May 15, 2014

JAMES TARANTO: Harvard To Be Humble: Self-abnegation as a form of status-seeking.

“The wonks in training at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government will soon be subjected to a new and touchy-feely line of inquiry: Checking Your Privilege 101,” reports Kat Stoeffel of New York magazine. “In response to growing demand from student activists, administrators committed Friday to adding a class in power and privilege to its orientation program for incoming first-year students.”

The ideological basis of the new course is familiar: “Privilege,” Stoeffel explains, is “a catchall term for the perks an individual enjoys in society because of his race, gender, or class.” The idea is “enjoying something of a moment, thanks to social-justice bloggers and their critics.” One such critic is Princeton undergraduate Tal Fortgang, who last month wrote in a much-discussed op-ed for the Princeton Tory that telling someone to “check your privilege” is a fallacious argumentum ad hominem.

If you think there’s something dissonant about elite institutions advertising their discomfort with “privilege,” you’re certainly not alone. But if you look a little deeper, it makes sense. . . .

Perhaps, then, the ideology of “privilege” amounts to a pretense of egalitarianism, analogous to an ostentatious display of charity whose real motive is the philanthropist’s self-aggrandizement. Elite universities are marketing themselves–to prospective students and to the broader society–as bastions of power and privilege. Humility can be a form of vanity, self-abnegation a means of status-seeking.

Yes, it’s basically a form of potlatch. Political correctness is a positional good, whereby one group of white people reassures itself of its superiority to other, lesser white people.

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