05/27/2014 12:50 pm ET | Updated Jul 27, 2014

Argumentum Ad Hominem: An Appeal to Privilege

I am very fascinated by philosophical discussions and argumentations, and I often seek these out with both acquaintances and strangers alike. These discussions allow me to challenge my insights, by exposing myself to the views of others, and the several ways by which they reason through these views. One day, I was having a discussion with three other people -- two girls and one boy. We were having a discussion about women's rights and how to expand public opportunities for women, as leaders within society. It was a very fascinating discussion that had the ability to stir up a string of suggestions and solutions to, what happens to be, a very pressing issue that exists within our contemporary society. The boy in the group decided to give, what he thought, was a solution to the problem, but I never got to hear that solution. "You don't have the right to speak for us women," said one of the girls in the group, "you are a privileged white male." The other girl simply nodded in concert.

This is not the first time I have been thrust into an argument where one or more people are shot down simply because they occupy a place of privilege in relation to that discussion. As a woman of color, I am rarely ever put in a situation where my privilege is challenged, and yet, I can recognize the danger in shutting people's opinions simply because of their identity. This, in a very broad sense, is an Argumentum Ad Hominem (Ad Hominem). An ad hominem occurs when an arguer attacks the person that they are engaged in an argument with, rather than the validity of the person's arguments. The aforesaid situation above, where a person is shut down because they are identified as occupying a privileged position in relation to the discussion is a version of an ad hominem that I would call, 'An Appeal To Privilege.' So, for instance, when discussing issues about racism with respect to African Americans, and a Caucasian American's opinion is shut down simply because they are Caucasian, that would be an appeal to privilege. It is a baseless and fallacious mode of argumentation, and it is time that we start to challenge these forms of argumentation.

This is not to say that a person's identity is not relevant in discussions. For instance, when one is discussing issues of Transgender rights, the unique experience of Transgendered person offers a perspective that a non-transgendered person does not possess. Experiences matter, and to a very large extent, they inform our opinions, in innumerable and significant ways. However, they do not make our claims more valid than other people's claims. So, with respect to the aforesaid example, if a non-transgendered person decides to offer an argument as to how we ought to approach the rights of transgender people within our society, we ought not to dismiss that person's argument simply because they do not identify as a transgender person, and further occupy a position of privilege with relation to the transgender identity.

The point that I am trying to make is that a fallacious appeal to privilege does not get us anywhere as a society. As long as persons are able to fully recognize the spaces that they occupy in society and how that informs their belief systems, then we ought not shut them down simply because they are privileged. Arguments ought to be judged on the basis of their validity and cogency, as attacking the arguer does not get us any further with respect to the issues one is trying to explore. An appeal to privilege has very vast implications for our society and our institutions, where people, who might, by any other standard, possess very good arguments, are unable to express these arguments because they occupy a transient and relational role of privilege that is defined within the specific context of that argument. The only we can have productive and logically consistent philosophical discussions in our society, is if we begin to check for fallacious modes of argumentation and reasoning, such as, an appeal to privilege.