- "Privilege-Checking," "Virtue-Signaling," and "Safe Spaces":What Happens When Cultural Politics is Privatized and the Body Replaces Argument
In what follows I discuss three expressions about symbolic power and social privilege that have wide usage and popularity in online media culture and everyday speech but that are largely unused in scholarly academic discourse. Two of these expressions, "privilege checking" and "safe space," can be found in campus projects sponsored by student groups and offices of institutional diversity and inclusion that aim to influence campus culture. The expression "virtue-signaling" refers to the act of expressing online outrage about injustice by a privileged person to other privileged people in order to elevate symbolic standing.
Both online and on campus the terms "privilege checking" and "safe space" belie an effort to educate students and others into speech and behavioral practices that are intended to represent the symbolic interests of historically oppressed minorities. While class, racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, and other forms of historical privilege are all too real, destructive, and determining of life opportunities, I am questioning here how, since the 90's, efforts to challenge privilege have moved away from public engagement and toward private and personal forms of redress. The implications of this are that progressives are inadvertently fueling the opposition while undermining their capacity to forge social justice projects. For example, as White Supremacy becomes increasingly public in its expressions, anti-racism is taking private and individualized forms. What is at stake here is not only that the private form of anti-racism is incapable of contributing to a left politics capable of defending public forms of democracy. What is also at stake is that these private forms of anti-racism are inadvertently ceding public space and public discourse to White Supremacist, White Nationalist, xenophobic, and fascist political expressions and movements. In so doing private forms of anti-oppresive expression redefine politics in ways that exacerbate the neoliberal evacuation of the very concept of the public and [End Page 403] redefine culture in forms that are at odds with the public use of reason for collective benefit.1
The different terms ask different things of culturally subordinate and dominant individuals. Privilege checking largely asks members of historically privileged and culturally dominant groups to recognize their social advantage in the course of dialogue with subordinate groups. At times the injunction to "check your privilege" is less of a request for reflection or recognition of the subordinate status of minorities than a way to end the exchange. For example, a widely referred to website blog from 2006 provides a guide to checking your privilege that includes the recommendations to, "learn to listen rather than speak" (Tekanji 2006). In this case, the request of the party claiming subordinate status asks that the party alleged to possess privilege withdraw from dialogue. The logic here is that the historically oppressed person's group has been silenced and now it is the privileged person's group's time for silence. The tendency of the call to "check your privilege" as a way to end the exchange and silence the alleged oppressor shuts down a political and public conception of culture as a form of dialogic albeit unequal exchange.
While privilege itself is a collective phenomenon pertaining to groups, the injunction to "check your privilege" positions the resistance work of cultural politics as a "clap back" done by an individual to another individual recipient of privilege. The call for "privilege checking" differs from cultural production activity that calls for collective action to address the structures and systems that produce and affirm symbolic hierarchies. Privilege checking is an individual response to a public problem.
Often, the call for privilege checking represents what Angela Nagle refers to in Kill All Normies as "Virtue Signaling"—a competition for moral superiority among the privileged in which online expressions of outrage at oppression are far less intended to mobilize anti-oppressive politics than they are intended to symbolically bolster the standing of the speaker/writer. Similarly, Phoebe Moltz Bovy describes the call to check your privilege as, "more typically, it's a way for someone privileged to play self-appointed spokesperson for the marginalized, so as...