Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Intersectional Theory and Privilege Checking: On the Misuse of an Idea

A specter is haunting the internet; the specter of unexamined privilege. Out there in the rarefied world of political commentary and op-ed journalism there is an increasing weight being placed on the concept of privilege. This is perhaps not surprising given our current predicament and the anger many feel at elite sections of society. But this seems to be something different from the familiar rhetoric of outrage at a time of recession and social unrest. The accusation that a speaker is privileged and especially the demand to ‘check your privilege’ isn’t just being aimed at wealthy politicians, businessmen and opinion makers but at individuals who ostensibly appear to be on the same side, debating similar issues, and coming from similar social backgrounds.  In recent months the use of the term has been particularly charged in online debates about feminism, racism, sexuality, and issues around transgendered people.

“Check your privilege!” This has become the rallying cry of the Mob when faced with a woman with whom they disagree. (...)(It’s) about playing an inverted game of Top Trumps where the real message is that it’s not who you are but how you were born that determines whether what you have to say is worth listening to”. - Sadie Smith

"Check your privilege", for example, is a profoundly stupid trope that states that only those with personal experience of something should comment, or that if a person is making an argument, they should immediately give way if their view is contradicted by somebody with a different life story. It is hard to imagine a more dishonest intellectual position than "check your privilege", yet daily I see intelligent women who should know better embracing it”.Louise Mensch

The general premise underlying the demand to check one’s privilege is that certain speakers have a disproportionate advantage in getting their voices heard and as such need to attenuate their interventions into various issues in order not to impose their perspective at the expense of others. On the face of it there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with that, it equates to a general recognition of the need for equality between speakers and to listen to all sides and viewpoints without allowing those with the loudest voice to drown out everyone else. However the reality is more complex. The idea of privilege checking is claimed to be deployed as a part of a family of theories described as Intersectional. Laurie Penny, one of the most prominent exponents of privilege checking, here responds to Louise Mensch:
"Intersectionality" is another new bit of equality jargon that the stiff suits in the conservative commentariat loudly claim not to understand – despite or perhaps because of the fact that schoolchildren have been using it on the internet for years. All it means is that you cannot talk in any meaningful way about class without also talking about race, gender and sexuality, and vice versa. These things intersect – that's why we call them intersectional. (Guardian May 2013)

The claim that it’s not possible to say anything meaningful about class without taking race, gender and sexuality into account is a strong one. I’m not quite ready to throw out my Marx, and there are also plenty of good texts on race and gender which don’t accord equal weight to class, so perhaps we should break this down a bit.

Roughly speaking intersectional theories are to do with the way in which agents in different social locations have differing perspectives owing to their experiences and subsequent status as knowers. Knowledge claims are as the theory goes always socially situated.  More specifically these theories build upon ideas from Marxism via feminist epistemology that agents in situations of oppression are in a position of epistemic privilege relative to others regarding the conditions of that oppression.  The standpoint of the proletariat is epistemologically advantageous on questions of capitalist exploitation compared to those of the ruling class for example. Feminist readings of this idea in the 1980s similarly emphasised its application to women’s experience of a world dominated by men. The dominated whether workers or women live in a world structured by others for their purposes – purposes that at the very least are not our own and that are in various degrees inimical to our development and even existence (Hartsock pg241).

 Intersectional social epistemology further develops this insight by incorporating how other social divisions, say on race and sexuality, intersect with those of class and gender. The implication is that social researchers must recognize how multiple axes of oppression intersect and generate variations in knowledge claims on a variety of issues and society as a whole. In particular it emphasises the value of claims made from the margins of society, by those most disenfranchised and distant from the centre of power. The activities of those at the bottom of such social hierarchies can provide starting points for thought – for everyone’s research and scholarship – from which humans’ relations with each other and the natural world can become visible. This is because the experience and lives of marginalized people, as they understand them, provide particularly significant problems to be explained or research agendas (Harding in Alcoff & Potter, eds. pg 54).

Some of the most recent scholarship in the UK has attempted to ground an ethics of testimony by developing the notion of an epistemic or testimonial injustice. This analysis homes in on how social and identarian power can affect the legitimacy and credibility of a speaker’s testimony. Broadly speaking, prejudicial dysfunction in testimonial practice can be of two kinds. Either the prejudice results in the speaker receiving more credibility than she otherwise would have – a credibility excess –or  it results in her receiving less credibility than she otherwise would have – a credibility deficit (Fricker pg17). Paradigmatic cases of this kind include rape victims’ testimony to a trial jury, and the testimony of French Muslim women on their reasons for taking up the hijab.

