Author’s note: This is very TL;DR. Grab a chair and a drink and get comfortable.
Privilege exists in this country. There are people who wear fancy suits, nice boots, and black dresses who are given immunity for heinous crimes no one else would get away with. They pass laws restricting commerce between individuals and rape and pillage the people in the streets; their friends in the financial industry regularly launder money to drug cartels and get away with it while kids in Florida get arrested for measly Bitcoin transactions. The elected and unelected government comprises the most privileged class in the US—not even the entertainment class can escape their clutches.
Lately, the topic of privilege checking keeps coming up in discussions between libertarians, and the focus is being shifted from the obviously privileged classes to those stuck under its thumb who may have made some gains financially because they were astute with their investments or for other reasons. The financial rewards reaped by the small amount of people who invested in Bitcoin are laughably negligible to the gains made by any major bank or any government agency—in fact it is extremely hard to take claims that the Bitcoin space is one of privilege seriously as it is also stroppy to suggest that there is a place for this theory in the greater libertarian thought movement.
Many others have made excellent points about this ongoing debate, so I figured I would throw in my two bit. I first want to define the terms involved and evaluate the history of where this concept comes from. Privilege simply means receiving special favor or rights from an authority figure that others are not privy to. Libertarians would focus on the extra rights granted to people by the state while progressives look at it from a social, interpersonal context—the rich guy who inherited his money is more privileged than the working class man. It is hard to argue that privilege, either from government or society, doesn’t exist on many levels. There is a distinction between privilege and privilege checking, which is marketed to be a way to somehow decrease the influence of privilege in a social setting. The proposed solution to the inequalities is that those privileged “check” it—which means a variety of things depending on who you ask, but is actually a flaccid solution to real systemic problems especially when compared to tactics like direct action.
Where Does Privilege Checking Come From?
Privilege checking, though apparently new to some libertarians, is a fairly old idea that comes from the academic left. Libertarians just need to adopt the marketing techniques of the left to be successful, and that includes using the language and terminology rooted in Marxism, some argue. I would point out that while these techniques have no doubt been successful, they rarely offer solutions and have a deceptive foundation. Fashionably injecting elements of critical theory in order to make the philosophy of libertarianism more palatable for the masses has been espoused by some semi-prominent libertarians. What is critical theory? Again we must define terms before throwing them out as a critique or supplementary to an argument. Critical theory, according to Wikipedia, is
“…a school of thought that stresses the reflective assessment and critique of society and culture by applying knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities. As a term, critical theory has two meanings with different origins and histories: the first originated in sociology and the second originated in literary criticism, whereby it is used and applied as an umbrella term that can describe a theory founded upon critique; thus, the theorist Max Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.””
Alright, I think most people can agree that any ideology should be challenged as a way to prove its validity. Libertarianism, anarchism, statism, and any other ideology should be held up to rigorous criticism, but while critical theory offers criticism as a way to be the “gadfly of ideologies” it doesn’t offer alternatives or solutions to the theories it critiques. I also reject its premise that ideology is the principal obstacle to human liberation. Internally, we do erect barriers in our mind that keep us from self-actualization, but let’s face it those restrictive barriers are not the same as the bars on a prison cell. While the person behind throwing you in that rape cage is backed up by an ideology of statism, it is the physical act of imprisonment that is the principle obstacle in your freedom when caged. It must also partly be physical actions that stand in opposition to certain ideologies being used to actually free people. The intellectually struggle is but one part of the battle for liberation.
So-called “thin” libertarians are criticized for knee jerk accusations of Marxism towards their more socially focused counterparts. I’m not saying people shouldn’t have preferences for what they focus on to promote certain ideas; in libertarianism there is a divide between the more economically/market focused side and the focus on social issues. There’s also a large portion who are somewhere in between, but the more vocal arguments come from right leaning “propertarians” and left leaning “social awareness” advocates. Both sides maintain that their approach is the morally correct one and also the practical way to reach more people. I don’t identify as a right or left libertarian, but can recognize that the introduction of certain ideas is in opposition to libertarian principles.
