The Politics of Privilege Checking and the Art of Imagining Complexly

SFL Staff

The Freeman’s Arena recently shared a debate poll asking if libertarians should be more concerned with issues of class and privilege or if they should remain focused on individual rights. As I write this, only 23 percent sided with the former. I think these results are a testament to the general revulsion libertarians have against the rhetoric of privilege checking rather than an indication that they don’t care about racism, homophobia, sexism, and so forth. Many libertarians believe institutional discrimination surrounding these issues is still a significant problem in today’s world, myself included. For example, nearly all young libertarians seem to agree that the War on Drugs disproportionately hurts young, poor African Americans.

It is universally accepted that individuals experience different advantages and disadvantages in life due to factors outside of their control. Even opponents of “check your privilege” rhetoric agree that reminding ourselves of this fact can be helpful in keeping our biases in check and increasing the empathy we have for our fellow human beings. As David Foster Wallace once said, we would all be a lot better off if we could “keep from going through our comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult lives dead, unconscious, slaves to our heads and to our natural default settings of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”

Indeed, by gaining a deeper understanding of how others live and think, we add rich and beautiful complexity to our own lives. Thus, it is a worthy goal to try to encourage others to be more mindful of lifestyles and experiences different from their own not only to make them aware of injustice, but also because it will probably make their own lives more fulfilling. However, simply telling people to do so and citing statistics is highly ineffective. Flippantly telling people to check their privilege signals to them that they are being criticized and blamed for factors that are not their fault, even if that is not the intention. Due to the shaky ideologies of the people who first adopted the phrase and the unconstructive usage that made it popular, privilege terminology carries too much baggage to be the least bit compelling to libertarians.

This approach also falls flat because it is entirely focused on that which is overtly political and ideological. Politics and ideology are incapable of helping us imagine others complexly; that is the job of art. Politics succeeds in soliciting compliance, while art succeeds in calling people to action. Politics is good at telling us what we want to hear, while art is good at smacking us in the face with the realities that are hardest to acknowledge. Politics is overflowing with mind-numbing abstractions, while art is raw with emotive examples. Politics creates distance between people by categorizing and pointing out differences, while art creates empathy by contextualizing and appealing to our common humanity- our individuality.

For better or for worse, art has done far more to bring about social change than has pontificating.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin fueled abolitionism, Will and Grace and Angels in America helped make us less homophobic, Orange is the New Black gave us a better understanding of trans people,Walden by Thoreau and “Imagine” by Lennon made us yearn for peace and simplicity, Things Fall Apart made our hearts ache for people a world and lifetime away, and Anne Frank reminded us that children are much smarter than we often give them credit for and gave a face to a genocide.

What is most precious about human freedom is our ability to exercise control over how we construct meaning by choosing how and what we think about. Art beckons us to use our attention and awareness and discipline to “truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day,” in the words of David Foster Wallace. Let’s stop telling people to check their privilege and instead act upon the literature, film, television, and music that inspires us. Let’s imagine people complexly through thousands of little acts of kindness and conscious defiance. That is, in fact, the only way injustice has ever been overcome.