So interestingly in the literature the concept of privilege is most often used when talking about the epistemic privilege of those marginal groups. Far less time is spent emphasising the material/social or whatever privilege of those at the top. This isn’t surprising as the goal of standpoint theory is to focus on the value for social research and possible avenues of resistance, of the knowledge resources of those at the bottom, rather than taking pot shots at perceived opponents. We can I think immediately refute Laurie Penny’s claim about the inability to say anything about class without including race, gender and sexuality. If I make the claim “people on lower incomes suffer a greater range of health problems relative to those on higher incomes” do I need to take race, gender, and sexuality into account for this claim to be true or meaningful? Seemingly not; although Penny might object that this claim does not differentiate between the specific sorts of health problems affecting say gay and disabled people on low incomes; that alone does not invalidate the claim. Nor again does the fact that I am a person on middle income affect the truth value of my claim.

Although this is quite a general claim it is I think still meaningful, not least in the potential to highlight inequalities in health predicated on economic inequality, and to engender possible demands for extra provision of healthcare to low income families or more general calls for social justice. There is arguably an important distinction to be made between these sorts of empirical claims and those which we might call more perspectival or subjective interpretations; though this distinction itself is a point of controversy. Quite how much objectivity is mediated by subjectivity is one of the big issues that separate both feminist and social epistemologists; although our privilege checkers don’t seem to waste much time considering this important detail. 

Perhaps the point to emphasise here is ‘scope’; the more detailed your analysis the greater need you may have to differentiate between social needs and perspectives, particularly if the aim of your research might be to provide guidance for healthcare provision to a diverse community. On the face of it though there is a great deal that can be said about class and similarly about race, gender, and sexuality without qualifying one’s claims ad infinitum along intersectional lines.

So now let’s look at some examples of how intersectional theory/privilege checking is deployed in recent online discussions. There are literally dozens of blogs, Twitter streams, and articles on the websites of the Guardian, New Statesman and Independent which deploy the notion of privilege in the manner under consideration. For consistency’s sake I’m going to cite four examples from the recent writing of Laurie Penny, who as I stated above does it rather a lot.

“Beauty is about class, money, power and privilege – and it always has been.(…) Even the most stereotypically thin and beautiful woman will find herself dismissed as unattractive if what comes out of her mouth happens to threaten male privilege, which is why feminists of all stripes continue to be labelled “fat and ugly”.” (NS May 2013)
“I count myself extremely lucky to have grown up as a political writer in the age of the internet. Suddenly, where once there were only a few privileged pundits talking to each other and expecting the proles to listen, there are writers from all walks of life producing dazzling, meaningful prose and finding their audience.(…) the age in which middle-aged white men pontificated from rarefied platforms and expected to be listened to is over”. (NS April 2013)
“Whatever you choose to call it, practical equal rights for women will always be a terrifying prospect for those worried about the loss of male privilege. It’s no wonder that “feminism” is still stereotyped as an aggressive movement, full of madwomen dedicated to the destruction of the male sex and who will not rest until they can breakfast on roasted testicles.”  (NS March 2013)

“Privilege is not the same as power. Nor is it a game whereby only the least privileged people will henceforth be allowed an opinion – the last time I checked, the political conversation was still dominated by rich white men and their wives. These are the people who go into spasms of outrage at the very notion that a black person, or a woman, or a working-class person might have as much right to an opinion as they do on matters that affect them. I'd like to reassure these people that taking away their monopoly on opinions is the very opposite of censorship, and furthermore that their whining is distasteful”. (Guardian May 2013)

So here we have four quotes which together bring in class, race, sex, age, and physical attractiveness, all of which hinge on the articulation of an opposition between a purportedly marginal group and a dominant one.  The last quote is particularly worthy of note as it forms part of a defence of the use Penny makes of privilege in her writing. I think it’s important to distinguish the two things which are at work here: firstly, the use of intersectional theories as an analytic tool utilizing the potential epistemic resources of the oppressed; and secondly the practical deployment of the concept of privilege as part of that strategy. These two aspects - as I think should be obvious now- are quite separate issues, although commentators such as Penny often act as if they mutually entail each other. Moreover as these quotes demonstrate the approach taken here focuses primarily on the negative side of the discourse: the calling out of an opponent’s privilege, rather than making visible the lives of marginalized people. There is a great deal that could be said about the limitations of this kind of privilege discourse; it will suffice for me to highlight three at this point.

