Like it or not, Princeton's "check your privilege" non-apologizer has sparked a reinvigorated national debate on race and inequality. Like most topics touching diversity, identity and discrimination, the majority of responses are very loud and very opinionated: those rallying around the writer because he's expressed a sentiment they share, and those vehemently disagreeing both intellectually and emotionally with his arguments. The most common responses on both sides are 1) litanies of confirming or disaffirming studies, 2) angry emotional rants, and 3) satirical memes or videos mocking one side or the other. Such is the era of Upworthy and Tumblr.
But there's a cost to this Colbert/Jezebel v. Limbaugh/Drudge boxing-match style of issue analysis: the more one side criticizes, the more the other side digs in its heels and the more likely we all are to write each other off rather than to reach across the table. When's the last time you had a respectful, positive conversation with someone who disagreed with you on a moral or political topic, and left feeling more informed about the other side and motivated to look into it further?
On all sides of the table we're missing an opportunity to capitalize on these media moments to step out of our respective echo chambers and make the (much more difficult) effort to understand opposing arguments rather than to refute them. If we worked as hard to put ourselves in the shoes of people who disagree with us as we do to prove our own points, what new conclusions and solutions might we be able to come to?
We'd sure waste a lot less time on congressional filibusters.
I read Tal Fortgang's article with clenched teeth and a lot of face-palming, but I have some ability to relate to where he's coming from. Growing up white in an affluent suburb, there weren't a lot of conversations about race or inequality. I remember being so angry during a high school diversity workshop that the facilitators were pointing out all these racial and ethnic differences between my friends and me, rather than letting us just be ourselves. I worked my butt off to get into a good college, and no one could tell me I didn't deserve it.
As I've learned about power dynamics and developed identity around the advantages I was born with, it's been easy to forget and discard that early sentiment. But that sentiment is alive and well among many Americans, so in order to address it effectively we need to remember where it came from and acknowledge it as a genuine emotion, not an entitled idolatry. Just as I'd like people like Fortgang to work harder to recognize the experiences of those who tell them to check their privilege, I too must do better to recognize what it's like to feel accused of undeserved privilege if I have any hope of changing their opinions.
To be sure, the decision to empathize is a choice. It is not a natural inclination, nor is it the responsibility of people of color or other minority communities to reach across the aisle. But it is a reality that if we're all going to coexist in this world together and find ways to get along, it might help if we all worked a little harder to see the world through each other's eyes.
The next time you read an opinion piece and find yourself nodding along and giving the author a virtual fist bump, just consider stopping to think about whether that piece is advancing the dialogue across the table or simply preaching to the choir. See if you can put yourselves in the shoes of the person with a dissenting view, whether it's Jon Stewart or Glenn Beck.