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Hugo Rifkind

Check my privilege? I have, thanks. You’re still wrong

8 June 2013

9:00 AM

8 June 2013

9:00 AM

This week, I bring you a dispatch from the frontline of pseudo-intellectual, metropolitan navel-gazing. This is, after all, what you pay me for. So right now the big thing for people who consider themselves warriors against nasty isms and phobias (of the sexism and homophobia varieties, not the Blairism and arachnophobia varieties) is to undermine each other constantly via accusations of intrinsic privilege.

‘I am a feminist!’ declares somebody, via a book or blog or Tumblr or tweet.

‘Aha!’ retort others, ever vigilant for this sort of thing. ‘But have you canvassed the views of Somalian refugees who are weekending female impersonators in Anglesea?’

‘Um, no?’ replies our proto-feminist.

‘Check your privilege!’ retort the angry denizens of cyberspace. ‘You are a tool of the patriarchy! Go to hell!’

[Alt-Text]


Seriously. That’s how it works. No, I don’t know what they get out of it either.

Granted, you may be wondering why you should give a damn. ‘This is The Spectator, Rifkind,’ you may be thinking. ‘Let the radical left undermine each other however they please.’ But I’m afraid intervention is required. For one thing, this instinct — to shriek ‘check your privilege!’ at anybody who says anything and then consider this the end of an argument — is pernicious, and spreading, to the extent that it’s only a matter of time before somebody does it in a newspaper that isn’t the Guardian. More importantly, it’s simply screamingly annoying when people piously employ arguments they don’t understand at all. Wrongness I can stomach. Incoherence of wrongness, not so much.

It comes, all this stuff, from the vogueish notion of intersectionality — the contention that hardly anybody who is marginalised is marginalised for just one reason, and if you focus on the main reason for their marginalisation then the more marginalised bits of their marginalisation end up being more marginalised still. (God, but it’s fun on the left. I mean, isn’t it?) As theories go, this one isn’t wholly mad. The trouble is, it has become faddish among people who don’t read books or essays but merely tweets and internet comments, and thus don’t know what they are talking about. So what you end up is with a kind of minority Top Trumps, and a sort of spreading, infectious belief that the more box-tickingly disadvantaged a person is, the wiser, kinder and more all-seeing they must be. And it’s stupid.

In truth, as anybody who has ever been mugged can tell you, society’s most disadvantaged can be right bastards. Indeed, they’re often right bastards to each other. Certainly, mainstream society might harbour issues with, say, Islamic fundamentalists and post-op transsexuals for similar reactionary conservative reasons. But this does not entail, much as the dumb left might wish it did, that these two groups are thus each other’s natural allies. I mean, come on. Think more. Sometimes, your enemy’s enemy is even worse than him.

What’s revealing, though, is the ease with which this kind of gibberish takes root among the online, Laurie Penny-ish cyberleft. In a vacuum, ‘Check your privilege!’ is a perfectly reasonable request, merely asking people to consider the possibility that their own background or experiences might have some bearing upon their views. But Christ, what kind of solipsistic nutjob isn’t doing this anyway? Personally, I sometimes feel like I preface every second article with a frank disclosure of who I am and where I come from. Even for those less defensive, it’s basic human courtesy to at least bear such things in mind.

The fact that ‘Check your privilege!’ has even become a thing is symptomatic of the modern tragedy of the British left. This is what happens to a political movement when it gets colonised by sanctimonious, humourless, self-loathing middle-class hypocrites, perhaps of just the sort I’d be myself if I were devoid of any irony, wit or self-knowledge. You can imagine them all having it scrawled on to Post-it notes stuck up on the top of their monitors, without which they’d all be in genuine danger of forgetting that the world included people not like them. Or so I think, but maybe it’s just my privilege to have been brought up acutely aware of my privilege. Who knows?

The snoopers’ error

Eeek! The snooper’s charter is back from the dead! And still, for some reason, its advocates don’t seem able to grasp that the objections stem not from what they want to do, but from the manner in which they wish to do it.

It’s not about your web history, they say, or your browsing habits or anything like that. Rather, again and again, they use the analogy of telephones. The idea is that the law currently facilitates monitoring when terrorists or criminals ring each other, but not when they Skype each other or send emails. And, as Theresa May keeps telling us, all they want to do is bring the latter into line.

I believe her. But internet communications traffic is not distinct from other internet traffic. If you want to record some of it, you’ve got to record all of it. So if you want to stick with this telephone analogy, what this entails is not just the equivalent of recording details of whom you call, but something more like the equivalent of recording absolutely everything you ever do in any room of your house that has a telephone in it.

Then the assurance seems to be that the police and security services would somehow sift through all this, and only properly look at the bits they’d promised to. But they wouldn’t, would they?

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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