Apparently, this is a thing at the moment. It started on the internet and is now some kind of zeitgeisty… zeitgeist. As I’m only partially employed*, and easily bored, I spend a lot of time on the internet, so I’m somewhat surprised that I’ve missed it – but then again, I had to have Snapchat explained to me the other day, and I feel old when I [am forced to] listen to Radio One, so… I’m about as down-with-the-kids as your great Aunt Mildred.
*I say that; having just done a six-day week, I feel like I’m overly employed. Just not in the right job(s).
So, it’s something the kids are saying a lot at the moment, in online debates about politics, feminism – the usual stuff. But it seems to have got up in a few writers’ grills – and thanks must go to Lucy from Made in Chelsea for making it borderline-acceptable to use that phrase. Hadley Freeman, Dan Hodges, Hugo Rifkind and Louise Mensch have all devoted columns to unpicking the phrase over the last week or so. Like I said, I hadn’t even heard of it until I read the Hadley Freeman piece (possibly the most sensible one out there), but now I have read some of the varying perspectives, I have to say, it’s a phrase I like.
Why? Well, because taking the words themselves – before they get lobbed carelessly into a debate about the social issue of your choice – they simply imply that we all need to be a little more self-aware before we judge people that are not us. Which is a concept I am in whole-hearted agreement with. Don’t get me wrong, making scathing and witty judgements is fun – join me and the Boy for an end-of-week drink or five and we’ll give you a crash course in being smug and superior – but when it’s done to score points, make others feel small, start or win a fight, then it’s just not cricket.
People are right to be sceptical of fashionable schools of thought that can be summed up with snappy, witty slogans. They often hugely over-simplify the problems they’re trying to address, though the intentions are usually positive (“Make Poverty History” – remember that? If only it was – or will ever be – that simple). But if we look at the bare bones, the basic meaning of the command to “check your privilege” (former linguistics students die hard), it’s merely a call to remember where you’re coming from. It’s the self-awareness version of a GCSE history teacher shouting at their pupils, “Look at the source, boys and girls!” – where are your opinions coming from? Your own experiences.
Now, a) that sounds like common sense. People do that automatically, don’t they? Pffff, well… perhaps more on that in a sec, I want to make point b), which is this – you can still have an opinion on something if you haven’t directly experienced it. You just need to add the self-awareness bit, and stir. Accept that someone who has had personal experience of the topic in question – being on benefits, any kind of discrimination, abortion, to give some topical examples – will probably have a much more visceral response. Which relates back to a) – most normal, rational, smart human beings will do this – they know their view is not the only view.
But some – the people who leave comments on Mail Online, people who demonise everyone claiming some kind of welfare benefit, people who get sniffy when you call them on it and start their comeback with “well, as a taxpayer, I…” – have forgotten to check their privilege. Yes, it usually takes hard, hard work, determination, failure, and trying again to get on to the ladder in your chosen field – now more than ever – but there is almost always a certain amount of luck involved. You might have been blessed with a fearsome work ethic, a pushy parent or two, the right postcode, a ceiling-smashing ambitious streak, or all of the above plus a pony and regular skiing holidays in Val d’Isere.
I’m nowhere near where I want to be at the moment, but I’m ok with checking my own privilege. When I’m raging about the lack of jobs for verbose young upstarts, I remember that at least I’m still employed, and therefore earning. When my mother and I are shouting blue murder at one another, because our house isn’t big enough for two high-maintenance females, I’m grateful that she hasn’t yet changed the locks with the words, “you’re on your own now, princess” (she wouldn’t say that; she’s not Ray Winstone). When I’m judging the little flock of alcoholics who like to congregate by the fountain a few metres from my workplace, and wondering how it is they haven’t got better things to do, I count myself lucky that I have people around me who would intervene without a second thought if I ever fell on the darkest of hard times.
Checking your privilege from time to time isn’t a bad idea, because after all, privileges can always be revoked.
This song is like sex in the ears; it also contains the best use of the word “rascal” ever.