Privilege Checking the Privilege Checkers

A couple of years ago, while studying law in western Canada, I took a political science course on environmental issues taught by a renowned professor. Having become alarmed at the lack of legal protections for the environment, I hoped to learn more about the politics behind such flagrant and pervasive oversights.

Unfortunately, the class was a bust. Instead of analyzing political thought and behaviour related to our current ecological crisis, the course taught a strange blend of self-help and pseudoscience. We “learned” that atoms have free will, that the Earth purposefully maintains conditions conducive to life, that modern science is naïvely reductionist and therefore urgently in need of a paradigm shift, and that Francis Bacon was one of the main architects behind the modern disconnect from nature.

As I listened to students uncritically accepting these ideas, I grew increasingly concerned with the current state of the social sciences. At the same time, however, I became intrigued by the peculiar tone of the classroom discussion. Rather than simply offering comments – as was common in my law classes and, indeed, most of life – students frequently prefaced their opinions by first acknowledging their privileged status as educated Westerners. While it’s laudable to recognize the role that luck plays in success and in defining worldviews, the semester-long repetition of the phrase “Speaking from a position of privilege” quickly got annoying. By the end of the first seminar, it was clear that we all recognized our privilege. By the end of the semester, I was not sure why we had to keep bringing it up.