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
CREDIT: CREATIVE COMMONS
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Prostate cancer research has had a £75m welcome boost. Now let’s treat another killer of men

Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women.

The opening months of 2018 have seen a flurry of activity in men’s health. In February, figures were published showing that the number of male patients dying annually from prostate cancer – around 12,000 – has overtaken female deaths from breast cancer for the first time. Whether coincidence or not, this news was followed shortly by two celebrities going public with their personal diagnoses of prostate cancer – Stephen Fry, and former BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull.

Fry and Turnbull used their profiles to urge other men to visit their doctors to get their PSA levels checked (a blood test that can be elevated in prostate cancer). Extrapolating from the numbers who subsequently came to ask me about getting screened, I would estimate that 300,000 GP consultations were generated nationwide on the back of the publicity.

Well-meaning as Fry’s and Turnbull’s interventions undoubtedly were, they won’t have made a jot of positive difference. In March, a large UK study confirmed findings from two previous trials: screening men by measuring PSA doesn’t actually result in any lives being saved, and exposes patients to harm by detecting many prostate cancers – which are often then treated aggressively – that would never have gone on to cause any symptoms.

This, then, is the backdrop for the recent declaration of “war on prostate cancer” by Theresa May. She announced £75m to fund research into developing an effective screening test and refining treatments. Leaving aside the headline-grabbing opportunism, the prospect of additional resources being dedicated to prostate cancer research is welcome.

One of the reasons breast cancer has dropped below prostate cancer in the mortality rankings is a huge investment in breast cancer research that has led to dramatic improvements in survival rates. This is an effect both of earlier detection through screening, and improved treatment outcomes. A similar effort directed towards prostate cancer will undoubtedly achieve similar results.

The reason breast cancer research has been far better resourced to date must be in part because the disease all too often affects women at a relatively young age – frequently when they have dependent children, and ought to have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies have been caused by breast malignancy. Prostate cancer, by contrast, while it does affect some men in midlife, is predominantly a disease of older age. We are more sanguine about a condition that typically comes at the end of a good innings. As such, prostate cancer research has struggled to achieve anything like the funding momentum that breast cancer research has enjoyed. May’s £75m will go some way to redressing the balance.

In March, another important men’s health campaign was launched: Project 84, commissioned by the charity Calm. Featuring 84 haunting life-size human sculptures by American artist Mark Jenkins, displayed on the rooftops of ITV’s London studios, the project aims to raise awareness of male suicide. Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women. Suicide is the leading cause of male death under 45 – men who frequently have dependent children, and should have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies.

I well remember the stigma around cancer when I was growing up in the 1970s: people hardly dared breathe the word lest they became in some way tainted. Now we go on fun runs and wear pink ribbons to help beat the disease. We need a similar shift in attitudes to mental health, so that it becomes something people are comfortable talking about. This is gradually happening, particularly among women. But we could do with May declaring war on male suicide, and funding research into the reasons why so many men kill themselves, and why they don’t seem to access help that might just save their lives. 

Phil Whitaker’s sixth novel, “You”, is published by Salt

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge