Fortgang’s is only the latest in a string of “privilege” controversies. Some, like his, have involved young adults with no prior notoriety writing tone-deaf items that ended up reaching the large audiences social media makes possible. Others, meanwhile, have dealt with the more famous: Advice columnist Dan Savage, with his “cisgender, able-bodied, thin privileged, class privileged, white male body,” comes to mind, as does fashion prodigy Tavi Gevinson, whose middle-class Midwestern childhood wasn’t scrappy enough for some Jezebel commenters. But the prime example has to be Lena Dunham who, though not all that privileged by show-business standards, has become our cultural stand-in for the phenomenon.
Even President Obama had his moment in the privilege limelight, when Rick Perry announced that Obama “grew up in a privileged way.” As this suggests, to stand accused of privilege, one need not actually possess the form of privilege in question. To call someone “privileged” is to say that his or her successes are undeserved. It’s a personal insult posing as social critique.
Fortgang, then, was right that “privilege” is a problem, but wrong about why. (He was also wrong about it being an argument specific to the left—see Charles Murray and the “bubble” quiz, or Ross Douthat's recent column about college debauchery.) Yes, Fortgang comes across as oblivious, as college freshman used to do more discreetly, before student op-eds went viral. And yes, privilege theory—that is, the term as applied to society, not individuals—is quite useful. All things equal, the rich, white, male, and so forth have it easier than others, and do well to remember this. But has “check your privilege” educated Fortgang, or anyone else?
Use of the term “privilege” has, I’d argue, actually set back the cultural conversation about privilege. It's not just that “privilege,” when used as an accusation, silences. It’s also that it’s made cluelessness a greater crime than inequality. These ubiquitous expressions—“check your privilege” or “your privilege is showing”—ask the accused to own up to privilege, not to do anything about it. There may be a vague, implied hope that privilege checking will lead to efforts to remedy some injustice, but the more direct concern is not coming across as entitled, not offending anyone underprivileged who theoretically might be (but almost certainly isn’t) in the room. Thus we've arrived at “blessed,” but also the “first-world problems” disclaimer. The goal of both is to appear self-aware and grateful, rather than to challenge the unfairness that led to whichever unearned advantage.
Those unfamiliar with these phrases might imagine that “check your privilege” is how women or people of color, say, might speak up about the sort of injustices that can be invisible to out-group members. As in, that the expression would express a genuine, personal sense of injustice, and would precede an explanation of a particular concern that simply wouldn’t have occurred to even a well-meaning outsider. That can happen, and in such cases, it has the potential to be useful. But more typically, it’s a way for someone privileged to play self-appointed spokesperson for the marginalized, so as to win a sensitivity competition with others similarly aloof.