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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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital