This article originally appeared at Left Futures, 31st July 2013
For those who needed further confirmation that Blairite party-within-a-party Progress has fallen into the realm of self-parody, you need only look to one of the latest gems to appear on the website of the “magazine”. Labour is not listening to rural England, writes Chris Calland. And how better to start the reparations by maximising the voice of that infamously-underrepresented group: men.
Oh yes – “a Labour Men’s Network? How about it?” And how about a White History Month too, I wonder. Three words came into my mind: check your privilege.
But hang on a minute. Surely no-one says that phrase anymore unless in an act of parody? After all there was no mention of CYP from Bex Bailey, who rightly slammed the article, when it would have been the first phrase to spring to mind in the responses of yestermonth. Austin Mitchell and Andrew Pakes are among those who have been on the receiving end of the phrase, quite literally. Yet recently I’ve heard it said that this simple imperative is now jaded and meaningless.
It’s some months now since the media storm on the subject of “privilege-checking” – when all of a sudden the luminaries of columnism began to opine on the silliness of the three-word phrase that was thrown at them so often.
Tory-MP-turned-MenschBozier-founder Louise Mensch kicked off the storm back then, saying privilege checking is a “profoundly stupid trope that states that only those with personal experience of something should comment, or that if a person is making an argument, they should immediately give way if their view is contradicted by somebody with a different life story”.
Although there was much hitting-back at the time, there was little challenge to Mensch’s claim that “check your privilege” should be seen as a “trope”. Understandably so – for the phrase’s tropey-ness is what makes it so catchy – it’s three words that capture so much. As Laurie Penny wrote at the time, not to shut down debate, but to open it up.
The imperative form and succinctness of the phrase also opens up something else: the potential for humour. I might be sauntering down Tottenham Court Road with my nose in the air. The conductor of the 24 bus might shout at me: “Oy! Check your privilege mate!” And then I’d have to bugger off and do exactly that, whatever it might entail.
The press had a lot of fun with this at the time of the media storm. In the Guardian, the compulsively-funny Tim Dowling helpfully provided a privilege check quiz. There’s also something humourously satisfying in any phrase that fights back against those who always think they know best.
But this ignores the fact that the phrase is in fact pretty self-explanatory. Rather than quite enjoying the pretence of being confused by academic jargon or “intersectional bollocks” (Mensch’s words), maybe take a minute to think about what the words mean.
It really is all about basic common sense. I found myself repeating this over and over again when Dan Hodges told me I was “bonkers” for using the phrase in rebuttal to his claim that the siege laid on Nigel Farage on his visit to Scotland was akin to the EDL’s intimidation of Muslims.
What I merely wanted Hodges to acknowledge was the fact that privilege makes a whole lot of difference when physical and verbal abuse is hurled. Maybe I should have just said “think about privilege”. But I wanted to be snappier and more scathing than that. There’s not one extensively-essayable meaning to “check your privilege” – like every bit of language that short, it can branch out in all sorts of areas, but its gist is clear.
It was ludicrous of Dan Hodges to suggest that “discrimination” and attacks on the Englishness of a white, male establishment politician is in any way comparable to the oppression of minorities – indeed, a minority with very little privilege in British society – by violent thugs.
Yet as Calland’s article demonstrates, even on the supposed “progressive” wing of politics, there are still an awful lot of people out there who need their privilege checked. I found myself thinking the same only last week, when discussing the Diane Abbott #tacticsasoldascolonialism debacle with a number of young people active in the “far-centre” National Organisation of Labour Students. I was the only one of the group who maintained that Abbott was not “racist” in the comments she made about “white people” as a general group. The others simply did not accept that racism was defined by institutional privilege as well as generalisation.
There it is again – privilege. The term “check your privilege” provokes so much derision because so many in the bastions of respectability – liberals as well as conservatives – are blind to privilege.
Liberals display an astonishing self-delusion in assuming that we all start in the same place when engaging in debate and discussion. Surely privilege should be one of many things we check when considering the arguments we make – alongside our knowledge of the subject and the reasoning of our opinions.
Laziness, faux-outrage and the pretence of ignorance are among the most frustratingly-ubiquitous elements of debate and journalism. When you’re fed up of railing against it, what could be better than a three-word phrase that sticks it to an establishment that assumes sovereignty over comment. There’s room for scolding and humour – I recently opined that the royal baby should check his privilege – but there’s a serious (and simple) message nonetheless.
Columnists might not like being advised by their readers – but that’s hardly news. As Chris Calland and all those liberals and mansplainers have demonstrated, we need privilege-checks more than ever.