Portraits in Pride

It was with no little irony that, only days after I wrote on Barclays’ use of Pride to pinkwash its image, the bank was accused once again of corruption and fraud. Strangely, Barclays’ Twitter account failed to mention this. They’re probably too busy loving gays:

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They’re pink. Do you see what they did there?

This brilliant piece by @spitzenprodukte succinctly captured how (and why) Pride lost its way. Cleverly inverting the usual claim that the event is no longer political, he wrote that:

…’Pride in London’ will continue to support the values of the police and the establishment; the supremacy of property rights, marriage, the oppression and othering of people of colour, and racist attitudes towards foreign cultures. It is wrong to say Pride is now a depoliticised event: it is more politicised than ever. It has been turned over to the service of the dominant ideology, and so is harder to distinguish from the cruelties and injustices of everyday life. We have lost Pride. 

There is perhaps no greater illustration of Pride serving ‘the dominant ideology’ than the presence of arms dealer BAE Systems on the parade (covered by at least one other blogger this week). The Campaign Against the Arms Trade has good material on BAE where you can learn, for example, how it helped the despots in Bahrain crack down on pro-democracy protestors. This ‘crack down’ (a euphemism if ever there was one) led to over 90 deaths and the widespread use of torture. You can also read about BAE’s close ties to the regime in Saudi Arabia – by all accounts one of the most authoritarian and brutal governments in the world. It should be no surprise that LGBT rights in Saudi Arabia are dire, given that human and LGBT rights should be synonymous. As Pride reveals, however, mainstream LGBT politics is lacking any incisive notion of human rights and is easily swayed towards targets which serve the dominant ideology – as evidenced by the sound and fury over Russia compared to the relative silence on Western ‘allies’ such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt (the latter two also being countries where BAE’s bloody prints are to be found).

The response from Pride regarding this (take from Symon Hill’s blog linked above) is extraordinary:

Organisations apply and BAE have an LGBT group. Change can come from within. We will not abandon and disengage with LGBT groups who strive for the right and the freedom to express themselves

‘Change can from from within’? What does that even mean?! These people work for an arms dealer. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Pride wasn’t basing that response on any concrete evidence that BAE’s LGBT group have an agenda to make their arms dealer a bit nicer(!) but were rather grasping at straws. They become even more offensive when they speak of not being willing to ‘abandon and disengage’, as if the employees of BAE Systems are oppressed rather than being part of an oppressor. We will not ‘abandon and disengage’ with this arms dealer as they continue to profit from death, torture and destruction – some of them are LGBT! It beggars belief.

Of course, one central staple of the modern LGBT movement in countries like the UK is that most of the real problems are over there. It my be selective in the countries it fixates on, but the finger tends to be pointed firmly away from ourselves. As such there is no real pressure to consider the role of a company like BAE Systems in violating basic human rights. There is certainly no pressure to consider our own foreign policy and the role of our armed forces, who are also marching on the parade. In fact, the Pride site proudly trumpets:

28th June is also Armed Forces Day, and once again we are delighted and honoured to have members of the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force marching in the Parade. 

This can easily be seen as part of the continuing militarisation of our civic life where an oppressively infantile attitude towards ‘OUR BRAVE BOYS’ becomes ever more unavoidable – witness Labour’s absolutely abhorrent plans to make ‘abuse’ of the armed forces a ‘hate crime’. This serves to shut down critical discussion of our foreign policy and the role of the military in it, as well as examinations of the military itself (e.g. the systemic reports of sexual harassment, assault and rape). Vron Ware’s entire Up In Arms series looking at these issues is essential reading.

Looking at the pressures to blankly cheer aggressve authority leads neatly to the presence of the MET Police on the Pride march. For a certain kind of Pride attendee, the MET will undoubtedly be the friendly face of ‘law and order’ in London – the nice people who come and help when you’ve been burgled, the attractive officer they send to ‘liaise’ with the LGBT community in Soho bars. Yet, somewhat ironically, if Pride were to have more explicitly political (and anti-establishment) aims you can be certain that the MET would not be marching but rather aggressively policing it as part of their efforts to intimidate and delegitimise protest. These efforts, lest we forget, have seen the police brutalise students and even kill innocent (not that it should matter) bystanders.

An awareness that policing is not some apolitical, neutral institution should be central to Pride which, after all, marks the anniversary of the riots against police which are iconically known as ‘Stonewall’. The radicalism of that event, and the fundamentally key role played in it by people of colour, trans people and sex workers, has been erased over time (look no further than the timid conservatism of the charity named after it). It’s highly relevant that the MET Police remains institutionally racist to the core – the view not of some cranky blogger but of itsown people. It is only a few months since the inquest verdict on the murder of Mark Duggan revealed the racist faultlines of the UK and shone some light on our racist policing. There is also transphobiacontinuing persecution of sex workers and widespread misogyny. The police’s role as an aggressive enforcer and defender of the state is clear, from its spying through its attacks on squatting to its complete lack of accountability for its brutality. In short, unless you’re a comfortable white cis male with no urge to protest or rock the boat in any way, you have no reason to cheer a police force which is unaccountable and out of control.

These are three of the most egregious examples of Pride’s service to the ‘dominant ideology’ but other Pride participants are like a who’s who in fraud, tax avoidance and other unethical behaviour: CitibankPWCMicrosoftDeloitte,VodafoneBPRBSKPMG. The conduct of each could be examined on its own but, as Losing Pride argues, their presence at Pride is testament to its transformation from a radical liberation movement which explicitly linked LGBT rights to wider social justice into one where visibility within injustice is an end in itself. And so:

Once you have reached the bar of being out and proud, any further structural or material concerns are a private matter, and unrelated to your sexual identity or politics.

And you can be certain that this will be the response of many to these concerns: what BAE Systems and co actually do is irrelevant, what matters is that LGBT people can be represented within them. Aside from being anathema to the foundations of Pride, this attitude is both fed by and feeds into the atomisation, individualisation and depoliticising which characterises modern capitalism. Legal ‘equality’ within a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, imperialist system which relies on the immiseration of the majority of humanity is no equality worth marching for. Rather than providing pinkwashing in return for some money, Pride should be a safe space of radical awakening. The links between LGBT liberation and wider social justice should be writ large and we should actively oppose the continued (and hypocritical) use of LGBT bodies and identity by companies which demonstrate time after time after time that their profit comes before human dignity.

The Next Four

 “The first five patients were white,” remembered Gottlieb. “The next two were black. The sixth patient was a Haitian man. The 7th patient was a gay African-American man, here in Los Angeles.”

It is accepted now that HIV originated in Africa and first made the leap to humans (from primates) in the 1930s. One of earliest known cases of human infection appears to be a man in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1959. It’s suggested that the DRC was, in the 1970s, the location of the first AIDS epidemic – one that was largely heterosexually-spread. HIV and AIDS then spread throughout the African continent from where, researchers suggest, it travelled to Haiti and then entered the ‘northern’ countries such as the USA. Dr Jacques Pépin has argued (read this link – it’s truly fascinating) that the global spread of HIV owes much to colonial rule in Africa.

The first ‘official’ case of HIV/AIDS in the USA has been retrospectively claimed as Robert Rayford, an African-American teenager from Missouri who died in 1969. It’s also been suggested that Ardouin Antonio, a Haitian man who died in Manhattan in 1959, could have been one of the first cases in the northern hemisphere. By 1981, when Dr Michael Gottlieb and his team identified what would soon come to be known as AIDS, there were already many thousands infected in the USA.

You will notice in the quote at the start that Dr Gottlieb recalls the first five cases he identified were in white men, while the next four consisted of people of colour. HIV/AIDS, of course, primarily affected men who had sex with men in countries like the USA (although doctors also reported the condition as present in intravenous drug users and their children in 1981.) What’s relevant here is that over 40% of the people reported as having AIDS in the initial period (1981-1987) of what we now know as the AIDS crisis were non-white.

As you may have gathered by the picture at the top, I was caused to think about and revisit this history by the broadcast (in the USA) of The Normal Heart, HBO’s Ryan Murphy-directed adaptation of the Larry Kramer play which was one of the first works to directly address the crisis. There has been a fair bit of advance publicity for this movie, due in large part to the veritable galaxy of stars appearing in it (and of course Murphy’s Glee/American Horror Story successes). I don’t think it’s being overly cynical to say that it has ‘award season’ written all over it, and the critical response has been predictably positive. I thought it was alright: it felt overlong and Murphy’s direction was all over the place but it’s fairly efficient as the polemic it’s clearly intended to be. It was impossible for me not to notice, however, that in the decades since the 1985 play was written much of its scenes have passed into the realm of cliche. You can’t fault Kramer for that, of course, but if you’ve seen any major drama or film about AIDS (almost always set in America) you’ll find much of this film very familiar.

This in turn, then, led to the observation that these dramas keep telling the same stories: those of white gay men. The gimmick of the recent, much-acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club was that the main character was straight but even that felt the need to throw in Jared Leto as a white Jiminy Cricket-esque transexual sidekick (to ‘represent’ the LGBT community, apparently). During The Normal Heart I started to notice that, amongst the cast of implausibly attractive, uncommonly famous actors there was barely a non-white face to be found and only one significant female character. A black man sometimes pops up in the background of what is supposed to be Gay Men’s Health Crisis but I don’t recall him having any lines, while a woman who is heavily implied to be lesbian shows up to volunteer and then is quickly forgotten.

Kramer was clearly writing from his own perspective here and GMHC was indeed set up by six white men. It’s churlish to complain about that, especially when these men definitely deserve to be remembered. Yet I feel uneasy at the narrative the film pushes, one which fits neatly into that already told in most of the famous AIDS dramas you can think of. It’s a narrative where HIV/AIDS and the activism surrounding it is seen to belong almost entirely to white men (who don’t even have non-white lovers, despite living in cities like New York) in rich countries. It’s also one where the radicalism offered is of a peculiarly blinkered kind.

There’s no better way to explain what I mean by that last comment than to link to the words of Sarah Schulman and Roberto Vazquez-Pacheo. Both former members of the radical group ACT-UP, they provide some valuable context which is almost entirely missing not only from aforementioned AIDS dramas but even most of the documentaries I’ve seen about the period. Schulman writes here about the make-up of the group:

There were all different kinds of people who joined ACT UP. Most of the women were already politically active because they’d been trained in the feminist movement. There were some men who came from the gay liberation movement, who also were radicals and had experience. There were people who came from the left. There were people who had been in the Black Panther party, but they had been in the closet. There was a guy who’d been in the Nicaraguan revolution, he had been in the closet as well. Jeff Gates. He died.

But the vast majority were gay men who had never been politicized. Some of them were everything from wall street brokers, to party boys, to quiet men living at home… they didn’t know anything about politics.

The clear picture here is that queer politics existed prior to AIDS activism and it intersected with other political movements which fought for liberation and against power. For his part Vazquez-Pacheco speaks not only of the tensions raised by being a man of colour in a group dominated by white people but of class. The ‘professional middle-class’ white guys felt betrayed by the system they had ‘grew up with’ but felt it could be ‘repaired’, having to be educated as to how that system had never served many of the non-white, non-male, non-professional groups affected by HIV/AIDS.

You can see this all over films such as The Normal Heart and Dallas Buyers Club, which present the awakening political conscious of men affected by HIV/AIDs but don’t really go any further than that. It remains a single-issue cause dominated by said men seeking to wrest some concessions from the white men in power. The politics of Dallas Buyers Club is particularly dubious in that it presents a straight white man unleashing the entreprenurial power of capitalism to combat lumbering, inefficent vested interests (healthcare and government) and helping the simpering queers while he’s at it – there is a single scene which acknowledges the radical activism which was taking place at the time. We’re presented with the veneer of radicalism (pretty much the sole reason for Jared Leto’s character existing, aside from providing some tragedy) when the story actually tells us that the system works if you make enough noise for long enough.

There is certainly no consideration of global politics, poverty and power structures. In all of these stories Africa is an irrelevant abstraction and AIDS has descended upon its northern victims like a sudden plague from God. It’s no surprise, then, that while the dramas/documentaries will usually draw attention to global HIV/AIDS figures there will be little to no attempts made to present the wider reality of the situation. Even in the USA, non-white people made up a majority of HIV/AIDS cases by the early 90s and today black/African-Americans make up the vast majority of new diagnoses. Factors like poverty and access to health care have been clearly linked to HIV rates while Against Equality have documented how (for example) these issues intersect with race in the prison industrial complex. Worldwide, almost 70% of HIV/AIDS cases are found in Africa while North America/Western Europe, which all of the portrayals focus on, accounts for less than 7%.

