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Writer at Reformer. Poet, folksinger and journalist.

Obsessing over social privilege is dangerously totalitarian

The current system of rights is our only hope in the battle against inequality

Folksinger Dick Gaughan's 1988 song Call It Freedom satirises a free society that allows its citizens to labour and die in poverty. Contrasting a deadly lyric realism about the world Gaughan observed around him in Thatcherite Scotland, with a sarcastic refrain “they call it freedom”, the song captures brilliantly the progressive critique of constitutional liberty.

What uses are the entitlements of citizenship to those who cannot claim their rights? What use is freedom to those working 60 hour weeks to barely survive?

Gaughan’s genius is the way he captures a landscape of struggle in terse, jutting lines. In the final, polemic verse he sings:

'So just remember if you're starving, you've got the freedom to starve
And if you're homeless, then you're free to have no home
And if you can't afford a doctor, well, you're free to die of sickness
You're just exercising free choice in the free world and having freedom'

The song's flaw is in the explicitly pro-Soviet bridge.

Behind the Iron Curtain, sings Gaughan, people have jobs and don't die from marginalisation. They may not have what we call freedom, but they have access to doctors and “they've got nobody dying cause they can't afford to live”.

The depressingly rose-tinted view of Soviet imperialism aside, implicit in Gaughan's song is the belief that being marginalised from the freedoms promised by citizenship, must make those very freedoms, and citizenship itself, a sham.

This is the persistent mistake of the progressive movement: because some have the privilege of enjoying their rights and some don't, the very idea of freedom itself must be a lie to protect the privileged.

The role privilege plays in progressive ideology

Two versions of this critique are having a violent impact on public life today.

Black Lives Matter don’t just believe there is a problem of marginalisation based on race in America. They believe the existence of this marginalisation is evidence that inequality is embedded in the system, that there is 'a war on black people' across America.

Radical feminists use a similar logic. They point to inequalities, such as a pay gap between men and women, or expectations of beauty placed on women, and conclude that there is a 'patriarchy', a class system where men are the upper class, and women are an exploited class.

Such claims extend from a theory of privilege and marginalisation which views certain advantages and disadvantages as ‘systemic’. Explicit racism, state-based fascism and oppression are only one kind of injustice, according to this view. More common forms of prejudice and oppression are ‘unconscious’ and built into identity.

This can be best characterised by Peggy McIntosh’s ‘invisible knapsack’ view of privilege. Certain advantages and ‘unearned assets’ come with being white, for instance. Even more come with being a white man.

These assets mean that getting hired, moving across borders, being stopped by the police, and a whole host of other everyday aspects of citizenship are easier than the same experiences are for, say, black women or transgender people.

Many of these privileges are unseen, and unknown to those who benefit from it. Even though I might find racial oppression repellent, because I am a white man, I am racist by definition.

Frances Kendall in her paper Understanding White Privilege, endeavours to show that this ‘knapsack’ of privileges is not just a hidden form of racism, but that it is an inherent part of the system of western societies.

She writes:

‘Often it is not our intent, as individual white people, to make use of the unearned benefits we have received on the basis of our skin color. Most of us go through our days unaware that we are white or that it matters. On the other hand, the creation of a system in which race plays a central part − one that codifies the superiority of the white race over all others − has been in no way accidental or haphazard. Throughout American history white power-holders, acting on behalf of our entire race, have made decisions that have affected white people as a group very differently than groups of color. History is filled with examples of the purposeful construction of a systemic structure that grants privileges to white people and withholds them from others.’

Our hidden privileges help us interact with social institutions in such a way that mean those ‘unearned assets’ are a decisive factor in how we can claim our rights of citizenship. This is what Kendall and McIntosh mean by systemic.

The problem with the language

The problem with this use of the word ‘systemic’, and the ‘invisible knapsack’ theory in general, is in the logical leap from the often very accurate description of inequalities, to the conclusion that such inequalities are inherent in the system.

One can even be prepared to grant that inequalities exist on a mass scale, such as the treatment of black men of a certain age in the American justice system, but that still doesn’t commit us to the view that the constitution itself is rigged, that the very ideals of freedom serve only the privileged.

Kendall, after the statement quoted above, goes on to claim that the American constitution is an example of systemic racism because the original document gave license to slavery.

It is important to note that Thomas Paine, sometimes described as the ‘moral author’ of the constitution, campaigned for slavery to be actively rejected in the Declaration of Independence. The rights Paine had argued for, and which are enshrined in the constitution, remain unchanged by the political concessions made to the southern landowners.

