The problem with ‘privilege’ (and the anti-cuts movement)

The problem with privilege-checking by Tom Midlane (from the New Statesman website)

I had this article tweeted at me earlier this week and the accompanying comment read “Privilege is a myth. Guess before you read whether it’s written by someone with a lot of it”. Actually, the article doesn’t say privilege is a myth, just that sections of the progressive Left have become tangled up in obsessive “privilege checking” while the Right gets on with cutting the NHS and other public services and benefits:

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.

The NS posted a response from Zoe Stavri (AKA Stavvers) here.

Midlane is definitely wrong about one aspect: the privilege checking culture is not getting in the way of opposing cuts to the NHS and public services. In fact, I am personally aware that some of the leading lights in the anti-cuts movement have never heard the term, and in two years of involvement in the Spartacus group of activists, I have never heard the concept come up, nor any discussion of who is more or less privileged than who or demands to ‘check’ gender- or race-based privilege. Most people in that movement use the term to mean the advantage conferred by wealth, political connections and having gone to the ‘right’ school and college. The term is more commonly used in the sense Midlane describes in feminist circles, not the anti-cuts movement.

However, I have seen damage done in other communities by people needlessly encouraging each other to consider ‘their’ privilege even if they are part of a group which is significantly disadvantaged. As a convert to Islam, I have read countless lectures on ‘white privilege’ and how it supposedly hugely benefits white converts, when in fact all converts are to a large extent outsiders in a community which is still heavily based on foreign culture and language: the sermons in Urdu, the difficulties we have in getting married, except to other converts, and the way some of us are “put on a pedestal” and expected to answer for the whole community or explain Islam, often before we’ve learned much ourselves. We sometimes hear that a scholar or public speaker like Hamza Yusuf is assumed to speak for the Muslim community rather than an imam from the Arabic-speaking world or Pakistan who grew up Muslim and is a more typical Muslim than any white convert is; however, this demand is a burden, not a privilege, for most of those it is made of, however annoying it is for ‘ethnic’ Muslims. (In Hamza Yusuf’s case, he has been Muslim since the 1970s and studied under various scholars in the Gulf and Mauritania, so that observation does not apply to him.)

There was no real need to have the debate about white privilege in the Muslim community: it still exists, but is not overwhelming, either in terms of how a convert (or a person born to two white Muslim parents) relates to “ethnic Muslims” or to anyone outside the community. It was an unnecessary disruption to the effort by a group of converts who had a fairly harmonious online community.

I have a couple of serious problems with the whole concept of privilege. One is that it often provides a convenient avenue for “me-tooism”: we can talk of specific disadvantages faced by specific ethnic groups, or we can talk of “white privilege”, which enables everyone (though the usual guilty parties are women) who is not quite white (or actually is white, but claims some Latin or Native American heritage) to lecture others about “white privilege” and pose as experts on race and oppression and how the other person (a whiter person than themselves, or a white person with an English surname rather than a Spanish or Italian one) doesn’t know anything and should defer to their superior knowledge. It also gives such people a licence to be rude or dismissive or to be downright bullies or bigots, to set people up and make false accusations of racist behaviour or intent, and dismiss any offence they may have caused with the mock-pitying whine of the school bully: “Awwww, did we hurt your precious fee-fees, white boy?”.

The concept is supported with various laundry-lists of specific privileges certain groups enjoy. The most famous (and original) is Peggy Macintosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which lists about 50 examples of white privilege, and this was followed by various lists for men over women, non-disabled people over disabled, straight over gay, cisgender over intersex or transsexual, and so on. Those I looked at in detail were Macintosh’s original list, Barry Deutsch and Stephen Schacht on male privilege and Jewel Woods on Black male privilege, and they all contain some entirely valid examples (Macintosh’s far more so than the others), but there are a number of faults with the other examples, including:

  • Trivialities (e.g. Macintosh #46)
  • Irrelevant examples, often based on the author’s assumptions about the reader (e.g. Woods #61 which assumes a common pan-Africanist perspective, as most Black American women are not affected by the custom he refers to)
  • Offensive examples, similarly based on the author’s assumptions (e.g. Schacht #10)
  • Confusing the privileges of a sub-group (e.g. dominant boys) with a whole group (in this case, all boys, e.g. Deutsch #18 and Scacht #19)
  • Trade-offs presented as unilateral advantages (e.g. Deutsch #26)
  • Opposite arguments glossed over or lightly explained away (e.g. the reference to soldiers in Deutch’s preamble)
  • Privileges that are of little or no advantage in everyday life for ordinary people (most of Woods’s examples)
  • ‘Privileges’ that are opportunities to harm others with increased chance of getting away with it, rather than (as is the case for all of Macintosh’s examples of white privilege) things which make a law-abiding life easier (e.g. Woods #16, #87, #92 and many others in his list)
  • Examples which are simply not true (e.g. Woods #21, Schacht #7 and #16).

The notion of privilege also over-emphasises group advantage and ignores individual circumstances, and this is perhaps why lectures to individuals about male or white privilege are not taken kindly, and result in defensiveness or even acrimony rather than the expected contrition. If the person given the lecture has a disability that was not obvious to the person giving it, or has had various personal difficulties that are nothing to do with their sex or race, or has actually experienced disadvantages that people of their class don’t normally experience (a man who has experienced serious sexual abuse, for example), they are not going to take kindly to being told they are privileged compared to those of the class that normally experience it (especially if most members of that class in fact do not). A woman who is in full-time employment (let alone someone with academic tenure) has no place lecturing about the gender pay gap to a man who has, for one reason or another, had extreme difficulty finding any meaningful employment. It reaches the limits of ridiculousness when it is used an an excuse for excluding transsexuals from women-only events, because (among many other reasons) a trans woman may have experienced horrific abuse before, during and after her transition.

This doesn’t mean someone shouldn’t be corrected if they give offence, or told if he has not taken into account a constraint someone of the other sex or another ethnicity has (e.g. it being unsafe to go to certain neighbourhoods at certain times, or at all); what should stop is the intricate examination of privilege, the one-upmanship and policing. Most of us accept that there are social advantages conferred by being white and/or male, regardless of personal experience, but there are some activists out there who entirely discount personal experience and seem to consider us to be the sum total of the groups we belong to. We are not — we are individuals and nobody is entitled to make assumptions about individuals, regardless of their apparent social status, on the basis of stereotypes, yet there are plenty of people who believe they are entitled to do just that.

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