The Historical Roots of Critical Theory
It is unwise to outright dismiss a theory based on its origins, but it is important to realize the historical roots of these concepts. Critical theory is rooted in Marxist philosophy, and as a panarchist I accept that some people might want to live in a society based on Marxist ideology. I do not find it compatible with libertarianism though. As a former socialist, I find it almost dreadful that these ideas are being forced into libertarianism when libertarianism was initially a breath of fresh air from the leftist politics I participated in.
Historically, some of the most privileged people have developed this philosophy that seeks to balance the inequalities on the social side. Critical theory was established primarily by five Frankfurt School theoreticians: Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Erich Fromm. These philosophers were far from the struggling proletarian class lamented over by Marxist theorists; they were in fact part of the much derided bourgeoisie. Though some critical theorists reject certain Marxist ideas, Adorno and Horkheimer specifically advocated the replacement of free markets and private property with centralized planning and collectively owned means of production—and they sought to do this through the implementation of critical theory into society and state structures.
While it still may be knee jerk to dismiss critical theory as some Marxist plot, you cannot deny its origins in Marxist philosophy nor can one deny that the main theorists overwhelmingly supported state intervention in markets to correct inequalities. Likewise, academics today predominantly lean further left than your average working class and middle class people—ironically the very people they hope to liberate through application of critical theory and advocating state socialism and whom overwhelmingly benefit from freed markets. These are the very people pushing critical theory on young minds and encouraging a near cousin to the philosophy: privilege checking.
Privilege Checking in Regard to Critical Theory
Privilege checking is derived from critical theory as it seeks to challenge notions of privilege among the general populace. You also see it in feminist theory and other similar schools of thought that have their roots in critical theory. Government officials and police aside, the academic class is significantly more privileged than just about any other one—yet they are able to use this philosophy to further divide those of lower socioeconomic status. Curiously absent from this prescription is that we resist those on the highest realm of the privilege ladder—government. The left, especially academia, views government as the solution to rectifying inequality not the source of it. By shifting the focus away from actual oppressors, the left has been successful in dividing people into groups based on physical and sexual characteristics, ranking them, and sitting back in their armchairs while the proles fight amongst themselves. Paradoxically and perhaps unintentionally, leftist academics encourage class warfare through the implementation of these ideas.
Instead of focusing on who has the greatest ability to oppress others—the state—privilege checking advocates redirect the attention to societal inequalities and horizontal violence. While violence among people outside of the predominant power structure has always been an issue, privilege checking feeds state oppression even further by dividing people among lines of class, race, gender, and sexual orientation. By keeping people divided and bickering, the state is able to maintain strong economic and social control over the lives of people. While I don’t believe the academic class promoting these ideas are involved in a greater conspiracy; they are, to use another Marxist term, useful idiots as they excel in keeping students distracted from the actual oppressors.
Why some libertarians want to bring this idea into their philosophy is strange considering they have the correct prescription to ending widespread oppression—lessen the power of the main institution that perpetuates it. I have yet to see deeply help notions of racism, sexism, and bigotry among libertarians nor do I see these ideas encouraged. I have seen quite the opposite, actually, and while there no doubt exists bigoted libertarians you are going to see bigots in any movement. Statistically speaking, consistent libertarians make up around 7% of the population whereas those who identify as progressive, conservative, or moderate make up much larger percentages. If anything, it would be more accurate to say there are more racists, etc. among progressives simply because there are a greater number of people involved. The main difference between progressives and libertarians in regard to dealing with regressive social behaviors is that one seeks to use the violence of the state to discourage bad behavior and one seeks social solutions like disassociation and other non-coercive solutions. One seeks to silent offensive speech while the other realizes that upholding free speech–no matter how unpopular—is necessary for a free society. I would also say conservatives fall into a similar categorization.
