Rich, white, hetero males vs the United Victims of the Diversity Rainbow – an example of how the world doesn’t work

There was an interesting post on the New Statesman yesterday about the narcissism of small differences and the way people on the Left fight among themselves. One of the ways is “privilege-checking”, which the white, male hetero writer explained as follows:

For the uninitiated, “checking your privilege” amounts to maintaining a constant awareness of ways in which you might accrue some social, cultural or economic benefit as a result of your background: your class, race, gender, sexual-orientation and so on. If someone speaks out of turn, they’ll be instructed to check their privilege. It’s a cuff round the ear, a way of saying: think about how your personal circumstances might influence what you’re saying.

Privilege-checking plays into the dangerous postmodern fallacy that we can only understand things we have direct experience of. In place of concepts like empathy and imagination, which help us recognise our shared humanity, it atomises us into a series of ever-smaller taxonomical groups: working class transsexual, disabled black woman, heteronormative male.

Also implicit in this new conception of “privilege” is a simple idea: the more points you score on the privilege bingo card, the less weight your view carries. This has the catastrophic effect of turning debates about racism, sexism, transphobia, class and disability into a game of Top Trumps, but equally importantly, it ignores the long history of social progressives, from Karl Marx to Tony Benn, who hail from privileged backgrounds.

From the outside I would say that privilege-checking is an aspect of the Left’s obsession with victimhood. It’s good to want to protect vulnerable people, but when victimhood becomes the overriding motive it can distort an argument, the default position being to take the side of whoever is the chosen victim. If you look at the blog posts on the New Statesman site many follow a clear pattern of identifying a victim – in some cases, the writer.

The problem with such sacred ideas is that people are often victims and villains at the same time, and there are usually victims on both sides. Jonathan Haidt wrote about this in The Righteous Mind, people’s sense of injustice stemming from an innate need to protect the weak. It’s a moral urge, but it can produce some perverse ideas; for example, the pro-choice Haidt says the sacralisation of women as victims has led to otherwise reasonable people defending the monstrous practice of abortion in the sixth or seventh month of pregnancy.

The public debate about immigration has been dominated by the identification of immigrants and minorities as inevitable victims of white racism; in many cases opinion-formers have lived such experiences, witnessing ugly racism in their predominantly white schools. It was only with the identification of women subjected to forced marriage or worse that some on the Left were willing to criticise immigrant cultures; it’s only the realisation that poor people (potential victims) are the biggest losers from our demographic revolution that some will admit that change is not entirely beneficial.

On crime, the Left tends to see young offenders as victims, “the most vulnerable members of society”, except in the case of violence against women. Domestic abuse is (rightly) a big issue for magazines like the New Statesman, yet if you really wanted to curb this horrendous crime one of the most effective ways would be to lock up violent offenders in general until their body stopped producing large quantities of testosterone. Similarly with honour killings, sex-selective abortion, the mentally disabled victims of crime, the child victims of easy divorce laws, Christians in the Middle East… in most areas of life victims are most likely to be victimised by other victims. Very rarely is it rich, white, hetero males vs the United Victims of the Diversity Rainbow, except to those journalists who went to Oxford with lots of rich, white, hetero males.

On drugs, people on the Left often talk about drug legalisation in terms of “treatment”, as if drug users are passive victims, whereas drinkers and smokers are active, adult wrongdoers and taxpayers. It’s why we have the bizarre dichotomy in which drug dealers are villains and drug users victims; surely either both are doing something wrong, or neither is? The same line is taken with the sex industry, although here it is the seller who is viewed as the victim.

The next big cause is mental illness. Depression is a devastating illness, but mental illness is also too easy to self-diagnose, too spectral and widespread (who is totally mentally well?), and hard to disprove. It can therefore confer victim status on those previously excluded, and acts as a get-out-of-jail-free card; the Hari Defence, one might call it.

The claim to powerlessness is also popular because disadvantage is a sign of personal brilliance, since an individual who has come from poverty to write for national publications is one of genuine talent; as it is there are incredibly few younger journalists at the top who come from disadvantaged backgrounds – off the top of my head I can only think of Caitlin Moran. This may reflect the closing down of opportunity in society, or it may just be the declining fortunes to be made in journalism, which in the age of the internet is turning into a semi-amateur pastime. A person born into poverty with great talent and energy to escape is hardly going to go into a job that pays so badly.

And I think, when it comes down to it, that’s the subliminal message of pretty much most articles about inequality and injustice: why are all my Oxbridge contemporaries making so much more money than me?

This article was published at Telegraph Blogs

What do you think?