So what, some people will say – most of these depictions are made in North America/Western Europe and these stories deserve to be told. It’s inevitable that some will take this blog as an attempt to downplay the carnage caused by HIV/AIDS to men who have sex with men in the north. This isn’t intended at all. Rather, I think these depictions matter in framing HIV/AIDS as a currently existing problem and how we approach it. For example, Dallas Buyers Club is premised upon a man illegally buying drugs to treat HIV – a situation which not only is hugely relevant to healthcare access in so-called ‘privileged’ countries but which clearly parallels the issues surrounding big pharma monopolies on drugs in Africa. The Normal Heart, meanwhile, pushes the buttons of a certain audience (HBO is a premium cable channel) and keeps alive the idea of HIV/AIDS as a disease of white gay professional men. It’s not disrespectful to those who have died or to those who have fought to acknowledge that the fight isn’t the same. It’s largely not about us any more, even when numbers of us continue to be infected and even when we need to organise and fight against the austerity which cuts HIV/AIDS treatments.

That’s why I think it’s important to present the reality of HIV/AIDS and stop the erasure of non-white men from its story – it’s perhaps the most powerful way to build solidarity with those afflicted elsewhere in the world (and our own countries) and make us begin to realise that their situation is intricately connected with our own. HIV/AIDS is not so much an individual problem which can be solved by a noble men or men obtaining concessions from those in power as a systemic one. I think understanding it on that level fundamentally alters our response to it.

Beginning to question these connections and even how countries like the USA may benefit from them is part of a real modern-day radicalism, not getting dewy-eyed over a rose-tinted period of activism performed by actors who will reap not only awards but the plaudits of a world which continues to see these portrayals as terribly ‘brave’ (in itself a homophobic response).

The main character of The Normal Heart says early on “I hate that we play victim when many of us, most of us, don’t have to.” It’s a complacency which is quickly shattered and becoming a real victim fills him with an incandescent rage. You can never fake such a rage because you can never fake experiencing horrific oppression and nor should we ever try to. We shouldn’t and cannot downplay the fights which need to be fought but these have never been solely about sexuality and we cannot forget that. We cannot forget that our liberation is always to be found linked in feminism, anti-racism, anti-poverty, anti-colonialism.  It’s for this reason that it’s so desperately important that the stories of ‘The Next Four’, and all they can be seen to represent who came before and since, are told.

Tom Daley, Jessie J and the Certainty of Boxes

We really, really don’t like it when people don’t fit neatly into boxes we understand. Boxes which, for one reason or another, we’ve been led to believe are ‘acceptable’, ‘normal’ and ‘the way things are’. Without wishing to downplay the very deliberate uses of power and historical processes which lie behind so much bigotry, it can be said that any identity deviating from straight, white, masculine, conservative, materially privileged male has to varying degrees suffered in our society’s past (and present). This fact has inspired great liberation movements, most notably centred on gender, race, sexuality and class, which have had made palpable gains and resulted in a UK where almost everyone is seen to be formally ‘equal’.

A lot of my writing, focusing on the LGBT movement, has attempted to parse this formal equality and ask if our liberation has become a barrier to lived equality. Much of the thoughts and ideas I draw upon are taken from feminist and anti-racist circles, where debates about the nature of equality and critique of mainstream movements which are ostensibly ‘on their side’ have a more notable and vocal modern history. The most obvious current example is the concept ofintersectionality which has so vexed many feminist writers with platforms. Despite its rise to prominence in the past year, the term was coined in 1989 by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and specifically arose from (and was applied to) black feminism. You can read more about it in this Bim Adewunmi piece. It’s interesting and not a little ironic that the current ‘debates’ about intersectionality have served to highlight how apropos the theory is. Oppressions and discriminations are not experienced identically by all members of any minority group and, indeed, can be actively perpetuated within these groups.

While it’s clear that the issues raised by intersectionality show no sign of being resolved any time soon, at least the theory has broken through in feminist discussions. The same cannot be said about the LGBT movement, which remains highly monolithic and stuck in its ways. There is next to no mainstream discussion (including within the mainstream LGBT media) of how our communities may actually perpetuate oppression. It was noticeable how swiftly Lily Allen’s gay fanbase attacked the notion that her ‘Hard Out Here’ video was racist, while consideration of wider racism within the LGBT community is largely confined to whether or not it’s acceptable to specify colour ‘preferences’ on Grindr etc (clue: it isn’t.)  The recent Rohin Guha piece on gay male misogyny was met with derision and condemnation, even when its assertions were being borne out by high-profile aspects of ‘gay culture’. As a community we don’t seem keen on self-examination, preferring instead to be validated by condescending marketing and anything we can grab hold of which assures us of our victimhood.

