Tag: Activism

Trying to get to grips with privilege theory

Sometimes it’s best to get your head round a particular issue by using an analogy – so here goes… I work as a freelance photographer and recently had to do a photo shoot at a warehouse in Basildon. It was a freezing cold day and having worked for the best part of four hours, I felt frozen to the core. Yet the lads in the warehouse had to put in an eight hour shift in the freezing cold – so that put me in a better, more privileged position than them. When I was working there, some of the lads were loading up a consignment of blankets, sleeping bags and other items which the company had donated to a group helping homeless people in Southend. We all agreed that frozen though we were when working in the warehouse, we were all better off than the homeless in Southend having to fend for themselves on the streets in sub-zero temperatures.

This could be described as a hierarchy of privilege with me sitting on top in the most privileged position as I only had to endure the freezing cold for four hours! This analogy may seem flippant to the purists but it’s a useful starting point in understanding privilege theory and seeing where you stand in relation to others. Let’s face it, privilege theory can be a minefield and it’s all too easy to inadvertently put a foot wrong and find yourself blown sky high for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time! So anything that helps in gaining an understanding of it is to be welcomed…

Is there any point to privilege theory or is it, as some commentators have suggested, a way for a certain section of the activist community to signal how virtuous they are? I see privilege theory as an extension of intersectionality that as I’ve written previously, has plenty of merits, so I should see privilege theory as also having some merits. Acknowledging that someone involved in a struggle with you is getting screwed over worse than you are because of their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. should really be a matter of basic human decency and common sense.

Listening to someone who is being screwed over in more ways than you can be a useful and educational experience as they could well have some useful insights into the power structures that dominate the society we endure and more importantly, some useful tips and tricks on how to fight against them. The aspect of privilege theory that says those who are more marginalised, exploited and oppressed need to be able to have a voice should be taken as a non-problematic given, with one caveat… Namely that the range of experiences articulated be aggregated as far as is possible in order to come up with a coherent analysis of the situation and more importantly, a strategy to deal with it. That means those of us who are perceived as more privileged also being able to take part in the discussion in a role of solidarity to help to formulate an analysis and a solution.

Check your privilege! This is one statement that delivered in the wrong tone, can get peoples backs up and start to drive them out of activism altogether. We live in a deeply flawed and dysfunctional society and it’s a struggle to avoid internalising some of the shite assumptions that underpin it. Some of us do out level best to recognise that we have inadvertently internalised some crap assumptions and try to not let them creep into our conversation or the way we behave. But you know, we’re only human and sometimes we slip up and come out with stuff that on reflection we shouldn’t have. Shouting at someone who’s slipped up to ‘check your privilege’ isn’t going to help matters in any way, shape or form.

Following up ‘check your privilege’ with ‘it’s not my role to educate you’ only serves to make the situation even worse. Believe it or not there are some of us in activist circles who have not had the benefit of a university education and might need a few pointers to resources that will educate us as to how the existing structures of power screw some groups over more than others. So instead of coming out with a snotty ‘it’s not my role to educate you’ response, how about showing some common human decency and help to point people who want to learn more in the right direction?

What makes things really shite is when someone you don’t know makes assumptions about you based on your appearance. I may be white, male, working class and (just) the wrong side of sixty but it doesn’t mean I’m narrow minded, set in my ways and not prepared to listen to a different point of view. All I ask is that if I make an inadvertent slip, that could well be down to the jingoistic, patriotic shite we had rammed down our throats when we were at school in the 1960s. Please accept that not everyone is perfect and in what is still a racist society, with the best will in the world, dodgy assumptions do get internalised. All we ask is that we’re helped in acknowledging and overcoming them rather than written off as uneducated trash.

It’s all about the context though… If I’m being pulled up over an inadvertent slip, how I react very much depends on who is doing the pulling up. If for example, I’m being pulled up by a woman of colour who is at the sharp end of the shite society throws at her ranging from having to look over her shoulder to avoid any racist bonehead who wants to abuse or assault her through to trying to avoid unwanted attention from Home Office immigration vans, I’ll listen to her and happily acknowledge my error. That’s because that with her experiences, it’s probable that she’ll have some pretty sharp insights into the way power structures work that me in my relatively more privileged position may well not have picked up on. Listening to her story will be an educational experience and an act of much needed solidarity.

