You appeared annoyed this afternoon on Twitter when I did not greet your advice with the respect you felt it deserved.
I’m sorry. It’s difficult to remain (relatively) polite and to the point when we have only 140 characters to explain why I do not agree with you, nor do I respect you.
“The left”, however variously defined, is broadly speaking a movement for social justice and equality and against privilege. If you are accustomed to playing the game of life at the lowest difficulty setting there is, yet still consider yourself to be on the left, you are probably used by this time to having people who play the game of life at higher difficulty settings advising you to check your privilege. Indeed, that’s possibly what inspired you to write this article to which I am responding at terrible length and very late.
The left, it’s fair to say, has a long tradition of infighting. Groups with only a hair’s breadth difference in ideology splinter off into rival factions, aggressively defending their interpretation of the One True Path. It’s the perfect example of what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences”: communities with adjoining territories and seemingly identical goals who engage in constant feuding, striking outlandish poses to differentiate themselves from one another.
It’s important to reflect that the movement for social justice has, over the past two hundred and twenty years, accomplished paradigm shifts in the ways we think and act. We take for granted that there is something wrong with slavery, with war crimes, with rape: we assume that women have a right to our own property, that employees have a right to safe working conditions, sick leave, days off: that children have a right to shelter and food and care even if their parents can’t provide for them: that people too old or too sick or too disabled to work should be cared for still. True, I can think of examples in every country in the world in which those rights are violated, but it’s not so long ago in the history of humanity that none of these things could be taken for granted by anyone.
The left, it’s fair to say, has had a long tradition of winning. We have moved the world towards social justice and equality. We have done it not as a monolithic force but as a huge confused babbling of different movements, always pushing towards social justice, often disagreeing on how that’s to be accomplished, full of passionate people who feel so passionately about equality that they look outlandish to the passionlessly amused observer who sees only narcissism and pointless feuding.
This is taking the long view. I have been as exasperated as anyone else by juvenile Trotskyists who disrupt LGBT equality conferences because they believe any legal underpinning of equal rights will delay the workers’ revolution. But working towards social justice and equality for all is so huge a goal, so dizzying to the imagination, that it is unsurprising some people become foolish, or angry, or dramatic, or get burnt-out after trying to do too much for too long. The only fatal flaw in working towards social justice isn’t foolishness or anger or a liking for the dramatic: it’s vanity.
There is a particular vanity which people on the left are broadly prone to, and it’s generally attached to privilege.
White women who think feminism works so long as it works for white women. Able-bodied people who don’t see why disabled people need to be included. Straight people who think that LGBT people should just shut up and not make waves if they want to be good lefty allies. Men who think that “women’s issues” – like rape, abortion, contraception, paid maternity leave, the gender pay gap, childcare – are side-issues that just distract from the serious problems. But the Trope Namer as it were, the purest example, is of course the left-wing able-bodied straight cisgendered white middle-class man…
For a time it seemed like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the internet might usher in a new era of protest: one more communal, less reliant on the old dogmas. But in the individualistic, free-floating, frequently anonymous world of the internet, modern progressives have stumbled across an even more effective means of dividing themselves: privilege-checking.
For those who didn’t know: privilege is something you have as an advantage which you can’t usually get rid of and which gives you an easier time than people who don’t have your privilege.
One way of explaining this is the difference between how restaurant menus look to vegetarians and non-vegetarians. If you are not vegetarian, the odds are you expect to find multiple choices of things you might want to eat on a restaurant menu. There may be several different categories of main course, and you will be used to seeing multiple choices in each category. You have probably seldom, if ever, sat down in a restaurant, looked at the menu, and known at once what your dinner is, because the chef only made one starter and one main course and if you don’t like either, too bad.
That’s what many restaurant menus look like to a vegetarian. That you may not have noticed this or thought about it is non-vegetarian privilege.
As a general rule, to explain to people with privilege what it is, you have to use an example of someone else’s privilege. The problem that white heterosexual cisgendered able-bodied men have is that they mostly experience “check your privilege” only as a cuff round the ear, as you put it: never as a means of getting other people to think what life is like for you. That’s what “check your privilege” is meant to be: stop a moment, think what this would be like if you weren’t safe on the privileged side of the fence for this issue.
You don’t get to use it to other people, because your set of privileges is the dominant paradigm. You don’t experience this as a blessing and a relief – people actually thinking about how things should work so that you can be accommodated – because the normal state of how we all live is designed for and about the needs of straight, white, abledbodied, cisgendered men. Therefore, any alterations to that predictably appear to you to be
“inherently destructive – at best, a colossal distraction, and at worst a means of turning us all into self-appointed moral guardians out to aggressively police even fellow travellers’ speech and behaviour”
You argue that this “colossal distraction” – this “obsessive pouncing” is an infection of progressive thought – that while people less privileged than you are trying to make online discussion safe space for everyone, you want to act, not to have to think whether your words are hurtful or annoying, not to have to think whether actions will make life better or worse for people who are not like you.
Privilege-checking plays into the dangerous postmodern fallacy that we can only understand things we have direct experience of. In place of concepts like empathy and imagination, which help us recognise our shared humanity, it atomises us into a series of ever-smaller taxonomical groups: working class transsexual, disabled black woman, heteronormative male.