The core principles of the American constitution come from Paine's The Rights of Man, whereas the license for slavery came out of a political need to gratitfy southern slave traders in the hope of securing a peacfeul union. Jefferson made the conscession reluctantly, and as matter of Realpolitik, not moral disregard.

Whether she means it or not, Kendall is discrediting the philosophical foundations of the document, based on contingencies that were at the time already highly controversial. This leap in logic is mirrored today in activism that consistently describes instances of racism as proof of flaws inherent in the system. Such shoddy presumptuousness dispels all worries about context, and the specific details relevant to each case of injustice.

A further worry is that the injustice at hand becomes less important than a fetishised attachment to a theory of global injustice.

The problem, ultimately, is the word ‘systemic’. It is possible to account for racism, conscious or unconscious, without recourse to this way of framing the challenges of inequality.

It is also desirable that we do so, because the word ‘systemic’ has become an easy propaganda tactic for ideologues and demagogic activists.

The adolescent desire to paint the whole system as a conspiracy of privilege has three specific dangers that result from it:

  1. It distorts clear thinking about the details of a given case of marginalisation
  2. It creates a culture of paranoia in which people expect society to be their enemy
  3. It opens the doors to tyranny

Let’s talk about each one of these repercussions:

1. If we are to fight inequality we must look clearly at the contexts in which injustices arise. We cannot maintain clear thinking while imposing a preconceived world-view on those injustices. At best we waste valuable energy, and at worst we prolong injustice by failing to deal with the problems as they exist in the real world.

2. Blaming marginalisation on inherent privilege is seductive in its simplicity. When the concept of privilege that is at work is so broad, so abstract and free of context, one sees it everywhere, just like radical feminists see the ‘patriarchy’ everywhere. Built into the architecture of society, privilege then becomes something invisible and all pervasive. The only way to destroy it is to destroy society itself.

3. An obsession with ‘privilege’ must be treated with suspicion. If someone can convince people that the constitution is inherently biased towards certain groups, then the wounds and grievances of other groups, however legitimate, can be used to prop up the claims to power of dangerous tyrants.

The word ‘systemic’ is used often to mean anything from general unconscious bias, to actual miscarriages of injustice. Privilege theory rests on an assumption about the nature of power and citizenship that is at once too broad, and too narrow.

Broad, because it doesn’t actually describe anything concrete, but simply infers a systemic force from cultural patterns of behavior. Narrow, because it doesn’t allow for the complex ecology of events and relationships that create injustice.

Oversimplification is a fair sign that we are dealing with an ideological agenda. In this case, the agenda is one that cuts across multiple progressive movements. The words ‘systemic privilege’ are convenient replacements for Cold War terms like ‘imperialism’ and ‘fascism’.

By using the word ‘systemic’ we give the impression we are fighting a regime, something greater than the sum of racist and unjust incidents we are supposed to be fighting.

This need for an Evil Empire is actually hindering real attempts to understand injustice and combat it.

Moving forward

The great achievement of Martin Luther King Jr. had nothing to do with reversing privilege. He instead asked his fellow countrymen to “live out the true meaning of their creed”. He didn’t say the creed itself was a sham, just that people were not living up to its duties and entitlements.

Injustices and inequalities are not a sign that we need to dismantle the system, but that we need to hold our leaders to the true values that created the great reform acts of the nineteenth century in Britain, that freed the slaves in America, and which turned world empires into commonwealths.

Prejudice, inequality and injustice are prevalent and very often held in place by unconscious habits of thinking. However, the problem is not the system. The problem is cultural.

No amount of ‘systemic’ meddling in the law is going to stop white police officers being scared of young black men and killing them. No amount of extra equality laws is going to eradicate male suspicions of female power in the workplace.

Most democracies have equality laws, and they were hard fought for and society should be proud. However, our culture has not completely caught up with the law. Some places it has, some places it has not. At times the law works, at others it does not. But can we really describe this cultural inconsistency as ‘systemic’?

Our task is to fight against prejudice in the culture, through art, debate, journalism and campaigns that hold individual conscience to the letter of the laws that already exist. In a word, our task is to take moral responsibility for our citizenship.

The civil rights movement is over. The campaign for gay rights is done. We have equality legislation that protects women's rights to enjoy employment according to their choice and abilities. The problems we face are not systemic, they are cultural, and culture doesn't lend itself to convenient ideological solutions.

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