FANS OF MONTY Python will recall the famous Four Yorkshiremen sketch in which four now-wealthy characters try to outdo each other in describing the squalor of their working class origins. Within seconds the conversation descends (or ascends in terms of comedy) into surreality: “We never ‘ad a cup. We used to drink out of a rolled-up newspaper,” etc. Anyone who has been involved in any Labour or left wing politics will have experienced this activity.
There’s a nuanced variation of the game, called “checking your privilege”. This time, following the left’s innate love of hair-splitting internal conflict, you can rubbish someone’s opinion by claiming they have some kind of “privilege” that disqualifies them from having the right to speak in the first place. As Tom Midlane in the New Statesman succinctly describes it:
“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.
So, for instance, if you are privileged because you are middle class, you may talk about the working class but only as long as you’re not critical of them. If you’re a man (of the standard hetero type, that is), you definitely cannot say anything about women unless it is fully supportive of their struggle against the repressive heteronormative patriarchy and are prepared to bear the burden of guilt personally. If you are white, then nothing critical can be uttered about non-white people – you have to be absolutely committed to equality, diversity and multicultural rainbow niceness that requires you to apologize for imperialism, slavery and racism while generally indulging in cultural self-abasement of the most obsequious kind.
THE OBJECTIVE THINKER will notice that the intellectual traffic is distinctly one way here: left and left again. Freedom of thought is encouraged, provided you end up at the pre-ordained conclusions. Marcuse, with his theory of “repressive tolerance” would have approved.
It also neatly fits in with the current rediscovery of old-fashioned class war. Cameron and his mates, for example, cannot possibly understand ordinary people because they’re toffs, awash with just about every privilege: class, whiteness, education, heteronormativity, race. Therefore they’re not equipped to govern.
I prefer to think they’re not equipped to govern because they’re idiots. Conversely, Labour’s representatives are awash with similar privilege, are also out of touch with normal people and are equally unfit to govern because they, too, are idiots. This probably hasn’t occurred to the readers of the New Statesman.
But to return to the main theme. Aware that the privilege game is counter productive, Midlane adds another twist:
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.
Here we see another progressive tactic at work, ie, always blame capitalism for your own failings even if you have to do it in the most tangential ways. And employ a new vocabulary while you’re at it: pretentious words like “cisgender” and “heteronormative” make idiocy sound clever.
Once you’ve checked your privilege and boned up on the relevant terminology then you can get on with the heroic task of fighting the Coalition instead of your comrades.
In the meantime I’ll raise you my council house on a post-war estate. In’t north.