Privilege Checking is Classist and Ineffective
I made the strong claim that this kind of thinking encourages class warfare, and indeed it does. Privilege checking creates an environment where the black, female, upper class college student can outrank and silence the white, male, working class college drop out. These policies are being actively encouraged by college campuses. If you re-center the focus on individualism, we can evaluate both equally on their merits and character. The focus on tolerance and judgment of character is a familiar tenet of the civil rights movement, which succeeded in being more progressive-minded without bringing in nebulous terminology and practices.
Silencing speech is a tool used that allows a privilege checker to pat themselves on the back as if they are actually doing something to end oppression; even worse it assumes that based on arbitrary physical characteristics that one person is more oppressed than another without taking the extra effort to actually find out. How can you know who is more oppressed without actually getting to know someone on an individual level? Is it not racist to assume that the color of one’s skin makes them part of an oppressive group? Why should we be content with demanding some step down instead of encouraging others to stand up? Privilege checking claims that you are doing a noble service to the disenfranchised by “relinquishing your power,” but you are not addressing any of the systemic reasons why people are oppressed in the first place—namely that there is an institution built on racism and bigotry that seeks its own self-preservation while hoping you don’t notice its true nature. And furthermore that “power” an individual can possess is limited in the scope of what the state can do to that person if in violation of some ridiculous law; compared to the state the individual has very little power. Choosing to not go to a location because you are aware that you live a comfortable life (as most Americans do in the aggregate, regardless of physical characteristics) is impotent compared to teaching people skills they can use to succeed in life.
Let’s look at an example: you are planning to go to a city council meeting to speak about the unjust homeless ordinances being proposed. You are aware that these ordinances will harm homeless people, but if you follow Mia McKenzie’s advice, realizing that you have the resources to make it to a meeting is a sign of privilege and since the homeless can’t go you decide not to. You get a gold star for checking your privilege! Go you, give yourself a high five!
Another example would be that you are in a public forum, say, at a protest against those same homeless ordinances. There are homeless people there asking for food and help; you realize that as a participant you are privileged to be there and instead of being a speaker, you hand a homeless person a mic and encourage them to speak. The person needs food and shelter, not someone to step down and let them speak because they feel guilty about their position and want to feel better about themselves. Direct action gets the goods, not puny half-hearted attempts at pretending to rectify some perceived inequality. If a person needs food, you give them food, not a podium.
Action doesn’t have to be limited to local interactions, either. If a village is destroyed by a drone strike, start a fundraiser or go there and help rebuild; don’t act like giving your Muslim friend space to talk in anyway addresses the problem. You don’t get a gold star for doing literally the least you can do to “help” someone. It speaks volumes of our North American privilege when we live in a country where privilege checking is seriously taken as a form of activism and prescription for social inequality. People in less free countries have to worry daily about whether or not they will be killed by sky robots while people here circle jerk about how many times they’ve checked their privilege. It is only through being excessively privileged that one can advocate the philosophy of privilege checking.
The privilege checking meme is a misunderstood one; it requests we evaluate our position in respect to others around us and quietly acquiesce to certain demands of oppressed groups. I’ve personally been told by one of the advocates of this aging and divisive philosophy that I need to step down and be silent when a member of a minority group has something to say. I found it puzzling as I am very keen to hear what anyone has to say and by nature am not one who talks over anyone regardless of their ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. A large part of the backlash against this idea among libertarians is that while many of them uphold the right to be brutish in speech, very few of them are actually racist/sexist/bigoted. I also differentiate between jokes made in poor taste and actual racist tendencies; they are not one in the same and to say they are denigrates the experiences of people who have been subjected to actual racism. Libertarians are not angry because they are racist; they are angry because they are not but are being accused of it by those they should view as comrades in the struggle to create a freer society.
I come from the left, and I don’t mean I used to be a democrat. I used to be a socialist. I have experienced privilege checking taken to its logical conclusion unlike the libertarians who for some reason think it is a good idea to supplement libertarian philosophy. I was close friends and engaged in a group that regularly advocated privilege checking as a way to rank input in the conversation. We are all oppressed by government and while many laws unjustly target certain groups we are nearer in equality to each other than politicians and academics.
