The problem with privilege-checking

While we're concerned with our own potential prejudices, we're not fighting back against the Coalition.

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. 

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 the uninitiated, “checking your privilege” amounts to maintaining a constant awareness of ways in which you might accrue some social, cultural or economic benefit as a result of your background: your class, race, gender, sexual-orientation and so on. If someone speaks out of turn, they’ll be instructed to check their privilege. It’s a cuff round the ear, a way of saying: think about how your personal circumstances might influence what you’re saying.

In October Ariel Meadow Stallings, founder of Offbeat Empire (a series of alternative lifestyle blogs), wrote a brilliant blog entitled "Liberal bullying: privilege-checking and semantics-scolding as internet sport". Meadow Stallings diagnosed the problem as progressives being over-zealous in their privilege-checking and turning their fire on each other, but personally I’m not so sure. 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. I, Tom Midlane, have cisgender privilege, male privilege, able-bodied privilege, white privilege, heterosexual privilege, and middle class privilege.

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 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.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the NHS is being dismantled, large swathes of the public sector are being outsourced, social care is about to be cut to ribbons, the bulk of the cuts are yet to hit and even abortion rights are being undermined. Rather than problematising everything that comes out of one another’s mouths, let’s put aside our differences and start fighting back.

Tom Midlane is a freelance journalist who writes for the Press Association and Huff Post UK. You can read his blog here or follow him on Twitter @goldenlatrine

UPDATE 17/12/2012 14:30 We've published a response by Zoe Stavri to this piece - you can find it here

It's time to stop examining our own privilege and start opposing the government. Photograph: Getty Images
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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad