No wonder Mensch finds privilege-checking uncomfortable – the Tory conception of ‘reality’ has never been inclusive
Louise Mensch is confused. The erstwhile MP and professional gadfly has published a blogpost decrying “privilege checking”, and longing to return to a species of “reality-based” feminism where everyone would stop bothering her about class, race and money. That’s the sort of reality Conservatives tend to prefer. The reason people often bother Mensch about class and race is not because she is personally ambitious, but because she has been personally involved in the Conservative effort to destroy the British welfare state. However, Mensch is not the only one loudly misunderstanding the phrase “privilege checking” – and I’d like to help her out, because it’s an important idea.
In her piece, Mensch singled me out for criticism because this week, after getting into a short debate with several black women on Twitter over the appropriate way to respond to racism, I accepted that they might know rather more than me about it, and apologised. The idea that somebody might change their mind based on new, better information, rather than “defending their position” come what may, is against the usual rules of the conservative commentariat. It’s completely normal, however, in the world of blogs and forums where I grew up as a writer. Now it’s entered the mainstream, everyone’s claiming ignorance in a way that makes me suspect they just don’t want to know.
Actually, “privilege” isn’t at all hard to understand. It just means any structural social advantage that you have by virtue of birth, or position – such as being white, being wealthy, or being a man. “Check your privilege” means “consider how your privilege affects what you have just said or done.” That’s it. That’s all. Being made aware of your privilege can feel a lot like being attacked, or called a bad person, and when that happens you sometimes get the urge to stamp your feet and scream, as Dan Hodges did at the Telegraph in another swipe at those pesky privilege-checkers. This is the point where it’s useful to take deep breaths and remember it’s not all about you.
Louise, Dan, it’s not all about you. Nobody’s trying to shut you up – you both, after all, have large platforms. Telling someone to “check their privilege” isn’t the same as censoring or silencing, but to people who aren’t often introduced to the concept that they might be wrong, it can sometimes feel that way. When someone asks you to check your privilege, it doesn’t mean you should stop talking – it means you should start listening, and sometimes that involves giving the other person in the room a chance to speak. That’s what often upsets people most about the whole idea. It’s about who gets to speak, and who has to listen, and social media is changing those rules.
Privilege is not the same as power. Nor is it a game whereby only the least privileged people will henceforth be allowed an opinion – the last time I checked, the political conversation was still dominated by rich white men and their wives. These are the people who go into spasms of outrage at the very notion that a black person, or a woman, or a working-class person might have as much right to an opinion as they do on matters that affect them. I’d like to reassure these people that taking away their monopoly on opinions is the very opposite of censorship, and furthermore that their whining is distasteful.
Privilege is not a zero-sum game. Most of us are privileged in some ways, and less privileged in others. The inevitable straw woman raised by those who like to get lip-juttingly cross about the whole idea that they might have “privilege” is that of the wealthy black, wheelchair-bound lesbian set against the straight, working-class white man in a contest over who is “more privileged”. The simple answer, of course, is that both have different sorts of privilege, and one doesn’t cancel out the other, because society is not, in fact, a game of top trumps.
“Intersectionality” is another new bit of equality jargon that the stiff suits in the conservative commentariat loudly claim not to understand – despite or perhaps because of the fact that schoolchildren have been using it on the internet for years. All it means is that you cannot talk in any meaningful way about class without also talking about race, gender and sexuality, and vice versa. These things intersect – that’s why we call them intersectional. In Mensch’s case, she advocates an understanding of feminism that she calls “reality-based”, which deliberately ignores class, and is based on the idea that every woman can and should become a banker or a politician. Tories of all stripes, including Tory feminists, have always preferred to exclude poor people from their definition of “reality”. It is entirely unsurprising that Mensch finds the idea of “intersectionality” uncomfortable, and she’s not the only one.
New words and phrases tend to make powerful people angry not because they are new, but because what they describe is modern and threatening. Repeatedly claiming that you cannot understand simple ideas like “privilege checking” and “intersectionality”, as people like Mensch, Hodges and many others have done, often means that you don’t want to understand. Some find it easier to argue “we don’t need this word” when what they actually want to say is “we don’t want this thing.” The conservative commentariat does not want to be asked to check its privilege – but it’s time to take a lesson from the internet and listen for a change. You never know, you might learn something.