The ad hominem, the abbreviated form of the argumentum ad hominem, is a recognized fallacious argument. If you take a Logic course in Philosophy, you’ll learn all about these fallacies. Examples of the ad hominem abound. Person A states that the Philadelphia Eagles were the best team in professional football in 2017 because they had an imaginative coach, two first-class quarterbacks, two power runners, several top-notch receivers, and a great defense. To which person B, shaking his head adorned with a New England Patriots ball-cap, responds: “You’ve got your head stuck up Nick Foles’s ass!” That’s an ad hominem, and fallacious, argument. It’s in many ways a non-argument.
So, too, is discussion of “White Privilege.” It’s the ultimate ad hominem attack. I do not doubt that, on average, White people have it easier in this country than Black people. That’s true and can be demonstrated to be true with data on education, family, wealth, and innumerable other measures. There can be no doubt that a scion of the Kennedy family has more privilege than some poor Black kid growing up in some inner-city ghetto. But that’s not to say that all White people have advantages over all Black people. Those Kennedy kids have much greater privilege than most White kids.
White Privilege would tell us that the daughter of a White woman living on welfare and food stamps in rural West Virginia, whose husband lost his job at a coal mine and ran off, abandoning his family, has more advantages than the daughters of Barack Obama. All White kids do not roll out of college and, like Chelsea Clinton, land $600k jobs at NBC. I sure as hell didn’t. But I suspect that the Obama girls, when they finish college, will roll into cushy and well paying jobs, despite “White privilege.”
I suspect that White privilege is an attractive concept to the Left for two reasons. First, I know many White academics who were blessed with privileges, privileges that I did not share. Their parents were professionals, they always had money, they went to good schools, and then they rolled out of graduate school into faculty positions. My parents were not professionals, I had to work my way through college and graduate school. When I earned my PhD, the market was so bad that I spent two years managing a Center City Philadelphia parking lot, alongside other managers, many of whom had not even graduated from high school. So when I find myself lumped into some category of “privilege,” alongside the Kennedy’s and Romney’s, simply because I’m White, I’m offended!
The second reason the concept of White Privilege is so attractive is because it’s simple. And it’s simple because it’s an ad hominem argument. Let’s return to my football example of the first paragraph. One could easily argue that the Patriots had the better team because Tom Brady is the best quarterback in the history of professional football, that Bill Belichick is one of the greatest coaches in the history of the NFL, and that several of the Patriot players are among the best in the League. New England just had a bad day, but they were the better team. That’s a great argument, but it’s also an argument that requires work, and a degree of thought. It’s so much easier to come back with “You’ve got your head stuck up Nick Foles’s ass!” And that is the beauty of the ad hominem retort! It’s easy! It’s quick! You don’t have to know anything about football!
And so it is with the “White Privilege” response. You don’t have to know anything about American society. You don’t have to know about how Americans, of all colors live and work at the upper and lower levels of that society. All you must know, all you must believe, is that Whites have privilege. It’s simple! And because it’s simple its an argument that is easily transmitted to your gullible students. But it’s also the classic, and ultimate ad hominem fallacy!