On the other hand, at the end of 2013 when an Oxford educated writer from a well off background with a regular column in a left leaning weekly publication pulled me up in an online discussion and suggested I ‘check my privilege’ please forgive me for having gone ballistic! This was in relation to a massive online row involving numerous participants over comments made about the Multiculturalism & Identity Politicshttp://www.iwca.info/?p=10146 – article I wrote for the IWCA back in September of 2009. At the time this happened, I was scraping a living as a door-to-door leaflet deliver on the streets of Thurrock while struggling to deal with what was then an undiagnosed prostate condition. Being told to ‘check my privilege’ when I was feeling anything but privileged didn’t exactly help matters. As I stated earlier, it’s all about the context isn’t it?

There are certainly merits in acknowledging where people are being screwed over in more ways than you are, listening to them, showing solidarity and being able to aggregate their experiences with those of others to develop an analysis of a situation and devise a strategy to deal with it. This should be one of the basic building blocks of any movement that’s serious about delivering radical change.

Where it goes wrong is when certain elements in radical movements twist privilege theory to suit their own agendas of shutting down debate with people they disagree with. I’m not talking about debate with right wing bigots because we don’t debate with them! I’m talking about the disagreements we have in radical circles where people in a certain clique shut down debate with any other radicals who they disagree with by saying ‘check your privilege’ in a tone which pretty much suggests they’re beyond redemption. It’s this holier than thou attitude from certain elements that’s creating a level of toxicity which is driving good people away from the movement. Given the dire threats we face from a resurgent right, we cannot afford this level of division so please, can we all just chill out, learn to accept each others imperfections and then work together to overcome them?

Dave (the editor)

The perils of ‘call out’ culture

There are two strands of call out culture I want to deal with in this piece. The first is what happens within activist circles when people are pulled up for not being one hundred percent with the programme, fully up to date with the language needed to express that and inadvertently end up saying or writing something that’s deemed to be offensive or oppressive to a particular individual or group. The second is when some people on the left / anarchist end of the political spectrum are engaging with ordinary working class people (well we can all dream, can’t we?), they hear something they don’t agree with and rather than asking some more questions as to what informs that viewpoint, they go off on a judgemental rant instead. Both are damaging – the first to the all too fractured movement we’re trying to salvage and the second to any meaningful attempt to re-engage with working class people.

Let’s deal with what happens in activist circles first… I’ve seen people driven from the movement as a result of a significant minority of activists who see themselves as holier than thou pulling up other activists for making slips in their language or nor fully being ‘with the programme’. The problem being is that the ‘programme’ tends to be somewhat fluid and the terminology expressed to further the ‘programme’ can be subject to alteration and amendment by the self selecting clique directing the ‘programme’. Woe betide those of us who for whatever reason, have not kept ourselves fully up to date with what this self selecting elite are thinking and deeming to be the correct thing to say and do.

There are a lot of people like me involved in various forms of activism who realise that we don’t know everything and that a fair chunk of being an activist involves a learning curve. A lot of us are specialists and while we have areas of expertise, there are issues that we have to admit, we’re pretty ignorant about. For example, I know a fair bit about issues such as housing, ‘re-generation’ and social cleansing which is why quite a few posts on those issues feature on this blog. On the other hand, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m nowhere near to being up to speed on issues such as gender politics and there’s no way I’d be arrogantly presumptuous enough to attempt to write posts about it for the blog.

We live in a dysfunctional society and it’s a constant battle to avoid internalising some of the crap we’re bombarded with. For those of us who have five or more decades on the clock, please bear in mind that when we were being raised, society was even more racist, sexist and homophobic than it is now, although I do fear we’re moving backwards. The point is that we want to unlearn the crap that we’ve internalised against our better judgement. We’re human and being human means we’re flawed and sometimes we slip up and come out with something that’s not quite right or is slightly off message. We’re not intending to be malicious, it’s just that if we’re tired or under stress and the cognitive process is accordingly impaired, the wrong words can slip out. It’s not something we want, it just happens that way…

We want to learn to get a better understanding of oppressions, how they interact and what activists can do to fight them. But you know, there’s only so much we can do because there are only twenty fours in the day and as much as we’d love to, it’s not possible to devote all of them to keeping up to date with every aspect of political theory right across the board. So if we do make a genuine error and ask for some pointers to improve our understanding of a particular piece of political theory relating to our activism that for whatever reason we’ve not immediately grasped, please don’t brush us off with ‘it’s not my job to educate you!’ It’s the job of all comrades to educate and help each other so collectively we can improve our understanding and analysis to enable us to devise better strategies and tactics. Sniffily telling someone who may have slipped up or not quite got the point (ones that seem all too often to be expressed in arcane, complex language) that ‘it’s not my job to educate you!’ is not comradeship in any way, shape or form – it’s elitism, pure and simple. Bear in mind that some of us in activist circles have not had the benefit of a university education.

If someone has slipped up and inadvertently said or written something that could be deemed as not quite right, here’s a suggestion, call them in rather than call them out. Calling in, I’ll explain – rather than a public humiliation in a meeting or online, how about a quiet word after the meeting or an e-mail to explain where someone has slipped up. We’re human and as such we’re flawed and can’t be on message 24/7 and we’ll admit that there are times when a prod to put us back on track is necessary and if it’s done in a comradely fashion, will be genuinely appreciated.

As I’ve written before, obviously there are situations in activist circles when people do need to be called out because they are behaving like egoistical dickheads and they show no sign of wanting to change their ways. We’ve all been there, trying to change the behaviour of comrades who love the sound of their own voices, dominate meetings and generally end up disrupting the running of a group. That’s when the calling out of genuinely shite, oppressive behaviour is needed for the group to be able to continue to function.

It may just be me but it seems that a lot of the toxicity in call out culture comes from an element of middle class, university educated activists in the movement. Please note I wrote ‘element of’ and not ‘all’… There are plenty of middle class, university educated activists I know who do have an understanding of the human imperfections of fellow comrades and are more than happy to point us in the right direction when we slip up – to those people, I offer my unconditional thanks. Like a few problem households on an estate having a disproportionate impact on the quality of life there, a minority of holier than thou activists who’ll call you out and castigate you for the slightest slip can have a damaging impact on the movement. Given all that we’ve got to face in the next few years, is it asking too much for these holier than thou activists to research the meaning of the word comrade, act on that meaning and cut us mere mortals some slack?

Now onto the second strand concerning engagement with ordinary working class people. If by some chance an activist finds themselves in a working class boozer in Thurrock, gets into conversation with one of the regulars and hears them say – ‘my local UKIP councillor is okay and I’m glad I voted for him’ what should be the correct response? Do you go into a rant, labelling the UKIP voter as a racist bigot? (advisory – for reasons of personal safety, it’s best to not adopt this tactic in a working class boozer in Thurrock) Or do you start a dialogue with the UKIP voter to find out why they cast their vote the way they did? A dialogue that may well reveal the fears and concerns of the voter which could well be something that we should have a better analysis of and (long term) solution for than the UKIP councillor. Or it could be that the UKIP councillor actually has some sound views on issues such as the need for genuinely affordable housing and that’s what swung the vote? Bear in mind that at a local council level, UKIP councillors tend to be pragmatists and can sometimes come out with some sensible ideas – we as activists need to recognise that and ensure that our response to them is more nuanced, otherwise we end up looking like caricatures of ourselves.

If when I stood as a candidate for the Independent Working Class Association in the local elections back in 2007 and 2008 I had adopted the attitude of the holier than thou radical activists when out canvassing, I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes! Instead, I listened to people’s concerns and hopes first, and then started a dialogue to try and change minds when I thought they were heading off in the wrong direction. Obviously if it was becoming clear I was talking to an unreconstructed bigot, I’d terminate the conversation as swiftly as possible before moving on. The point is to not immediately judge people on the basis of one throwaway remark but instead, have an honest dialogue with them first before coming to a more nuanced judgement. Bear in mind that from our experience on the doorstep, most people are apolitical and will hold a range of views that stretch across the political spectrum – something that political activists on both the left and right can’t seem to grasp.

Drawing things to a conclusion, I’m starting to think that the minority of elite ‘activists’ who see themselves as holier than thou and call out other less privileged activists for minor slip ups and deviating from the programme are doing it as a form of virtue signalling as opposed to actually achieving anything. The same applies when they castigate working class people for expressing views they might not agree with instead of entering into a dialogue in an attempt to win them over. Could it be that this happens when particular activist groups have become so disengaged from the public they’re supposed to be winning over and instead, substitute a genuine attempt to change the world with pointless point scoring as to how ‘right on’ they are? Whatever the case, this self selecting, self referential, elite group of activists need to take a long hard look at themselves and sort their priorities out. Because if this tendency isn’t reined in, more good people will be leaving the movement and the forces of reaction will be gaining even more of a foothold.

Dave (the editor)