Because of course, a disabled black woman could not possibly identify herself both as disabled, black, working class, and a woman, and as part of a shared humanity that even includes you.
It is a curious thing which I took full advantage of in my first year as a blogger: if a woman adopts a neuter name and uses a neutral picture, she will be assumed by default to be male, and thus escape – mostly – the sexual harassment and abuse that women online get targeted with. If a person refrains from openly-identifying themselves as lesbian or gay, by default we’re assumed to be straight. If a person refrains from openly-identifying as trans, unless they are in the process of transitioning and visibly identifiable, they’ll be assumed to be cisgendered. Online, if a person refrains from identifying themselves as being a person of colour, or having a disability, they’ll be assumed to be white: to be able-bodied. By default, if we don’t publicly identify ourselves as who we are, we are generally assumed to be like you, Tom: white, straight, and male.
You may be comfortable with that, and wonder why anyone would mind, and think this is just our shared humanity. Exercise your empathy and imagination, dear boy: you claim to have them.
Think about what it means to complain that this “emasculates political activity”. Like the feminist movement? We have no balls, Tom, we’re completely emasculated, but our political activity is the longest most peaceful most successful revolution this goddam world has ever seen, and Tom, my man, we’re not done yet. We’re feminists, Tom, emasculated political activity is what we bloody well do and do bloody well.
A very talented blogger friend of mine read Owen Jones’ Chavs and said it made them “very aware of my middle class privilege”. Personally, it made me want to burn down the Department of Work and Pensions. My friend is deeply involved in activism, but for many simply being aware of their privilege has taken on the same function as an online petition, a way of feeling like you’ve made a difference without actually getting involved.
Do you seriously imagine that “burning down the Department of Work and Pensions” would help half as much as all the emasculated political activity of Sue Marsh? You burn down the DWP, they’ll just restructure (and you’ll go to jail). Listen to the emasculated political activists: we need to change the Overton Window, move the acceptability of a welfare state back over to the left again, and yes, to help us do that you need to be aware of your privilege, not mess us about trying to insist that we all talk and act in ways acceptable to you.
Not that I’m for a moment advocating a prejudice free-for-all. I’m a firm believer in calling people out on hate speech, but there’s a world of difference between taking someone to task for voicing racist, sexist or transphobic views and snarkily asking someone to check their privilege because they expressed themselves slightly clumsily. Rather than stopping at calling out bigots, privilege-checking turns us all into private sleuths, constantly on the lookout for linguistic slip-ups.
The biggest hold-up in any discussion is seldom the quick request to “check your privilege”. It’s the annoyed reaction of the person told to check their privilege, explaining at length that they resent being told they’ve said something unacceptable, that they’re not bigoted and they object to being made to feel uncomfortable or think about what they say, that they take people to task for saying bigoted things and this gives them (somehow) a free pass for “linguistic slip-ups”.
I’m white: if a person of colour notes that I said something racist, it’s possible that they’re wrong, but probable that – having much more experience than I do in identifying racism – that they’re quite right. It may be worth arguing about, but if it’s a mere “check your privilege” note, it’s probable that they assume that I’m a person of goodwill and said whatever it was without any intent of malice: I can most easily use up their presumption of goodwill by arguing that it wasn’t racist. Certainly that’s how I prefer men to react if called out on sexism: how I prefer straight people to react when called out on heterosexism. So that’s how I try to behave.
I can see that’s a problem for you, Tom: “You’re privileged enough to have the luxury not to think about privilege.” That you complain that you do “think about privilege” but want to be able to work for social justice as a gracious gift you are giving in your own way to “seek social justice for those less fortunate than myself” rather than as a situation where you have to listen to those with less privilege than you and change your behaviour and language accordingly, that you perceive this instead as us using “playspace to act out divisive and willifully obscurantist verbal games” is classic privileged thinking: what you do not understand must be “wilfully obscurantist”: spaces you are excluded from are “playspaces” in which serious political work cannot happen.
(“What are you girls doing hiding in the kitchen away from the party?” says the man, coming in to find half a dozen women getting snockered round the kitchen table.)
Finally, the argument that only privileged people can really understand privilege because it requires
a nuanced understanding of complex sociological ideas on race, sexuality and gender
is essentially an admission that you find this so complex to understand that you cannot believe people without your education could grok it: but oddly enough, though the term privilege may need explanation (it’s jargon, and jargon always does) living in the complex sociological experience of intersectional discrimination gives any thoughtful person a nuanced understanding, albeit usually not expressed on your sort of language: and thoughtfulness is not a reserved characteristic for the educated middle-classes only.
Which is to say, that a working-class disabled lesbian on a pension may not refer to this as “the complex sociological experience of intersectional discrimination”, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get it. Better than you.
Stavvers also tried to explain to Tom what he got wrong: Standing in opposition to the dominance of privilege
“The answer to cold is heat, the answer to hunger is food. But there is no simple monolithic solution to racism, to sexism, to homophobia. There is only the conscious focusing within each of my days to move against them, wherever I come up against these particular manifestations of the same disease.” –Audre Lorde