Privilege discourse does not accommodate the notion of achieved stance. In the tradition of standpoint theory from the 1980s it was customary to view the epistemic privilege of women as an ‘achieved stance’. That is to say that social location and perspective alone were not deemed sufficient to count as having an epistemically privileged standpoint. What was thought necessary was a practical political engagement centred on testimony which elucidated the shared experience of unequal power relations to the underprivileged group. The primarily negative and elitist approach taken by the privilege checkers does not maintain that tradition. There is no shared standpoint developed amongst the community of online commentators or their peers. Nor is there an emphasis on the testimony of the oppressed. If it appears at all it does so mediated through the lens of the journalist in opinion pieces or asides on the commentators own experience of the issue at hand. This absence of genuine testimony from the margins correlates well with the practice of dismissing the speech of some while valorising others without any reference to the content of the utterances in question. This is clearly a hypocritical or at least contradictory practice for anyone like Penny who sets herself up as a spokesperson on social issues while admitting her own privileged position in comparison to those she writes about.

Privilege discourse maintains an undifferentiated approach to social oppression.  Despite all the talk of multiple social positions the last word in all these machinations on privilege tends to be the overall hegemony of the white middle aged heterosexual male. As the above quotes demonstrate this point is made repeatedly by Penny, as it often is by other commentators who deploy privilege discourse. While certainly having more than a grain of truth to it, their insistence that this be the last word does nothing to provide a roadmap for social change in any of the cases of oppression they highlight. If it is indeed the case that these social hierarchies are multifaceted and structural then the calling out of white male privilege by a minority of well educated online commentators seems somewhat inadequate as a political strategy. Furthermore it entirely misses the advantage claimed for Intersectional theory which is to move away from theorizing domination in simple oppositional terms. There is little in the writing of the privilege checkers that deals with the more nuanced aspects of this work: for example how the interests and power of wealthy sections of minority communities affects those communities ability to accurately represent themselves in the media.   

Privilege discourse does not argue for the relative importance of the different social locations it highlights. Why should the testimony of “unattractive” people be considered especially valuable? One of Intersectional theory’s own internal limitations is to question whether the identities they highlight represent epistemically relevant categories of social location. This criterion would be met only insofar as the society under consideration is structured along the lines of the category in question. Beauty for example clearly confers considerable advantages to those who are considered to meet their society’s norm for it. Despite this fact though, it is questionable as to what degree western societies are actually structured along the lines of beauty or at least how significant to overall equality and social justice such a structuring might be. Penny’s brief comments on this issue don’t provide much clarity aside from counterpoising the suggested beauty hierarchy with the overarching dominion of male privilege. This is a good example of how privilege discourse does very little aside from noting a series of phenomena associated with difference, and reiterating the hegemony of the White Male.   

The practical consequences of ‘checking one’s privilege’, of shutting up rather than trying to form a consensus is encapsulated by a recent spat on Twitter. The occasion was Penny’s suggestion (a quite correct one I think) that people should not rise to a race-baiting article written by Rod Liddle in the Spectator after the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May. However instead of arguing her position she fell into silence after having apparently had her privilege checked by a number of women including black comedian Ava Vidal. Ostensibly it was Penny’s ‘white privilege’ vis-à-vis someone suffering a racist attack that she was owning up to and subsequently being silenced by.

Now let’s go back to the Marxist reading on proletarian perspective to make some sense of this. Recall that the idea is that the bourgeoisie as a capital owning class have an interest in maintaining the status quo, whereas the proletarian sees more clearly the true nature of social relations as they do not share the bourgeoisies’ interests, are subject to their rule, and have direct experiential access to the reality of exploitation. The essential point here is the misalignment of interests combined with the difference in perspective potentially achieved by virtue of their experiences. It is unlikely that a CEO of a top company and a shelf stacker will have similar perspectives on economic exploitation owing to their different epistemic positions relative to the system as a whole, and their different interests in that system. As such if you wanted to know about the reality of working class life under capitalism you would go first to the shelf stacker not the CEO. I don’t think this is the situation with Penny and her Twitter row.

