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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How society is failing transgender children

In the wake of the cancellation of a public debate on this subject, one of the speakers shares her view on where society's approach to gender nonconformity is going wrong.

In August this year, several UK councils issued guidance to schools on accommodating female pupils who wear binders. A binder is a constricting undergarment for the upper body: what it binds are the breasts, pressing them down to a flatness that the wearer feels is appropriate to their self-perception as masculine or gender-neutral. According to Cornwall Council, the binder is “very important to [the wearer’s] psychological wellbeing.” But binders have unwelcome physical side-effects too, including “breathing difficulties, skeletal problems and fainting.” Lancashire Council’s advice urges teachers to “monitor [wearers] carefully during physical activities and in hot weather. It may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.”

When the NSPCC invited me to participate in a discussion on the subject “is society letting down transgender children?” (part of its Dare to Debate series), those guidelines were one of the first things I thought of. They’re written in accordance with the overriding principle of gender identity politics, which is that affirmation is all. Any bodily harms incurred count for little compared to the trauma believed to be inflicted by a “mismatch” between appearance and identity. It’s a doctrine that insists we’ve moved beyond the tyranny of physical sex and social pressure, and into a realm of pure selfhood where all must be able to live in accordance with their own inherent being.

And yet, look again at that list of side effects: breathing difficulties, skeletal problems, fainting, inability to participate fully in exercise. The female adolescents wearing binders have reproduced all the problems of tight-lacing corsets, this time in the service of restrictive anti-femininity rather than restrictive femininity. So is issuing guidance to reduce the harms of binder-wearing in schools an act of care for transgender children, or an abdication of it? Is the role of adults in authority – whether parental, educational or medical – to validate everything that comes under the rubric of transition, regardless of long-term consequences, or could another approach be better?

The number of children who identify as trans is small, but rapidly increasing: referrals to the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust’s gender identity development service have doubled year-on-year. Putting gender-nonconforming youths on a medical track opens the possibility that they will be prescribed puberty blockers, delaying the physical changes of adolescence that individuals may find distressing. Later, treatment can include cross-sex hormones and surgery to create the desired sexual characteristics.

For many, this can alleviate profound anguish about the self, but not without costs. The long-term effects of hormone therapies aren’t known, and won’t be until the current generation of trans children have lived well into adulthood. There’s a risk that increased medicalisation could be imposing permanent physical changes on children who, left to their own devices, would discover they are quite happy living with their natal sex – about 80 per cent of children diagnosed with gender dysphoria desist before adulthood, but the normalisation of medical transition could commit many to irrevocable treatments they would otherwise avoid.

Remarkably, as I found out when I worked on a long feature on the subject, there isn’t any agreement on what gender identity is or how it relates to the physical body. Which means that transitioning children are receiving an untested treatment for an undefined condition. Medicine often involves a surprising degree of idiosyncrasy and guesswork, but this uncertainty both about what is being treated and the effects of the treatment should be a cause for caution. While many who transition find it wholly positive, not everyone does: doubt and detransition happen, and these stories tell us that the quickest path to reassignment is not always the best treatment for someone presenting with dysphoria.

Sometimes, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria might mask a different underlying cause to a child’s distress. Psychiatrist Susan Bradley reports that children with cross-sex identification are often (not always) either responding defensively to a violent background or engaging in the obsessive behaviours associated with autistic spectrum disorders. A policy of “watchful waiting” – listening to the child, supporting them and giving them freedom to experiment and develop – is vital if we are to give children the kind of help they really need. But in an environment where anything short of total and immediate reinforcement is deemed abusive, “watchful waiting” is not an option.

One more problem: if gender dysphoria is conceived as the problem, and gender reassignment as the solution, then transition represents the summation of a process which should in theory resolve everything. In practice, newly-transitioned young people (especially those crossing the threshold from child and adolescent mental health services to adult provision) can find themselves stranded, no longer in receipt of the support they had during transition. We simply aren’t getting the treatment of transgender children right if we’re only treating their gender.

The consequences extend well beyond children who identify as trans, of course. Schools are suffused with sexual harassment and sexual violence, yet girls are expected to accept a child they previously knew as a boy as female like them, or be called bigots. The naturalisation of sex-stereotypes in parental narratives of transition surely has a limiting influence on other children’s conception of sex-appropriate behaviour. For some gender-nonconforming children, the cultural celebration of transition leads to anxiety about whether they themselves should be trans, even if they’re happy in their bodies. Certainly, many gay and lesbian adults have looked back on their own childhoods and remarked nervously that their behaviour then would qualify them as trans now.

If we’re not able to address these issues, then we’re manifestly failing children. But addressing them is incredibly difficult: practitioners who privately mention their doubts about current approaches to gender noncomformity are afraid to ask questions publicly, anticipating personal attacks and the loss of their jobs.

They’re not wrong to do so. After announcing the Dare to Debate event, the NSPCC was put under sustained pressure, I was persistently abused, and following the withdrawal of the other panelist, the charity cancelled the event. Previous installments in the series have looked at child sexualisation, foetal alcohol syndrome, and asked whether the investigation of child sexual abuse has tipped into “hysteria”, but apparently it would be just too daring to talk about gender. Doctrine so bitterly defended that it must even be protected from good-faith debate is a kind of restrictive garment for the intellect. Wearing it can ease our mental pangs. But the damage it does besides is very real.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.