality, privilege. I understand more about cultural issues in different parts of the world. I am happy to have learnt these things via the people on the internet.

And yet… now, I feel as though there is an insidiousness to internet culture that I didn’t always see, and it’s that which makes me sometimes stop and think, ‘Whoa. I might just withdraw into the real world for a while, here, because this is getting too weird.’

I was reading something the other day and someone said some disclaimer at the beginning of a comment about acknowledging white privilege. The commenter then went on to discuss racism, and I was left wondering, Why is it necessary to first acknowledge the white privilege? Is it so that the person who posted the comment could appear to be more enlightened? Quite possibly, the commenter was just trying to be polite, to acknowledge their own position. But I wondered why it’s now a necessity: You need to stand up and say, ‘Let’s first establish that I have it really good. OK, now I am allowed to make a comment about racism/sexism/poverty/gender issues/politics…’ WHY. Is the comment otherwise null and void? Do we really have to be that careful with our speech now?

I think for the same reason I find the ‘Check Your Privilege’ meme so irritating. Because I do understand that there is privilege, of course I do. Just the mere fact that I’m white and speak English fluently as a first language, those two things about which I had no choice and which open so many doors for me (and more importantly, don’t slam doors in my face) are a massive advantage in a world which values, very highly, whiteness, and fluency in English. And there are a whole lot of other areas where I know I have an advantage because of the way I am and the way the world is.

So to throw ‘Check Your Privilege’ around bothers me because it uses the same broad brushstrokes of assumption about people’s situations which is used to target people of colour or people on the QUILTBAG spectrum or people who are poor. The irony doesn’t escape my notice, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Check my privilege? I do. I am aware of my whiteness, of my place in a developed nation, of my education and my sexuality and my gender and my fertility and my able bodiedness. But as Ariel Meadow Stallings points out in the Guardian, simply using ‘check your privilege’ to shut down an argument is petty and ignores the real issues being debated. It seems to demonstrate, as she writes:

The need to process it all publicly (“Look at me look at me look at meeee! I am the very MOST aware of my privilege and am therefore the very BEST progressive on the entire internet!”)

It is as if many on the internet now see it as a kind of sport. They are expecting, even waiting, to be offended, and whether it’s due to the clickbait we’ve come to accept for news headlines, or whether because we have been driving that clickbait ourselves through our own behaviour, all of it simply makes for a nasty atmosphere. An atmosphere which appears to be one of tolerance and open-mindedness and with a desire to further social change, but underneath is still full of the bullying, righteousness and shaming which it purports to reject.

I read an article just yesterday about the impact of the internet and other computer technology on our children’s brain development. The researcher, Susan Greenfield, argues that the way which the world is presented to our children online is different from the physical world, and that our children, lacking the experience in the real world, do not make the same connections as previous generations might have.

“If you’re a very young person,” Greenfield says, “and you haven’t developed, let’s say, a robust sense of identity, you haven’t got interpersonal skills, then clearly we’re going to see changes that we might not see in someone who’s older.”

Of course, this is not new, but she added something which I thought was particularly important with regards to social media. Greenfield argues that connecting with friends and family around the world is a wonderful use of social media, however, when it’s with people we don’t really know in person, the connection is not one of friendship, but rather of an audience.

“You are out to entertain and seek their approval and the danger lies then in constructing an artificial identity that’s not really you at all. […] Everything you do is done for the approval and to impress this audience, who inevitably will be vicious and nasty because they’re not constrained by face-to-face communication.”

That’s the key, isn’t it? When we don’t know people, we can shame them, we can attack them, we can demonise them, with little impact on our own consciences. Even when those people might have otherwise agreed with us, we want to seem like we’re right, we want our audience to acknowledge us, to shower us with virtual praise, sometimes to the detriment of someone else.

And when I think that perhaps that’s happening a little too often, it’s time to disconnect, and spend time in the world, and realise that the internet is a wonderful tool, but it’s certainly no substitute for reality, or people, or face-to-face discussions.


Sometimes, it’s just time to take a step back and be authentic.


9 thoughts on “Check Your Privilege.

  1. Very good post, with an all-too-true graphic, and very good points. I would offer a (to some extent) counterpoint to your logic in stepping back, though: if the problem is with a lack of authenticity on the Internet; then stepping back might expose you to more authenticity (debatable) in the non-virtual world, but it does not solve the original problem of the lack of authenticity in the virtual world. Finding a way to solve the actual problem might not only make the Internet a more rewarding place for you, it could also serve as a road map for others who are seeking the same kind of experience. Since the world seems headed deeper and deeper into a virtual experience, and since our children will be exposed to it to an increasing degree, it makes sense to find a way to bring a greater sense of authenticity to the Internet.

    Perhaps the way begins with promoting not just the concept but also the tools for critical thinking? If more people had this valuable tool at their disposal, it’s possible that much of the pony plop masquerading as valuable data would be easier to avoid. If you wind up withdrawing from the Internet for a while, this might be an interesting topic to reflect on from the more distant perspective 🙂

    • You make an excellent point about the critical thinking, and I believe that’s really at the heart of the issue. Because we’re becoming so used to the shock headlines, our gut reactions tend to override any critical analysis. Sometimes, I wonder if the way that some people express themselves in the media is simply to get others upset.

      I certainly wish there was more critical thinking, both in real life and online. It would make for far more interesting arguments (whatever your political leanings) and perhaps we might evolve into better human beings?

  2. Rebecca,

    Internet, like any potent tools, brings out the best and the worst of people. Not the fault of the tool, it merely accentuates the users behind it. Humanity can be such a love-hate relationship. Taking a step back if you must but don’t lose faith. Be authentic and not let the words throw you.

  3. To be honest, I dislike the concept that someone is automatically the privileged one, just because he happens to be born white. If someone is privileged or not is not something you make up on one factor…it’s a combination of a couple of factor.
    For example, I consider myself privileged because I am white, I grew up with two very loving parents, had a very happy childhood, had never any really serious illnesses and got a good education. I am also a woman, but compared to what other woman in other parts of the world have to deal with, I am really lucky.
    But even all this doesn’t mean I hadn’t had to deal with my share of demons. Because all those factors…they don’t guarantee that you are not the outsider in a special group of people, they don’t guarantee that you will never be judged unfairly. They might open a lot of doors for you, but they also might close some for one reason or another. It happens less than to other people, but it happens.
    Still, I have few things to complain about…but I resent the notion that the random white guy is automatically privileged while the random black woman isn’t. If random white guy grew up in a broken family, in poverty and struggled his whole life just to finish his education, than he isn’t privileged in my book. If random black woman grows up in a happy family happens to be the daughter of, let’s say, a successful lawyer who has a lot of connection and is able to help her to get every job she wants, then she is privileged, no matter what her skin colour or gender is.

    I think no matter what the topic is, every person has the right to voice an opinion about it. And you don’t have to experience whatever the topic is yourself to have an informed opinion about it. I don’t have to be gay to be pro-gay marriage. And I don’t have to be gay to say that I nevertheless don’t think that a church should be forced to change their stance on it. I would consider it great when they do, but religion is a choice. If a religion doesn’t want to change, and it doesn’t go with your belief, you don’t have to participate in it. You can simply walk away. If the state blocks gay marriage, though, it is another matter because in this case you just can’t walk away.

    As a general rule, though, I would never write anything in the internet I wouldn’t say in real life, too. I think it is a good thumb rule.

    • That is certainly a good rule of thumb, and if only more people would follow it!

      There’s certainly a place for all opinions, and room for debate for them, too. If we just dismiss other people’s arguments then we’re never going to reach any kind of consensus or understanding. So there has to be a way for both sides to listen to each other, find common ground.

      Yes, the idea that you can call someone out for their privilege when you really know nothing about their lives is also flawed. It means you either don’t have a good argument, or if you do, you’re not willing to take the time and energy to express it. Simply ticking all the boxes with regards to sexuality, race or gender doesn’t mean you’re blessed in every way, which is what ‘check your privilege’ seems, at times, to imply.

      • Sometimes it is not even about consensus. It is totally possible to have an opinion about something someone else doesn’t share, but you can understand why that is the case. Movies are a perfect example. One doesn’t have to like a movie to get why other people might.

  4. Shutting down opinions is one thing, but acknowledging privilege is more than status, money, etc. If you don’t have to think about walking down the street without being shot, you’re privileged. If you can trust the cops, you’re privileged. And people who are not privileged do get sick of being forced to listen to people’s opinions about their own experiences – which is why it’s often used. However, sometimes it is used to shut down discussion. I guess the point then would be – was the discussion in any way valuable, or was it hurting the person without white/het/cis/able-bodied privilege more? Because true allies want to help, not hurt. I see it from both sides.

    • I don’t think anyone here is arguing that privilege doesn’t exist, and acknowledging it IS important. When it first gained widespread popularity, the concept of critically considering your own background before discussing that of others was extremely helpful. It still can be – people should think of their own privilege and how that impacts their lives, how the lack thereof impacts those who don’t have that same privilege. But I think as with most memes, the fact that it’s been bandied about and to some degree, misused, means that it’s lost its effectiveness. And in doing so, it does alienate people who would otherwise have been strong allies.

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