Horizontal Violence is Perpetuated by Privilege Checking
Leftists don’t even realize they are engaging in horizontal put downs that keep the actual privileged in power; it is easier to keep a population controlled by encouraging that they fight amongst themselves. Instead of realizing who is our natural enemy, attention is redirected to those with the wrong skin color or gender and they are then told that despite their experiences and knowledge, they can’t possibly empathize with those who don’t share similar physical characteristics–this is subtly racist/sexist. In my personal experiences with leftists, I met a few actual racists. By racists, I mean people who believed that those with less melanin are genetically inferior. Some call this reverse racism, and many claim it doesn’t exist. But, it is simply your run of the mill racism if you go by the simplest definition. Some go so far as to say a black person can never oppress a white one—tell that to victims of police brutality or TSA molestations. Should I “check my privilege” because the boot on my neck is worn by a black man?
Context is thrown out the window by the most rabid privilege checkers, and that libertarians are trying to bring it in is even stranger considering their small numbers. Infighting occurs in every group, and adding divisive philosophy even further splinters an already tiny, splintered group. You already have strict individualism which will foster less collective approaches to problem solving and in many ways that is a good thing. But it also means less cooperation and if you add privilege checking to the mix it exacerbates the problem. I don’t see how libertarians can think they will be taken seriously on the broader level with so many internal inconsistencies and a growing faction that is advocating incorporation of intentionally divisive philosophy. Even more radical anarchists recognize that privilege checking is incoherent, ineffectual, and a distraction to larger problems.
Libertarians are bad at adopting Marxist rhetoric and should feel bad
Changing the definitions of words is a favored tactic by leftists and also comes from Marxist dialectical traditions—they are correct in thinking that manipulating what words mean can influence culture. Their tactics have worked, too, but effectiveness is not a substitute for principle. Racism is not power plus prejudice any more than murder is power plus killing. If you apply this thinking to any other undesirable belief or action it quickly falls apart. It seems philosophers have been replaced by marketers and libertarians are being encouraged to compromise on some unpopular positions because it makes the philosophy more sellable. If that is not the epitome of a tactic derived from state capitalism, I don’t know what is. If principles are unsound they must be stricken down; how unfortunate it is that some of the solid principles of libertarianism (specifically the appreciation for the self-determination of the individual) are being attacked from within by people who lack an understanding of the philosophies they are attempting to sell out to.
It appears some younger libertarians have been influenced by ideas like critical theory and privilege checking without regarding their historical roots, the failure of them to create a more equitable society, or the logical consequences of the theories. That’s not to say there is nothing to learn from critical theory, but I don’t pretend that privilege checking is in any way a meaningful approach to ending systemic oppression. If anything, it uses what we have been taught by the most privileged classes and pits us against one another. There is no solidarity in ranking people consciously or subconsciously based on physical traits; there are other terms for that behavior like racism, sexism, and bigotry. In their attempt to create a rainbow filled Harrison Bergeron-esque utopia, proponents of privilege checking focus on their fellow oppressed individuals instead of counteracting the actual perpetrators of backwards social mores.
Action Trumps Pandering
You can be compassionate without bringing in the toxic idea of privilege checking. It’s called actually doing something to help people held down by the boot of the state. When I hear a libertarian saying I need to check my privilege, I have to laugh as the only ones I’ve ever seen actually saying this are white, upwardly mobile young professionals—none of which I’ve witnessed doing any real work to help the oppressed. Leftists propagating the idea are also overwhelmingly white and privileged, and you see the practice most often employed at the university level—an environment that is prohibitively expensive for all young people, especially those in the working class. I had to drop out of college because I was working to support myself and could not afford the insane tuition rates and other fees even with a scholarship and refused to go into debt for classes that would not benefit me in the long term whatsoever. I have yet to be able to afford to go back, but have been privileged enough to cut my teeth on self-education and experience in a variety of activism.
