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.