Hasson: What’s missing from the privilege conversation


Isaac Hasson, Columnist

A few weeks ago, Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang set off a firestorm with a column assailing the privilege conversation that is taking place on college campuses across the country. Unfortunately, Fortgang’s response embodies the same anti-intellectualism he rightfully condemns. Though charges of racism, sexism and privilege are often made without a shred of honesty, there are countless examples of persisting, empirically proven inequalities across race, gender and other categories, not to mention shocking incidents of bias that occur with unfortunate regularity.

My support for the “diversity conversation” is a longstanding matter of public record as is my distaste for people who pretend that racism does not exist. Fortgang is wrong to ignore the numerous ways he is privileged but he brings up legitimate grievances about the way we deal with difference.

The problem is not with the discussion of privilege, but with many of the shrill, insipid people who direct it. These self-appointed diversity czars define diversity as “people who agree with me.” The arrogance is astounding. They believe not only that their perspective is the only valid perspective, but that they also have the right to make sweeping assumptions about other peoples lives, assumptions they would never tolerate anyone making about them.

Rather than asking someone to sincerely consider their own bias and advantage, too often the charge of privilege is used to dismiss their perspective and truncate debate. For these individuals to exist in a place where this sort of behavior is tolerated is of course, privilege in itself. In the words of my African Studies professor Richard Joseph, the reality is that we are all privileged. We are privileged to go to one of the greatest universities in the world, heavily subsidized by some combination of our parents, donors and taxpayers. Obviously, the daughter of the hedge fund manager from Winnetka is enormously privileged over the daughter of the single mom from the South Side who goes into debt to finance her education, but we all enjoy advantages that are not enjoyed by the vast majority of the planet.

As I passed the Baha’i Temple in Wilmette last week, I reflected on the Baha’i of Iran who are literally banned from enrolling in Iranian universities. Just 50 years ago, people from my religion faced quotas at this university. We are privileged to live in a time and place where policies like this are unimaginable. America is simultaneously a place with persistent racism but also one of the most racially tolerant countries in the world. Those who ignore the influence of structural discrimination, privilege, individual effort, family, culture and values on success will never see the full picture. The real world is enormously complicated and that means that dogma is usually wrong.

Issues of privilege and difference are worth discussing. Take the issue of affirmative action; there are valid reasons why someone might think it’s a good policy, and there are valid reasons why another person might think it’s a bad policy. The purpose of the academy is to provide a forum for this discussion and teach critical thinking in the process, it is not to advance a particular agenda or position.

Why then do many activists believe that anyone who refuses to march in lock step conformity with their worldview must be purged? These delicate flowers believe that they are entitled to live in a bubble where they should never suffer the indignity of dealing with people who disagree with them. Grow up.

This month alone, the crusaders chased Condoleezza Rice out of the Rutgers commencement and Christine Lagarde out of the Smith College commencement. Christine Lagarde is one of the most highly regarded technocrats in the world. Her candidacy to run the IMF was endorsed by the socialist government of Brazil and the conservative government of Great Britain. But because she works for an organization whose policies have been controversial, she apparently has nothing of value to say. Unfortunately, the treatment of Condoleezza Rice seems deeply racist and sexist. The war in Iraq turned out to be a quagmire based on bad intelligence. But a white man who had access to that intelligence and argued forcefully for war (like Joe Biden when he was chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations) was not subjected to this. Condoleezza is likely held to a different standard because she is black, because she is a woman and because she rejects their zeitgeist.

It goes without saying that not everyone involved in the diversity conversation falls into this category. In particular, the leaders of the Sustained Dialogue program deserve enormous credit. During my time at Northwestern, I have learned the most by engaging with people with whom I strongly disagree, but whom I respect. My experience in Sustained Dialogue was one of thoughtful discussion and respectful disagreement. The faculty and the rest of campus ought to follow their good example.

Isaac Hasson is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].