Not one of these privilege checking people who I’ve talked to are engaged in direct action tactics that strike at the root of the problem, and in other articles I’ve written discussing Bitcoin and privilege, I received tons of positive feedback from those who would be categorized as unprivileged. I’ve also spoken with several temporary campers—and get this—homeless people want to be seen as human beings and equals NOT given special privileges or rescued by white saviors. They want to be listened to not reminded of their unfortunate lot in life. While I’m sure privilege checkers have the very best of intentions, so did many others whose philosophies logically concluded to horrible crimes against humanity. As a former socialist; this rings especially true—I have yet to meet a Marxist with evil intentions, but their own philosophy inevitably leads to a consolidation of power that is usually always destructive on a massive scale.
Privilege Checking is Racist
For the same reasons KONY 2012 was lacking perspective and unintentionally racist, privilege checking offers false hope in the meaningless motions of upper middle class, college indoctrinated whites.
The mere act of saying someone is part of an oppressed group can do untold psychological damage to them, as well, and this may even make privilege checking more nefarious than useless. We have legal precedent and scientific experiments that show the harm caused by separating people by race and gender and growing up in an environment that perpetuates ideas of inequality. Centuries of racism has led many black people to believe they are inferior to whites in this country, so why are universities pushing this idea that they are still inferior to whites and the way to rectify this is to acknowledge that and accept that white people stepping down and allowing them to have a voice is some kind of solution? Do people see how condescending that is when someone is deemed inferior and a white person graciously “checks their privilege” instead of doing anything meaningful? That kind of gentle racism really is something else.
Really think about this: privilege checking is a way to perpetuate racism through patronizing—black folks need us white people to give them permission to speak. Why not instead teach all oppressed people to stand up and take their power back; to not ask permission to speak but to assert their right to speech? If you see a black person being beaten by the police, get out of your car and film that shit, don’t just bitch on your Tumblr about how racist cops are. Again, while I’m sure the intentions are pure, there is a lack of awareness about how condescending whites come across when they say checking your privilege does anything to address the racism deeply embedded in our government and social structure.
These aren’t the ponderings of a privileged white girl unfamiliar with privilege checking either; my position is influenced by countless discussions and interactions with people who fall into “less privileged” classifications—it is them who find the very idea of privilege checking extremely offensive. I am not speaking about just libertarians, either.
Privilege Checking is Sexist
Get this, I used to identify as a left feminist too. You see a lot of overlap with feminist theory, critical theory, and privilege checking. The premise of feminism, that we live in a patriarchal society, in many ways feeds into psychological inferiority. You can never succeed in this male dominated world because you are an oppressed woman, and all men are the oppressors—at least according to radical feminists. But, surely it isn’t all men, merely the ones benefitted by state privilege. I don’t put a cop in the same category as some random dude walking by me. The real patriarchy exists at the corporate government levels and feminism has been successful at diverting attention away from these power structures and to those outside of them.
Before the cries of “straw feminism” come hither, I’d like to emphasize that this mindset can facilitate a victimhood complex that I’ve not only seen demonstrated by feminists but have experienced myself. When you have an enemy in your fellow man, it is easy to focus on the micro rather than the macro; indeed this is where the preposterous concept of “microaggressions” comes from. Again, it bolsters the power of the state when we shift the focus to other individuals that are at a similar power level.
A woman shouldn’t be given special privileges to speak over a man if her ideas are harmful or insane. By saying men should step down so that women can speak ignores the individual behind the vagina; we are once again defined by our sexual organs not the merit of our arguments or positions. I don’t want to be elevated because I was born with the XX chromosome, and I’m not oppressed because of it. That is so insulting–I am not a victim of the patriarchy; I am a survivor of the state. You don’t have to identify as a feminist to be an anarchist or libertarian, and contextually women are sometimes in a more privileged position than men. There is a reason not all women identify as feminist and I believe it is because it is largely demeaning and vagina-centric while real concerns are downplayed. Privilege checking dictates that because of my gender I am automatically disprivileged, but I’m not and neither are most women in this country. The concerns of American feminists and privilege checkers are largely first world ones, and neither philosophy helps women excel in less privileged countries. The solution to gender inequity is not to let some arbitrary woman speak because she is a woman, but to empower women through education and skill set building so that they can pave their own path to self-determination.
