I Saw You Irony

I Saw You Privilege, the latest spin-off of the fun-spirited Internet procrastination staple I Saw You Harvard, recently made its rounds on email lists around campus before its deletion. The site, whose first post was published on Dec. 2, professed to represent “a group of VERY privileged Harvard students seeking to unpack and publicize the privileges that we and our fellow students don’t always notice.”

The mission statement was undeniably judicious; privilege graces every student lucky enough to be here, and it too often goes unappreciated.  And there certainly were a handful of posts that drew attention to genuinely disreputable behavior on the part of some Harvard students, such as “yelling sexist things” outside a final club. Yet despite how positive the creators’ intentions may have been, in practice the site was a forum for identity-based attacks that do far more to divide students along the lines of all of the wrong criteria than to raise awareness of hidden inequality.

Many posts blatantly leveled attacks agaisnt students whose crimes began and ended with their race, class, or sexual orientation.  One particularly baseless post simply ridiculed a girl for her appearance, sexuality, and (perceived) socioeconomic status.  The post read, “I saw you white straight girl in section…[who talked] about people who are starveing [sic] in Africa when you’ve never even been there.  You shouldn’t even talk about poor people when you’ve never even left you’re [sic] gated community with your perfect blond friends.”

The post’s author opened by targeting a girl for two factors utterly out of her control.  Whiteness and straightness are certainly markers of privilege, but they are not appropriate grounds for ridicule.   No inherited trait can be wrong.  Just as there is nothing wrong with being gay, there is also nothing wrong with being straight. The tenet that no one deserves chastisement for being of a certain race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation is universally applicable.  While I see the value in reminding those with inherited privilege of their luck, there is a fine line between reminder and ridicule, and many I Saw You Privilege posts ended up on the wrong side of that line.

Furthermore, the notion expressed in the above post that one must have personal experience with an issue in order to comment on it is utterly antithetical to both education and social progress.  If only the starving are allowed to discuss famine relief, the enslaved allowed to discuss abolition, and the impoverished allowed to discuss the eradication of poverty, then we can say goodbye to the notions of empathy and altruism, let alone intellectual pursuit.

The misguided nature of the website was encapsulated in one particular entry that targeted a “private school” graduate for defending her or his right to attend said institution.  The post said, “When everyone has that ability, I’ll agree that you have it too.”  Such a statement came with the unfortunate irony that it was written by a student at the most prestigious “private school” in the world.  Without even acknowledging that incongruity, the post’s author betrayed his or her own lack of self-awareness, easily trumping that of the subject.

There was another post that described an instance of a student spilling milk in an elevator and not cleaning it up.  The post said, “i [sic] hope one day whiteness means you have to clean up after yourself just like all of us people of color do.”  Perhaps white people are less likely to clean up after themselves than other groups, but I seriously doubt it. I do know one thing, however: If someone made the exact same claim about another race, I would be utterly disgusted.  I’m not denying the privileges that white people don without knowing it, but any sort of thinking that immediately ascribes undesirable behavior to a person’s race has no place at Harvard.

Since I can’t hope to discuss every single post on the website, I’ll stop there.  The website, throughout its brief existence, was misdirected, to say the least. If the posts really portrayed belligerent or ignorant behavior that could be rightly attributed to unacknowledged privilege, then I would have no qualms.  But instead, it was a forum for the harmful misattribution of actions to people’s identities.  There is no place for racial, sexual, or socioeconomic ridicule on this campus, regardless of the target.

Michael F. Cotter ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Matthews Hall.