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Wednesday, June 05, 2013 

Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Oh, the fun there clearly is to be had on Twitter if you're a member of the squabbling classes.  Somehow, I'd managed to avoid knowing about this whole "check your privilege" thing, which has apparently become err, quite the thing.  On the surface, it's a perfectly reasonable concept and is closely related to thinking before you speak, only for those who spout on about politics. Do you have personal experience of the subject you're talking about? If you don't, do you think that if you had it might change your perspective?

Only, as is the way of the internet, it's gone beyond this and turned instead into a way to shut down debate and maintain the walls between self-identifying groups, some of whom are incredibly quick to take offence at the slightest perceived insult. Think the row that blew up after Suzanne Moore's throwaway remark that women were meant to aspire to the body image of a Brazilian transsexual, which quite incredibly led to someone trying to claim that she might have further incited hatred against the already under threat transsexual community there.

Enter both Louise Mensch and Dan Hodges, neither of whom are impressed with how this phrase seems to have become popularised. Not that Hodges actually argues against it, he just mocks it, which is pretty much how he approaches everything he disagrees with.  As for Mensch commenting on privilege, wouldn't it be lovely if all of us could abandon those we'd pledged to represent for 5 years to move to the US? Her wider point, that feminists in the US organise while those over here argue on the internet, is also easily disproved.

There are though obvious problems with approaching subjects from this perspective, and these haven't been adequately answered by those defending the practice. First, that it is utterly ridiculous to expect a work of fiction to address how you specifically identify yourself. As a twenty-something white British male, I literally couldn't give a shit about a bunch of twenty-something white American upper middle class females, which is why I haven't watched Girls. When Caitlin Moran tweeted she literally couldn't give a shit about how Girls doesn't include people of colour, despite being set in Brooklyn, she wasn't being racist, just pointing out that it's incredibly difficult to write about something you have very little knowledge of.  Lena Dunham might have plenty of black friends and acquaintances, or she may not, but clearly what she knows best and can both portray and satirise in equal measure is the world that she has lived in and experienced.  Write about what you know.  It's one thing to expect a soap opera to reasonably represent the wider world we live in, since it's at least somewhat attempting to be realistic, it's another to demand it of a comedy set in a contained world, however much it purports to be commenting on how we live now.

Second is the dead end of intersectionality.  I would say this as something of an old socialist, but there is nothing that divides and also unites us as much as class.  This isn't to deny that gender, race and sexual orientation don't also have a major impact on prejudice, or that at times they don't all interrelate, it's that this compartmentalising of everything is getting us nowhere.  The emphasis on identity politics has achieved many things, but it hasn't succeeded in having an impact on overall inequality.  Nor does it help when Laurie Penny comes across as condescending of anyone who doesn't understand the theory, saying that schoolchildren have been using the term on the internet for years.  Have they? Are all schoolchildren now studying sociology at an advanced level?

Third, and most importantly, asking someone you disagree with to check their privilege doesn't work when those they're actually talking about act in ways that don't fit their own prejudices.  Consider the extremely sad case of Emma West, the woman whose rant on a tram in Croydon went viral after someone filmed it and put it on YouTube.  To say that she was demonised wouldn't be putting it too strongly; here was the reality of casual racism in modern Britain, in all its uneducated, drunken glory, or so went the majority of the responses.  Only today did we learn of West's background when she pleaded guilty to the charge of a racially aggravated public order offence: she's suffered from depression since she was 18, and had only been released from a psychiatric ward two months previously.  On the day itself she had taken a double dose of her medication, explaining why she seemed inebriated.  Since the video was posted online the hearing itself has been repeatedly postponed due to her mental health, something not helped by the fascists and racists of both the National Front and BNP wanting to befriend her.  Thankfully, the judge has indicated he will be imposing a community rather than a custodial sentence.

Whatever the original worthy intention was, the "check your privilege" meme has turned into just another example of social networks reinforcing our original views rather than challenging them.  Despite Penny writing of bloggers changing their perspective when challenged with better information, my experience is overwhelmingly of the opposite, and as Twitter is a supercharged version of a personal blog, it only exacerbates this further.  Nothing gets solved, and unnecessary antagonism and mockery are the end result. Some of which, quite frankly, is downright deserved.

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