A student came to me with a dilemma: I had just given a presentation about being a conservative in academia, and she and a few others gathered after the talk to ask my advice.
“What do I say,” she began, “when I start talking about political issues and people tell me I can’t join in because of my ‘white privilege’?” She was genuinely uncertain, and showed not the slightest hostility toward the people who shut her down. She was dismayed, not angry.
I looked at her and said, “Next time, you face them down and speak the truth: ‘So, then, it’s war.’” She blinked. The others stayed quiet but their eyes widened. Clearly, this was an answer they didn’t expect.
“Look,” I continued, “when someone tells you that you can’t speak about an important subject because of the color of your skin, civility is over.”
The uneasiness lingered and I couldn’t fault them. These were conservative and libertarian kids, thoughtful and well-mannered. They believe in America, in pluralism, in fairness. They trust the norms of civic engagement. They assume the good faith of those who disagree with them.
Which means they don’t know how to respond to people who assail them in this way. They can defend against a physical attack. They have firm rejoinders when leftists recite the evils of capitalism, patriarchy, racial inequality, and U.S. imperialism. They’re tough with ideas and facts.
But the “privilege” point stumps them. I’ve seen it happen (and among adults, too). When a peer on the left, especially one who claims a historically disadvantaged status, tells them that they are the problem and need to be quiet, they hesitate and dither. They would never say that to anyone else, and they can’t understand why anyone would say it to them.
They thought the battle of right versus left was a discursive one, and now, they find it a personal one—and they’ve already lost before the debate begins.
Young leftists have caught young rightists off-guard with this privilege putdown, which leaves the latter pausing to examine themselves while the accusers proceed to political points and demands.
When it happens, you can almost hear the words tumbling through the white conservative/libertarian’s head: “Wait, what?—my privilege—huh?—I’ve been working my tail off since age 15—my parents are screwy—I’m slipping in organic chemistry …” It’s easy for them to conclude, “Well, I’m not the one getting affirmative action,” though they never mutter it out loud.
Meanwhile, the ones who level the charge savor their temporary power. To silence a rival is intoxicating, in this case, particularly so. Consider the extraordinary turnabout that takes place when a female of color tells a white male that his privilege muzzles him.
Usually, a person loses the right to speak because he is uninformed, rude, confused … This time, however, it is his very advantage that squelches him. His white privilege has granted him (supposedly) a better education, wider experience, more opportunities to learn and travel and enjoy life—and that puts him at the bottom of the ladder of moral authority. Behold Nietzsche’s morality-of-the-weak in action.
One wonders how long that will work. Two years from now, I predict, we won’t hear it. The privilege putdown will disappear as soon as young conservatives wise up to its aggressive nature. It will go the way of “Don’t be a square” and “The War on Women.”
When young conservatives refuse to shut up, when they reject the whole framework of group status and proclaim themselves individuals first, and not stereotypes, young leftists will have no comeback. It’s a cheap rhetorical move, and they know it.
Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University and senior editor at First Things magazine.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.