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Friday, December 27, 2013

The problem with privilege-checking

The problem with privilege-checking

"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...

While the idea is obviously born out of honourable intentions, I believe the whole discourse around privilege is 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.

Why does this matter, you ask? The answer is simple: it matters because privilege-checking has thoroughly infected progressive thought. While large swathes of the left are obsessively pouncing on verbal slips on Twitter, the right are acting: systematically deconstructing not just the welfare state, but the state itself.

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.

Worse still, it emasculates political activity. 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.

In many respects, the system of privilege-checking is the perverse mirror reflection of unregulated capitalism: whereas an unstinting belief in free markets requires an attitude of triumphalism and an aggressive lack of empathy, “privilege” requires an attitude of constant self-abasement worthy of someone going through a 12-step program...

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 kind of semantic nit-picking that “privilege” encourages is aloof thought, un-coupled from questioning or attempting to change the hegemonic order. It’s a kind of identity politics which assumes the post-ideological position as fact and embraces the idea that nothing will change beyond small shifts. Within this assumed safety net you’re given your own playspace to act out divisive and willifully obscurantist verbal games. Corporate lobbyists couldn’t invent a better system for neutralising collective action if they tried.

Also implicit in this new conception of “privilege” is a simple idea: the more points you score on the privilege bingo card, the less weight your view carries. This has the catastrophic effect of turning debates about racism, sexism, transphobia, class and disability into a game of Top Trumps, but equally importantly, it ignores the long history of social progressives, from Karl Marx to Tony Benn, who hail from privileged backgrounds.

Privilege becomes an inescapable feedback loop: any attempt to critique privilege-checking is met with the retort: “You’re privileged enough to have the luxury not to think about privilege.” But that’s not it. I’ve always been aware that as a child of a white, middle-class family, I have life easier than some people – but that’s precisely what drives me on to seek social justice for those less fortunate than myself. Prejudice exists. We live in a radically unjust world. But turning our personal circumstances into some sort of pissing contest achieves precisely nothing.

If you want an example of how ridiculous the culture of privilege-checking has become, take this from male transsexual Gethin Jones’s piece on transphobia for brilliant feminist site The F-Word: “As a trans man, they [transphobic bloggers] accuse me of being a misogynist, having transitioned to gain male privilege and of being a "lesbian in denial" (unlikely, considering my bisexuality). Allegations of transitioning for the purpose of gaining privilege irritate me, considering the cisgender privilege I’ve lost through doing so.”

This is a textbook example of this kind of privilege-checking taken to its logical conclusion. Is this really how we want to live? Constantly weighing up our every action against some theoretical checklist? The cosmic irony at play here is that the very concept of “privilege” is inherently privileged, requiring a nuanced understanding of complex sociological ideas on race, sexuality and gender."


Comments:

"If "check your privilege" wasn't mainly used as a different way of saying "I can't refute your argument, so I have to shut you up", I'd be more sympathetic."

"The 'social justice warrior' who informed a Jewish friend of mine that the Holocaust was 'ages ago', that she ought to get over it and check her privilege, and that she couldn't possibly understand discrimination because she wasn't black is a particularly egregious example in my own social circle. Bingo...."

"Regardless of whether or not the concept is valid (I don't think it is, because it applies group statistics e.g. how much more men get paid than women to individuals) I'm only human and there is only so long I am willing to sit and be told off for my ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender. Why am I going to associate with a movement where the tendency is to insult me in these terms whenever I try to contribute anything?"

"I am increasingly reluctant to describe myself as a feminist because of the level of semantic wanking that seems to be going on at present. The people who tend to be the worst offenders also seem to be the most practically ineffectual. I'm reminded of Marxist Man at university (we all knew him) who would lecture you for hours on linguistic and conceptual minutiae and not let you get a word in edgeways."

"You should both scurry back to tumblr where you can fight the good fight against the cissarchy without having any disgusting heteronormative white males invade your tolerance sphere with their horrifying trigger words."

[In response to a Marxist] "My Grandfather and 3 of his brothers were "subsistence farmers" in Europe before the second world war, they came to Canada for a better life because being a subsistence farmer sucks.
You obviously not know what you're talking about!"

"Marxist orginial interpretation is already understood from the Critical School and the structural theory as falling in the same iron-cage as liberalism, labelling all forms of humanity according to ideals reified and uncontestables, and an exacerbated individualism that destroys any form of meaningful tradition, instead, selling people as mere organic elements to a system that only recognizes them as productive unit. Yet a man named Marx still left us a certain understanding of the super-structures that ride modern society, we should, just perhaps, point against them, instead of creating new cathegories, breaking gender identity, for the market agents to enslave difference under consumer cathegories and imaginary egoistical distinctions."

"you will mostly come across this doctrine in feminist circles, not anti-cuts circles."

"My brother in law was trying to renew his insurance ona car or something- he was told he wasn't mrs lewis- he asked why it mattered and was answered with some nonsense about data protection. He promptly insisted that he was mrs Lewis without changing his voice on bit. He was challenged, at which point he counterd with a risk of lawsuit on the grounds of discrimnation against his male sounding voice! They took his money and we all enjoyed the laugh...
It's the small victories!"


"The problem is that people who complain about the destructiveness of privilege-checking invariably have names like "Ariel Meadows Stalling.""

"How exactly is a person's name or their upbringing more important than the integrity of their argument or the scope of their ideas?"

"My name (which is actually Ariel Meadow Stallings as opposed to Meadows Stalling), is definitely not an upper class thing. It's the result of being born to two hippie parents in 1975 on the West Coast of the United States. My middle name is actually the place of my conception. (True story!)"

"What names would you find acceptable? Oliver Twist maybe?"


Author's comment:

"When I talk about people "pouncing on linguistic slip-ups on Twitter" that is NOT code for "I want to be able to say lots of offensive things with impunity". I'm not referring to people using the N-word or calling someone a "tranny". I'm talking about people trawling looking to find offence. The response to this piece has thrown up some beautiful examples. Among the many valid criticisms, I've also been called out for:

- using the phrase "12-step programme" (disrespectful to alcoholics and drug users)
- using the phrase "pissing contest" (sexist, although as far as I'm aware, women do urinate too)
- using the word "emasculate" (phallocentric)"
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