15 May 2014

WSJ editorial on "the culture of privilege"

A relative of mine posted a WSJ article on my Facebook wall recently which sort of ticked me off. Since it's relatively rare that I manage to write out anything that isn't technical, I've put the article and my response below. The bulk of this post is going to be just the Facebook response, but I've added a little context on how it touches me personally:

The fields of physics and astronomy have a huge demographics problem, in that they are dominated by white men and have very few women and minorities, way out of proportion to the population of the US. For what it's worth, for these purposes I count myself as one of the white dudes -- growing up Cuban in Miami, especially as the son of two doctors, doesn't exactly put you at a disadvantage. Anyway, historically, a lot of this demographic bias was the result of conscious exclusion of everybody who wasn't white and male. Nowadays, while intentional exclusion is not nearly as bad (and fortunately illegal), its remnants hang around in the form of things like unconscious bias and the lack of women and minorities coming through the pipeline to enter the sciences. It's still easier for white guys to get to -- and through -- graduate school than for everyone else. This is our privilege, and we should be aware of it.

The article is here, and here's my response:

Harsh words:
>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.

But even worse, we are asked this rhetorical question:
>If it's not about making individuals feel guilty, what is it about?

(To be 100% clear, the unspoken answer is that of course the ideology of privilege is only about making individual's feel guilty.)

It's a fair accusation, I guess, but it really misses the point of the conversation on "privilege". I like Alexandra Petri's amazing response to that incredibly obtuse editorial in Time Magazine that made the rounds recently:

>It seems that Tal may have mistaken the origin of this phrase, as though being told to Check Your Privilege meant “apologize for or explain away the advantages you’ve had” rather than “consider the perspective from which you come before you enter a conversation.”
(from )

What this writer – James Taranto – is missing is that Harvard is responding to the wishes of its students, as any good university should. It is emphatically NOT hypocritcal of Harvard to support its students in pursuing their interests, when it has admitted these students precisely because it believes their interests, and the perspectives from which they approach those interests, are valuable.

The central character of this article is Ms. Reetu Mody, the student who pushed for the class on privilege and structures of power. It is unclear to me if Mr. Taranto believes that the false humility belongs only to Harvard or extends to her as well. Why? Because he apparently couldn't be bothered to interview her for an article about something she did! We have no idea what her story is, and have no basis on which to judge her actions! Going by the article, it is clear that Mr. Taranto has simply assumed – without knowing anything about her – that her opinions should be tossed out by default.

What should Harvard do? Should Harvard simply dictate to its students what issues should matter, what issues are important enough for them to concern themselves with, and condescendingly tell them what issues are not? Fortunately, Harvard values the ideas and perspectives of its students more than Mr. Taranto does.

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