Szuhaj: Hanlon's Razor

by Ben Szuhaj | 5/4/16 5:30pm

“Check your privilege,” is a phrase you’ve probably heard recently. Perhaps it’s been said to you, or maybe you’ve used it yourself. In essence, it is a reminder — typically directed at white, straight, financially well-off men — to be aware of the advantages they have been granted since birth. But, in addition to serving as a reminder, it also implies that because of those characteristics, a person of privilege is less able to speak about issues of race, class or gender inequity because he simply does not fit the bill of a person who might have combated one or more of those inequalities first-hand.

Asking someone to check their privilege does not assume that a rich white man, for example, is also a racist. Rather, “check your privilege” implies ignorance: the man of privilege is at least partially unaware of the struggles faced by those different from himself. In this way, “check your privilege” is remarkably similar to the aphorism, “Hanlon’s Razor.”

In philosophy, a razor is a rule of thumb used to “shave-off” unlikely explanations and draw conclusions. Hanlon’s Razor proclaims that one should, “never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Similarly, “check your privilege,” assumes a level of incompetence or ignorance when it comes to understanding systemic inequality from the perspective of the privileged. The phrase doesn’t accuse the privileged of the malice of racism, and instead blames their thoughts and behaviors on the “stupidity” of lacking first-hand experience.

Philosophical razors are used to “shave-off” unlikely explanations, but, more importantly, they serve to draw conclusions. They seek to end debates or discussions. This is exactly the case with “check your privilege.” There is no way to argue against it. It isn’t necessarily an insult — in many ways, it could be perceived as a compliment. Rather, it functions to invalidate the viewpoint of the person it is aimed at. Once said, it disallows any sort of rebuttal from the accused. However, even though someone went to a cushy New England boarding school, he may still be allowed to discuss issues of race and gender!

I do not, in any way, claim that this phrase is some sort of “reverse racism.” To me, the very concept of reverse racism is ludicrous because even the most egregious of perceived slights comes nowhere near equalling the appalling history of oppression faced by a variety of minority groups — especially black Americans — in this country. That being said, as a society increasingly more aware of systemic inequality and perceived slights, we must be receptive to constructive dispute, rather than removing others from conversations because of perceived offense. Rarely are there easy answers to questions around race, class and gender.

Take, for example, the proposed renaming of buildings on various college campuses. I believe that Yale University should rename Calhoun College because John C. Calhoun, in addition to being a fervent racist, fought vehemently in the defense of slavery, even at a time when the barbaric institution was on the decline, including among Calhoun’s contemporary Southern leaders. However, I believe it would be wrong to petition George Washington University to change its name on the grounds that the first president of the United States was also a slave holder. When judging historical figures, it is important to remember the context, as well as the achievements of the individuals who adhered to immoral social standards of their time. Calhoun spewed a lot of racism and did little good. Washington did a lot of good and was one of many Virginia slave holders.

I bring up these names and events to prove a point. Racism, sexism and classism are all simple concepts in the abstract. Each of us can succinctly define them. But in the real world, when judging a person, an event or an action, these concepts become more difficult to pin down. In such an environment, we must resist the urge to jump to hasty conclusions; we must restrain ourselves from assuming ignorance on the part of those with opposing views. It is important to account for all voices, to have a dialogue and to allow our differences to work in our favor, rather than against us.