From the people who brought you cultural relativism...

The post-modernist lobby has a new craze. We all have to "check our privilege" before entering into a discussion, about anything. So check yours now please

State your privilege...
Ben Mitchell
On 31 May 2013 12:56

I usually make it a rule not to get caught up in debates on topics I know little about. For one, everyone likes to think they can ‘win’ an argument. We all suffer from self-delusion on occasion. Second, you risk looking like a fool when you run out of things to say. Hence, not a bad rule to stick to.

And so a couple of months ago I stumbled across one such debate - if you can call it that where social media is concerned - on Twitter. Helen Lewis, New Statesman’s deputy editor and witty Twitterer, was facing a barrage of abuse from a number of (predominantly) women about a short piece she’d written on “perfection in language.”

The main thrust of her argument was that certain contemporary feminists have become unhealthily obsessed with language to the distraction of almost everything else. In fact, her point wasn’t just confined to feminism.

I found myself nodding furiously in agreement as Lewis highlighted the utter futility of attempts to police language, and for some to decide what is and isn’t acceptable discourse:

“Ruthlessly stripping every potentially problematic phrase from your language is utterly impossible in practice. I’ve seen people try: they contort their prose into long, rambling sub-clauses, strings of acronyms and neologisms. And by refusing to use any word or formulation that anyone, anywhere might object to, they make their writing unreadable by everyone.

“There’s no point in your language being “correct”, if only 12 of your friends can understand it.”

Various Twitter exchanges saw Helen attacked from a number of “IFs.” That’s Intersectional Feminist to you and me. Essentially, a group of feminists who believe that in order for one’s theory (or world view) to be valid, it needs to recognise – through language, amongst other things - the lived experience of other marginalised groups who may intersect with one another. The white liberal feminist ignores the oppression of the black, disabled, transgender one, at her peril. You get the picture. Although I’d believe you more if you said you didn’t. Few do.

The phrase now commonly used to berate someone who has failed to include other oppressed groups in their thinking is “check your privilege.” An irritating phrase at that.

Yesterday, Louise Mensch took on the enticing challenge of exposing “CYP” for the reductionist nonsense that it is.

“CYP” is basically an exercise in semantics which leaves feminism (and other theories) with almost no meaning. Most crucially, it gets you nowhere, except caught up in a game of linguistic gymnastics which never ends.

It’s not just something one finds in feminist circles. Anyone, anywhere, risks having their ‘privilege checked,’ should they be so bold as to utter a word or two about any topic, no matter how mundane.

Dan Hodges wrote an amusing tale of his own privilege checking, and liked what he saw. Well, he would wouldn’t he?!

By the end of yesterday, we were all at it. I even wondered whether there was some sort of league table with its own points system. From the very oppressed heading the pack, to the too privileged by half, facing the threat of relegation. One point for being a ‘PoC’ (person of colour. Keep up), two for being a ‘WoC’ (yep, you guessed it. Woman of colour.) With bonus points up for grabs depending on sexuality and disability. You’d probably be on minus points if you fall into the male, white, middle class category.

Tragically, that’s me. Until it dawned on me that I’m also Jewish. A proud member of one of the most oppressed groups in history. Privilege checkmate.  But, then I realised that lefties don’t regard Jews as oppressed minorities. Pesky Israel always gets in the way, and some of the stereotypes about Jews must have some grain of truth, surely? Look at Hollywood and the world’s media. I was back on minus points again.

The thing that’s most struck me about all this is how much it bears the hallmarks of the very people who brought you moral and cultural relativism: the post-modernist lobby. There is no one set, accepted, view of the world. No right or wrong, but a collection of opinions, each as valid as the other. Passing judgement must be done whilst recognising disparate voices, but one must not be too loud so as to drown out the rest. In the end, what you’re left with is noise.

The “CYP” brigade may claim they’re not trying to censor to debate, but merely asking us to be aware of where we’re coming from in time and place. I have no qualms with trying to empathise with others. Understanding that some of us live very different, and yes difficult, lives, is basic humanity. This is a good thing.

But, this need to pick people up on every word and phrase that leaves their mouth, because their language has (inadvertently) offended or excluded is counterproductive in the extreme. Trying to create a world of words that pleases everybody is destined to fail and will only do what the privilege checkers and intersectionalists set about hoping to avoid. A world where only a select few can join and even fewer understand. 

Ben Mitchell is deputy editor of the political blog the Speaker's Chair. He has written for the Independent, Huffington Post, LabourList and elsewhere. He tweets at @bmitchellwrites

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