Sometimes it feels like the world has jumped the shark. It’s 2016, and the world outside my door is starting to get stranger than the world behind my screen. Most of this year, it’s been a constant low-grade background of absurdity, but occasionally something so ridiculous happens that I have to blink and pinch myself to make sure it’s real.
A while back was one such occasion. I’d been working with a coworker for a while to put on an after hours event. The topic is unimportant; we organized the event because an external partner suggested it and offered to pay for it, and who doesn’t love free publicity?
As you might expect, a panel-discussion event, where the speakers are non-technical employees of tech companies, attracts its fair share of the absurdity we like to call cordyceps. This one was no exception. One of the panel speakers began to answer the first question by explicitly checking her privilege. Essentially, she apologized for her company’s success, before going on to tell us how this company achieved it.
This was weird, obnoxious, and not relevant at all to the discussion at hand. But it wasn’t unexpected. The unexpected part was that she did it ten more times throughout the night. In a 45 minute panel discussion. With 3 speakers. That’s an average of one privilege check every 90 seconds she spoke.
I understand the idea of privilege and I understand why she did this. After all, part of the reason we focus so much on SJWs is because we do care about these issues. But this was ridiculously excessive. I can’t even begin to imagine the mentality of someone who feels the need to pepper her speech with these catechisms.
One thing that bothers me about this attitude is that it sees everything as a privilege. This was especially obvious at our event. The entire purpose of the event was for successful people at successful companies to share what made them successful, so that the rest of us can do it too. To start the discussion by checking the privilege “of even being able to have this discussion” is absurd. It implies that the success and achievements of everyone involved are random endowments from the universe, and not hard-won achievements created through the work of the people involved. If the person speaking thusly sincerely believed what she was saying about privilege, then she would have nothing else to say. The entire discussion would go like so:
Q: How were you able to drive success at your company, and what lessons do you have to share with the audience
A: I am so unbelievably privileged to work at a company that can focus on driving success. Not every company can afford to do that.
Q: Are you saying that your company’s success is just random chance, and has nothing to do with the work you’ve invested into it?
A: I guess so. Sucks to be all y’all, working at terrible companies.
This is the insidious thing about typical discussions around social justice and privilege. It assumes, as a background fact, a complete lack of individual agency for everyone. You, as a person, with thoughts and hopes and dreams and ambitions, you didn’t build that. You were given it, randomly and unfairly, by society, by virtue of your involuntary, nonconsensual inclusion in a group that we’ve defined into existence. Because this was bestowed at random, you have no legitimate claim on it. Instead, you must grovel and apologize for receiving it. Oddly, you don’t actually have to give it up and distribute it more fairly; simply acknowledging it is sufficient to being a good person.
This is really upsetting. It’s dehumanizing. It reduces individual humans to tokens of their identity group. It’s demoralizing. It takes away your ability to achieve, to feel proud about what you’ve done. It’s a depressing outlook on life.
If you saw me walking down the street, you might think “there goes another rich privileged yuppie”. You’d be wrong. I haven’t had even a tenth as many opportunities, gifts, privileges, as the people lobbing accusations. No, I’ve overcome adversity (real adversity, not college-admission fodder), bettered myself, and become an expert in what I do. I’ve worked hard, achieved well for myself, and I don’t apologize for this. Of course I’ve had my share of luck, people along the way that helped me out. Of course I have the ‘privilege’ of being born here, and not in the third world. But to take these small, specific elements of my experience and reduce it to “everything you have is an unearned privilege” is offensive. It’s disgusting.
I have to wonder, how can people who think this way manage their day to day? If you’re going through life, feeling like none of your accomplishments are your own, how could you do anything at all without feeling like a failure? Like you can’t achieve anything, because your achievements are not you own? I have no charitable ways of understanding that mentality.
Maybe Moldbug was right, and this is just Christian guilt, rebranded. Given my religious upbringing, this seems plausible to me. There’s a definite parallel between the religious, almost cult-like language this speaker was using, and various pastors I’ve heard throughout the ages.
Regardless of its origin, I reject this line of reasoning as toxic. It’s important to take pride in one’s work. To want to get better. To want to achieve goals. It’s how we get things done. It’s alarming to me that a contrary attitude is taking hold in my industry, one that says “all of this is arbitrary and random, you have no right to feel pride or ownership over your accomplishments, and you owe a debt to everyone else who haven’t worked as hard as you.” When nobody takes pride in their work, their work quickly becomes unworthy of pride. When the reward for hard work is more work, and the reward for slacking is handouts, hard work stops getting done.
Maybe the speaker and her friends and coworkers really are privileged. Maybe they had a wealthy upbringing. Maybe they got scholarships to the Ivy League. Maybe their jobs are sinecures. But some of us, many of us even, got where we were through hard work and sacrifice, and it’s not fair or reasonable to paint all of us with that same repressed-guilt paintbrush. My career, my accomplishments, my possessions, my home, my life, these aren’t privileges. I wasn’t given any of these. I made them.
So check your privilege, if you have to. I checked mine. It’s still not there. My achievements, on the other hand? Right where I left them.