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
ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war