Debate Over “Privilege” at Princeton!
May 3, 2014
Below is a link to an article from the NY Times about some guy at Princeton University who, apparently, “ignited” a debate over “privilege” because he wrote an essay objecting to someone else who, allegedly, told him to “check his privilege.” He seemed to take this as the ultimate put down, leading him to describe his family’s history going back at least as far as World War II.
Now, to me, this is weird for a couple of reasons. First, why was Tal Fortgang so riled by being told to check his privilege? I mean, is his ego so fragile that this “request” rattled it significantly? I know or read that he is not from Jersey, but he is in Jersey, where put downs are far more brutal than this. I don’t know what New Rochelle, N.Y. is like but I guess it doesn’t help young people develop thick skins.
But, of course, Mr. Fortgang isn’t really in “Jersey,” is he? He is attending Princeton University, one of the most elite universities in the nation, to say nothing of what it is in New Jersey. There is something almost inexplicable about saying that there is or even could be a debate over “privilege” at Princeton, at least such a debate where someone was participating who could be said not to be enjoying the privilege of a Princeton education. Why should anyone take this particular debate seriously? It would be a lot like taking seriously a debate over torture between Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Not much of a debate.
After I retired from Assumption College, a small, allegedly liberal arts Catholic college in Worcester, Mass., I did a “part-time” gig at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Mass., which is part of the Massachusetts state university system. I had been at Assumption for 21 years and was aware that when I left the students were no longer part of the same socio-economic class as when I started. But it was my experience at Bridgewater that brought home to me just how different, how “elitist,” Assumption and its students had become between 1989 and 2010. This is, I suspect, OK but I wondered if I was witnessing what in fact was happening throughout our society, a “segregation” of citizens into two distinct classes whose interaction is, to say the least, limited and whose experiences are as different as night and day.
If we are going to have a “debate” over “privilege” then it needs to be a real debate, not a debate among the privileged over who, within their ranks, are “privileged” and who are not. If Mr. Fortgang wants to think he is not “privileged,” and that others should not tell him to “check his privilege,” he is free to think that way. But that doesn’t change the fact that so long as he has the privilege of a Princeton education, this privilege distinguishes him from a great many others who never even had a chance of enjoying this or other privileges Tal Fortgang has enjoyed and will enjoy. Rather than “checking his privilege,” I would recommend that Mr. Fortgang “check his [alleged] outrage” at being, as he put it, spoken down to.