That piece on victimhood arose from consideration of biphobia and the supporting columns a sexual identity required in order to be viewed as ‘authentic’. What do people have to have experienced before we accept whichever label they’ve chosen as being truly them? As I noted in that blog, it’s fascinating how differently this plays out with women and men and this week has given us great illustrations of this with Tom Daley and Jessie J.

When Tom Daley made his video announcing that he was in a relationship with a man, I said that his sexuality immediately wasn’t his any more. Despite his care not to label himself and to state that he liked both men and women, he was widely reported as having ‘come out’ as gay. Even though some quarters corrected this, the overwhelming response from within the LGBT community seemed to be a very familiar one (seen in the Andrew Sullivan blog linked at the end of that piece)- that he was really gay and was just saying he liked women to make it a bit easier for himself (and for people around him). It was not only dishearteningly biphobic but seemed determined to shove a teenager into a neat box in order to make him more gratifying. It was with interest, then, that earlier this week I read various headlines announcing that Tom had said he wasactually ‘a gay man’. This, of course, doesn’t excuse the initial response for one second but it was impossible to begrudge the guy the chance to feel comfortable in his own skin.

It took me a few days to actually get around to reading any of the pieces and when I did, I was quite confused. I had previously assumed that Tom had given an interview but it transpired the headlines had come from Celebrity Juice, a supremely dumb show broadcast on ITV2. When I watched clips of the show I was even more dumbfounded: the words ‘I am a gay man now’ don’t actually leave his lips. Instead the very loud and overbearing host tells a clearly nervous Tom ‘you’re a gay man now’, to which he replies ‘I am’. And that’s about it. The word ‘gay’ is mentioned by the host a few more times and Tom seems unphased but he doesn’t make any point of renouncing any previous words. In fact he states again that he made the Youtube video to “be able to say what I wanted to say on my own terms, without anyone twisting anything.” From these spectacularly nebulous seeds came stories asserting that Tom Daley has admitted that he isn’t bisexual at all, declaring ‘I am a gay man now’“Tom Daley isn’t bisexual”Tom Daley has officially come out as gay”“‘I am a gay man now’, Tom Daley admitted” and perhaps best of all “I”m definitely gay not bisexual.”

Notice the use of ‘admitted’ there, from both mainstream and LGBT sites. His statement that he still fancied girls, made only 4 months ago, is treated like some flimsy pretence that everyone knew was just a bunch of lies really. To make it clear, I couldn’t care less what Tom Daley labels himself as – but taking the words ‘I am’ on a comedy panel show premised on the host taking the piss out of the contestants and turning them into the stories above is absolutely absurd. It underlines the urge for neat boxes and a narrative we understand – and ‘gay man says he likes women but actually only likes men’ is one we understand.

Contrast that with the response to Jessie J saying that she now only likes men,labelling her attraction to women as ‘a phase’. The liberal Guardian printed a column calling this ‘a shame’ (and hilariously asserting “I would never deny Jessie J, or anyone else, the right to define themselves, identify with whatever sexuality they want or reject labels altogether” – no, that’s what you’re doing in this column.) Jessie J’s full response was apparently penned after a furious online response to her initial declaration that she only liked men. I saw many responses stating that she had ‘betrayed’ and ‘exploited’ the LGBT community – this gay site says she used sexuality as ‘a fashion accessory’ and like The Guardian says that she’s fed the idea that bisexuality is a phase.

Are we seeing the fault lines here? Because they are really instructive as to how fucked up even ostensibly ‘progressive’ attitudes towards sexuality are and how powerful the grip of the victimhood narrative is on the LGBT identity. If Jessie J had written that liking men had been a phase and she was now gay, we would have accepted it in the blink of an eye. No-one has attacked Tom Daley for ‘undermining’ the bisexual identity, after all. I also suspect that if Tom later said he was straight the response wouldn’t be fury but pity – people would think he was lying to himself, not that he had tried to make himself seem more interesting by pretending to like men. We don’t even have to make that assumption – straight male celebrities do not receive furious backlashes for flirting with bi/homosexuality:

Instead they are fêted by the LGBT media and much of the community, treated as icons and allowed to pump us for all we’re worth.