Privilege Checking is Bigoted
I have several friends in the LGBTQ community and guess what? They also want to be seen as individuals not merely defined by their sexual orientation. In the same way that not all women are the same, neither are all people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer. While there is more of a tendency to lean left politically, even that varies among individuals. To elevate a person based on their sexual identity is as bad as focusing on someone’s race or gender. People are human beings first and want to be applauded for their achievements not what preferences they were born with. How rude would it be to introduce your friend as Dan, your “gay friend”? If you wouldn’t do that in casual conversation without their consent, why do people want to do that on the academic level? Talk about tactless! “Step aside cis-gendered whitey, this gay person must be given priority to speak because they are gay.” Yes, let’s draw attention to something that may not necessarily be what someone wants to be defined by because that’s a super enlightened thing to do.
I have another idea; how about we treat people how we want to be treated and instead of assuming that those with heteronormative preferences are automatically oppressors, we get to know them and those who identify as LGBTQ so we can evaluate them as humans outside their sexual identifications?
Privilege Checking is Anti-Human
The quote from Malcolm X rings true, “Who taught you to hate yourself?” Privilege checking teaches those with skin color, etc. “privilege” to hate their characteristics while simultaneously suggesting that those with other characteristics are so oppressed they need the help of others to succeed. Perhaps the most ironic part about privilege checking is that it even goes against the principles of far leftists from the civil rights era; it is itself prejudiced.
The initial realization came to me a few years ago as I was participating in a discussion with a group keen on making sure I knew my place as a privileged white woman. I was frequently the butt of jokes about my white privilege card, but I took it in stride because I believed them and have a pretty thick skin when it comes to jokes. We had just finished watching an emotional documentary on how blacks have been oppressed in this country (most of the examples were the state being the main destructive force) and my friend Jack*, a fellow sensitive young poet who was possibly the least racist person I knew, lamented, “I am ashamed that I was born white.” This was said with sadness and followed with a thoughtful, downward looking gaze. Instead of a gentle nod of understanding, our hosts beamed with glee, and congratulated him on hating his skin. Our hosts—black poets who had suffered discrimination were well familiar with Malcolm’s works, strident socialists, supposed activists for equality—were giddy that they were able to elicit a response of shame from a person younger than them over an uncontrollable physical characteristic. I was appalled even then when I believed that reverse racism didn’t exist and checked my privilege daily. Was this not the very thing Malcolm was talking about?
If the modus operandi of privilege checking were reversed, its intolerant overtones would be crystal clear—and that is the test of whether a philosophy is coherent. I am not against the idea of privilege checking because I am a “vulgar” libertarian, or a brutalist, or whatever the term is now for people who question this philosophy being awkwardly pushed by left libertarians. I am against it because it is racist, sexist, bigoted, and teaches people that they are no more than their physical characteristics and that alone allows them to be ranked in importance. I believe we are all unique individuals with differing experiences that shape our opinions and that those experiences should be given weight in a discussion about privilege. All people deserve a chance to be heard, and that’s called being a decent human being—you don’t have to “check your privilege” to do it. People who say you do obviously miss that there are numerous other ways to address inequality that actually work.
I believe we should lift people up, not tell others to sit down, and that through direct action not insipid back patting we can address the needs of the disprivileged. I also believe that those we claim to have less privilege are not as helpless as they are made out to be by elitist privilege checking advocates; that they are strong, intelligent, and capable of self-determination that doesn’t need the insulting pandering of people who cannot possibly understand their experiences. Privilege checking reeks of crab mentality and doesn’t lead to more equitable interactions between people; it does the exact opposite by punishing those unfortunate to be born a certain way. I implore people to look more deeply into privilege checking as it is both ineffective and straight up offensive to thinking people and those who wish to rectify the inequalities caused by the state. Looking at privilege through a lens of power—not uncontrollable physical characteristics—provides the clearest picture for how to deal with subjugation; and in most cases you’ll find that it is the person with the power of the state that is in the truly privileged position.
*Name changed for privacy.