Standing in opposition to the dominance of privilege

Being aware of one’s own privilege doesn't detract from the struggle - working to ameliorate its effects can only enhance what we are trying to achieve.

At risk of sounding recursive, I’d like to highlight problems with a New Statesman blog entitled “The problem with privilege checking”. Its author, Tom Midlane, won the privilege lottery, and reckons that we should stop highlighting problematic language and behaviour displayed by those with the luxury to not have to think about it, as it lets the right dismantle the welfare state while we’re not looking. 

Now, first of all, let us acknowledge that this exact assertion is very much untrue. The wheels have been in motion for a long time, long before the coalition came into power. None of these things happened because the opposition was too busy arguing over privilege to do anything else; they happened because we live in a system which is set up to benefit the people with the privilege. It doesn’t help that the tactics which may have historically worked - the marches, the boycotts, the coordinated letter-writing campaigns - don’t really work so well any more, as time marches on and the system develops resilience to these approaches. 

As it stands, those in power are comfortably conserving their social order, and making themselves a little more comfortable at the expense of everyone else. This must be opposed. All of it. Yet by avoiding checking our own privilege, the best possible outcome is that the social order will continue to be conserved, with those at the top taking less from everyone else. 

For those who benefit from the existing social order - the white, able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual middle-class men - this is enough. For many of the rest of us, it really, really is not. A lot more needs to change before we stop facing oppression, and that revolution begins in the mind. The conservatives are happy to dismiss this pressing need and continue doing what they are doing without a care in the world for the people that will be harmed. For the most part, it is not malice that motivates them, but sheer negligence. They just don’t care.

Those of us standing in opposition to this dominance cannot and must not fall into the same trap, or we run the risk of creating something which is merely another movement representing the interests of the privileged. This movement can never be as strong as the dominant order, as the majority of its target audience will inherently be part of the dominant order. So we need to do things differently. 

Far from detracting from struggle, being aware of one’s own privilege and actively working to ameliorate its effects can only enhance what we are trying to achieve. We must be willing to be radically different from those in power if we are to avoid alienating those less privileged than ourselves. It is utterly urgent that we listen to those who we claim to be fighting for and avoid contributing to any continuing oppression. Without getting our own house in order, we are coming from an inherently weak position.

Oppression is far more than hate speech. It is insidious, it comes in the form of words and deeds which we were unaware could ever be a problem. The effect of negligence can be exactly the same as the effect of malice. It is our responsibility to mitigate these effects: ultimately, I too hope for the day to come where we no longer call upon one another to check privilege. For me, this will only happen when my allies in social justice are doing this for themselves. 

In reaching this understanding, we will be far, far stronger. It is interesting that the phrase “fighting with” carries a double entendre. At present, it is a struggle against resistance from those unwilling to rescind their own privilege and act in solidarity. However, “with” can also mean “alongside”. And in the future, I hope that we all fight with each other a lot more.

 

"Fighting with" can also mean "fighting alongside". Photograph: Getty Images
Gerald Wiener
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From the Kindertransport to Dolly the Sheep: a New Statesman subscriber's story

Gerald Wiener's life has now been turned into a biography. 

In 1997, Gerald Wiener, an animal geneticist, gathered with a group of friends in Edinburgh to celebrate the cloning of Dolly the sheep by one of his former colleagues. He was a respected scientist, who had contributed to the developments in research which led to this ground-breaking development – and a New Statesman reader.

It could have been very different. Gerald was born Horst, on 25 April 1926, to a German Jewish family. Raised in Berlin by his mother, Luise, he grew up under the shadow of the Nazi regime. He was forced out of his school, and left increasingly alone as friends and family fled to the United States and Britain. After Kristallnacht, when Nazis looted and vandalised Jewish-owned businesses, his mother was desperate for her son to escape. She managed to get him included in the last-ditch organised rescue of German Jewish children, which became known as the Kindertransport. At twelve, Wiener arrived in the UK, alone.

For many years, Wiener did not talk much about his past in Germany. Instead, he embraced a new life as a British schoolboy, and later travelled the world as a scientist. But when he met his second wife, the teacher and writer Margaret Dunlop, she began noting down some of his stories. Eventually she encouraged him to share so many details it has become a book: Goodbye Berlin: the biography of Gerald Wiener.

“I was moved by some of the stories, like his mother putting him on a train in Berlin,” Dunlop tells me when I call the couple at their home in Inverness. “I thought - what a terrible thing.”

“I rejected Germany totally for a long, long time,” Wiener, now 91, says. His mother, with whom he was reunited after she also managed to escape to Britain, threw herself into a wartime career as a nurse. “I had one friend from my school days in Berlin, and he was more like a sort of brother to me, but they also left Germany way behind.”

It was during this period of his life that Wiener first picked up a New Statesman. He spent the war years in Oxford, mentored by the Spooner cousins Rosemary and Ruth, related to William Spooner, who gave his name to the speech error.

Then, in the 1960s, his work took him to Germany, where he met fellow researchers. “They all detested the Hitler years,” he recalls. “I started feeling they are no different to me. I no longer felt bitter about Germany.” 

Still, the Nazis' atrocities had left Wiener almost completely without family. He lost his grandfather, aunt and uncle in the Holocaust. His paternal family fled to the United States. By the time Wiener found them again when taking up a fellowship to study in the US in 1956, his father, who survived the concentration camps, had died of a heart attack.

The next decades were spent patching his family together, and also reclaiming a connection to Germany. Wiener’s half brothers, who were born in Shanghai continue to visit. His American nephew, who works in the music industry, has a German girlfriend and lives in Berlin.

Wiener, too, went back to Berlin. In the early 1990s, the city invited former refugees to visit the city, all expenses paid. With some reservations, Wiener and Dunlop took up the offer. “It was quite exciting to go and see places that had been in my childhood,” he says. He also found the old people's home his grandfather had sought refuge in, before being taken by the Nazis.

Meanwhile, his career was taking him around the world, from India to North Korea. His belief in academic collaboration helped to build the momentum for the Roslin Institute, whose scientists eventually cloned the sheep known as Dolly. 

Wiener, who votes Liberal Democrat, wanted to remain in the EU, and he feels “very angry” that 48 per cent of voters have been ignored.

He adds: “I would be surprised if there was a single university or college who was in favour of Brexit.”

As for another of the great challenges of the present, the refugee crisis, Wiener feels a deep empathy for those living in wartorn regions. “Obviously I feel very, very sympathetic to refugees from more or less wherever,” he says. He sees the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who acted decisively on this matter, as “a bit of a beacon”. At the same time, he believes that in order to fully integrate, refugees must make learning English a priority. “When I go down the street, and I hear people who still don’t speak English, that is the one thing that upsets me,” he says.

If Wiener, a successful scientist, is an example of how Britain can benefit by continuing to offer sanctuary to the world’s desperate, there is, however, a dark undertone to his integration. As a teenager, he knew there was no way back to the Berlin of his childhood. “There was no young generation,” he says of that time. “There was no future.”

Goodbye Berlin is published by Birlinn Books.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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