When people assert that Jessie J has ‘betrayed’ the LGBT community, they should first stop and ask why said community is so quick and eager to elevate anyone and everyone who either lets us think we might be in with a chance of a fuck or simply says they like us…they really like us! They should ask why we’re so celebratory about straight celebrities who make the right noises about being receptive to same-sex advances. They should ask why we’re so tolerant of these ambiguities when we’re so insistent that anyone who ever feels a same-sex attraction CHOOSE THEIR LABEL and stick to it (though if they say they’re bi we’ll probably just ignore that anyway).

There is evident sexism in these differing responses, yes. There is also a modern and unhealthy relationship to celebrity, where we feel better placed to comment on the ‘real’ nature of these people than they do. There is an unappealing, immutable attitude towards sexuality – it’s presented as something we’re working towards, something we discover and come to terms with and then do not alter in any way for the rest of our lives. The ‘Born This Way’ idea. Who cares if we’re not? Are people any less deserving of respect, of happiness, if they ‘decide’ to switch sexuality at age 45 or have sex with a different gender, or people who don’t identify as traditional genders, each week?

That final point isn’t entirely facetious because the fixation on an immutable, clearly defined sexual identity seems interwoven with the dominant concerns of the modern LGBT movement. If we can get married, we can ‘settle down’. You don’t get a much more easily understood box than ‘married couple’ and that ‘respectability’ ties in nicely with the LGBT movement’s adoption not only ofdeeply conservative companies but of a wider anti-radicalism. Groups likeAgainst Equality which stem from at least 50 years of queer radicalism are ever-increasingly viewed as bitter cranks by the movement. And so we buy further into the racist, sexist, capitalist mores of mainstream society while becoming less and less tolerant of any critiques which might make us feel uncomfortable about this.

Yet as the different responses Tom Daley and Jessie J underline, it’s imperative that we ask difficult questions of ourselves and debate what ‘liberation’ and ‘equality’ mean. The certainty of boxes might help marketers and make us a bit more palatable for homophobes but it makes us blind to our problems and diminishes us as people.

Pulp and Privilege

Pulp’s ‘Common People’ memorably skewered class tourism – the idealization of working-class life and poverty by people who never had to face its day-to-day reality. It was a common theme of the Britpop era but certainly hasn’t been confined to those years – you need only look at our current cabinet to see that ‘slumming’ it remains very real, with multi-millionaires assuring us that they’re just ordinary folk. It’s most notable, however, when it comes from those of a left-wing bent for whom wealth and power is implicitly associated with privilege, inequality and oppression. Few people want to be seen as advantaged at birth, as having it relatively easy. We all want to think that we have worked hard for what we have, that every benefit has been earned. 

The ease and comfort with which many can claim to be working-class while clearly not being comes largely from the view that class is a socially-constructed identity rather than being derived from (and embedded within) socio-economic structures (or more fundamentally as Marx would have it, distinguished by relationships to the means of production and labour power). As I have written before, the idea of class as a foundational determinant in society is a deeply unfashionable one. Instead the attitude neatly summarised by Laurie Penny holds sway – “all politics are identity politics” and class is but one identity amongst many others (with the emphasis usually falling upon gender, race and sexuality). I don’t wish to go into that here – though there is a lengthy and compelling demolition of that idea linked to in this post – but instead want to briefly look at how relates to the ‘class tourism’ we are all familiar with.

There has of course been a lot of recent discussion around notions of privilege and ‘privilege-checking’ stemming from various disagreements, debates and arguments largely revolving around the words of writers like Caitlin Moran, Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill. This in turn has led to a wider blow-back against the ideas from other writers. Their criticisms have common threads – privilege-checking is portrayed as ‘shutting down debate’, as the current weapon-of-choice of self-righteous morally pure internet warriors, as an attempt to lend credence to a form of ‘bullying’. Yet any rational look at these claims would surely swiftly find them wanting – it makes absolutely no sense for people with hugely powerful platforms, read by many thousands of people, to claim that they are somehow being ‘silenced’ by people on Twitter (and indeed the swift responses printed in places like The Guardian, New Statesman and The Times render it a laughable claim). Given that the point of a columnist is to push a particular opinion, arouse interest and ultimately generate income, it seems counter-intuitive that a columnist can then decide that they don’t like the debate they have initiated. Yet that is exactly what we’ve been seeing and, with tedious inevitability, there have been efforts to portray the ‘check your privilege crew’ as another kind of ‘troll’ (a phrase which many writers have already attempted to co-opt).

One of the interesting things about this whole issue is that the writers most inflamed by it are ones who spend an inordinate amount of time writing about forms of oppression. Throw a metaphorical dart at the comments section of left-leaning broadsheets and magazines and you’re liable to hit a piece on sexism or homophobia (racism is notably less common – unsurprising given most of the writers are white). You would imagine, then, that they would be hugely sensitive to questions of privilege. What complicates matters, however, is that many of the pieces focus on the ways in which the writers themselves are victims of oppression (albeit usually presented as more widely applicable). Indeed, there are entire journalistic careers, various blogs, Twitter accounts and more dedicated to documenting the various ways in which we are oppressed – but crucially, the focus tends to be on one form of oppression only (misogyny, homophobia etc). Undoubtedly many important issues are covered but it becomes problematic when it is seen to become a self-perpetuating industry where a tunnel vision develops. There is no glory in being seen to be ‘privileged’, no columns to be had and this makes that first-hand oppression that little bit more complicated. It requires the acknowledgement that not everyone affected by sexism or homophobia experiences these things in the same way, for example, or that people can be affected by these things whilst themselves being privileged (or even oppressive) in other ways.

Yet many seem unwilling or unable to hear this. As with class tourism, they are keen to portray privilege as something enjoyed by other people and portray their own relationship solely in terms of how they themselves are (or are seen to be) oppressed. With this mindset it’s easy to see how  ’privilege-checking’ becomes a threat, pointing out as it does that many of these people enjoy huge advantages (including over most of their critics). As I wrote in the piece on ‘trolls’, these writers are part of the Fourth Estate and act as gatekeepers to their positions. They jealously guard their privilege, seeking to control which views, and which debate, is seen as ‘acceptable’ and ‘serious’, hence the endless and constant dismissal of more radical voices without large media platforms.

This is underlined and illuminated by the fact that many of these people are swift to rush to their own, self-serving take on privilege-checking when it suits. I have personal experience of this (e.g. having a dissenting view immediately dismissed on the basis of being a man disagreeing with a female journalist, despite it having zero relevance to the subject) but it’s a subtle and insidious tactic which can easily be met with incredulity. It’s even more difficult to notice when we’re so frequently asked to focus on extreme and indefensible abuse which has nothing to do with disagreement. A perfect example of this is when Suzanne Moore shared this post in an effort to prove that she was being ‘bullied’. Moore’s own intransigence and abuse was erased from the story. Furthermore, most of the featured tweets weren’t to Moore (meaning that she would have to have actively sought them out in order to be ‘bullied’ by them) and several of them were clearly nothing more than strongly-worded venting (which we may find distasteful but is hardly worthy of state intervention). This isn’t at all to deny that some of the abuse was, as I say, indefensible but the post served its purpose well – it immediately portrayed a writer with a massive audience who had been grossly offensive as a ‘victim’. Then follow the pieces calling for something to be done about the the tone of ‘debate’, lumping in strong disagreement with mindless abuse. The platform ensures that thousands of people heed the call, dangerous behaviour becomes synonymous with words we dislike, it becomes ever easier for people to be locked up for writing something, and the cycle trundles on. 

Given their prominent roles in shaping debate and framing the boundaries of acceptability, it should be expected that writers for national publications (and more) are aware of their enormous power. Few would disagree that abuse should be addressed, that patriarchy is very real or that inequalities need our attention. Yet we should be (and need to be) wary of the rush to deny wider privilege and to repeatedly highlight only the ways in which we can be seen to be victims. Identity politics can, deliberately or otherwise, serve power well (recently exemplified in the portrayal of arch-hawk Hillary Clinton as a feminist hero for her ‘performance’ when testifying regarding the Benghazi attacks which saw at least four people dead)  and this is just one of the lessons to take from the growing calls for intersectionality.