Jeff checked his privilege. It was brown, wrinkled, and a little bit crusty.
Let’s crawl, for one minute, out of the cavernous apertures nestled between our ivory-colored ass cheeks and honestly consider the phrase Check Your Privilege. Strip away all connotation and intent, sociopolitical context, even definition, and what remains, at its syntactical core, is a lonely imperative, of the same species as Do Your Taxes and Run, Forrest, Run. It is verb followed by possessive pronoun followed by direct object, followed by, more often than not, a poor upside-down i that wants nothing more than to run and hide behind a sentence of less absurd and eminently annoying consequence.
Now let’s add a layer of tone to the bare-boned sentence. And what tone shall we choose? We have the dry instructional tenor of the subway conductor – Stand Clear of the Closing Doors! The vicarious encouragement of the little league baseball coach – Run! Run! Run! And, this you’ll agree harmonizes most beautifully with our subject, the shrill exasperation of Your Mother – Clean Your Room, (insert first, middle, last name here)!
Here’s the part of the essay where we all agree that no one likes to be bossed around by his or her mother. Imperatives + Mothers = #$%*&!
If an invocation of Mothers wasn’t enough to send our phrase the way of “We are the 99%” we can grapple with the meatier side of Privilege, the side that grants liberals their throne of moral superiority and gives conservatives the fantods. We can discuss connotation, intent, sociopolitics, and even definition. We can deconstruct the sentence in aeternum, until Derrida’s corpse swears fealty to Searle and Quine. An honest consideration would do just that. But sometimes a phrase comes along that deserves no such consideration. Check Your Privilege is one such phrase.
When did it become acceptable, even essential, for honest debate to include the imperative? For a debate (or, if the word debate is too strong for you, for a discussion) to be truly fair, certain rules of the game need to be established pre factum: no handicaps or head starts, for one, and a shared burden of proof. More than anything, though, in order for a debate to be fair and fruitful, the parties must agree to subjugate themselves to their ideas, to act as mere stewards of logic and syllogism and nothing more. But the imperative imperils the playing field. The imperative issues command. Command assumes authority. And authority requires the relative positions of living, breathing human persons. In other words, the imperative gives one party a tactical advantage and reduces the debate to Medieval Inquisition. The hearing becomes a farce. The sentence has been preordained.
We used to be able to distinguish rhetoric from dialectic, poetry from philosophy, logos from pathos. Philosophers as early as Plato and Aristotle wrote distinct tomes on the respective methods of rhetoric and philosophy. Cicero’s On Oration and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria carried the discipline through Roman hegemony until it settled alongside grammar and logic as a core discipline in the Medieval universities of England, France, and Italy. And today, in a refreshing return from the neo-rhetorical obscurantism of postmodern philosophy, rhetoric is taking back its mantle as a discrete mode of communication.
And while Aristotle had a neutral take on the discipline as a whole, Plato’s view of rhetoric was unfavorable indeed. In Gorgias, one of his Socratic Dialogues, Plato argues that rhetoric is an affront to truth and wisdom, mere smoke and mirrors in the service of public persuasion. He compares rhetoric to cookery, the art of making objectionably unhealthy food taste good. Rhetoric is the MSG and high fructose corn syrup in the fast food of discourse.
He goes further. Rhetoric isn’t just dishonest in Plato’s estimation, but “is for each person the source of rule over others in one’s own city.” It is an object of control, wielded by those who would seek to rule the polis and obtain political power. In our case, in the case of Check Your Privilege, it is an object of control wielded by those who would seek to unjustly put the kibosh on reasoned debate and – well, who are we kidding? – rule the polis and obtain political power.
And that brings me to the upshot. Check Your Privilege is such a pathetic sound bite and such an affront to honest discourse that it only belongs in the most childish of debates, like the nationally broadcast presidential debates or the town hall primaries. When we begin to imitate the people who seek political power in our ground battle of ideas, we’ve all lost the war. For the sake of progress in the world of ideas, for the sake of integrity and fair play, for the sake of Plato himself, let’s start using the declarative.