In her case while she may not have had direct experience of racism relative to the women she was conversing with, nevertheless it is likely they did share the same interest in combating racism. As such while the experiential difference may yield different approaches to achieving their goal there is nothing that should prevent them coming to a shared understanding of what might need to be done, or conversely they could just agree to disagree over the particulars. There was however no justification in this case for Penny to give way simply because the person disagreeing with her on a point of practice was part of a group who were more likely to have the experience in question. This form of self-censorship makes a united response to racism or any form of social oppression far less likely and may ultimately reinforce a feeling of separateness between agents who in fact share common aims.  It‘s also important to recognise that this censorship of self and others is an interventionist rather than structural approach to the problems of democratic speech. In effect what is being practiced here is a form of policing the public sphere, or at least that narrow avenue of the public sphere in which Penny and her privilege checking compatriots operate.

Let there be no mistake; there is a problem with marginal lives being suppressed or distorted by dominant discourses. One need only witness the demonization of benefit claimants and migrant workers to understand this. The question however is whether individuals like Penny who themselves are the product of and work within the framework of that dominant discourse have any legitimacy in playing the role of gatekeeper.

It’s worthwhile reiterating that the discourse on privilege exemplified here doesn’t spend much time exploring the possible untapped resources of knowledge and experience offered by marginalized people. Instead, it spends much of its time weeding out the so called unexamined privilege of the purported dominant group or subgroup, and more often simply among the commentators own peers. This is done not by reference to what the speaker actually says but by appeal to the speaker’s nominal identity (being white, being male, being heterosexual, being able-bodied).  Penny as an Oxford graduate is no doubt familiar with the old Latin phrase ad hominem, which in footballing parlance is translated as playing the man and not the ball. Instead of appraising the statements of the speaker for signs of a partial or ideological perspective they simply appraise the speaker, resulting in what looks very much like a game of discursive top-trumps where the speech of some individuals is rendered invalid before it’s even heard.

To this ad hominem distortion there is I think a further fundamental problem with privilege discourse. Without adequately defining the scope and limits to the situated knowledge claims they highlight, the radicalised intersectional aspect of privilege discourse can begin to revolve in ever decreasing circles.  The idea of different perspectival and epistemic locations gets increasingly conflated with the concept of subjective identity itself, such that the multiplicity of possible identities results in a corresponding multiplicity of possible intersections which without qualification as to their specific epistemic characteristics produces a general demand to shut up about things you have not experienced yourself. Following this logic intersections thus multiply ad infinitum to the point of elevating the banal truism of ontological separation; i.e. that no two individuals can share the exact same experience. At this point radicalised intersectional theory collapses into an extreme form of scepticism where all statements are rendered invalid beyond the life-world of the individual, and thus all those claims pertaining to a shared world are foreclosed from the outset. All the world becomes bodies and opinions, the latter which of course is the domain of political commentators and op-ed writers like Laurie Penny.

The corrective is obviously that the statement itself must be heard and examined in order to make a judgement. It is not acceptable to dismiss the speaker simply on account of their position, nor is it valid to valorise the speech of the oppressed in-toto without examining the content of the statement and defining the scope of enquiry. Or, as Linda Martin Alcoff succinctly puts it: “the fact that judgement is sometimes correlated to social position does not yield relativist conclusions, because judgements from any location must still be subject to challenge and verification. (Alcoff in Sullivan & Tuana, eds. pg41)” It is precisely this properly democratic aspect of challenge and verification that is missing from the privilege checkers discourse. None of this reflective, nuanced approach is applied by Penny, or her fellow minor hacks and online commentators, who instead practice a kind of liberal interventionism within their online domain. Instead of the possibility of forming consensus between groups on issues of social domination there is just a multiplicity of incommensurate opinions, some of which require silencing, and others which can never be challenged.

Privilege checking I think is thus correctly characterised as a predominantly middle class game played by a tiny group of online activists, bloggers, and social media users, very few of whom appear to spend much time searching out the potential epistemic resources of those most underprivileged in society.  Or, at best they are happy to attempt representing them from afar. These commentators do however have a disproportionate influence on public opinion, at least that part of public opinion that wishes to align itself with “the left”. Their function as an all too visible mediating layer between full on political activism and undecided political audience is the sole reason I find their output of interest at all.

If it is the case as Penny claims in her response to Louise Mensch that schoolchildren have been using her brand of intersectional privilege checking for years, then perhaps that’s because it represents a particularly simplistic and juvenile idea of democracy. It is certainly one which I hope will be short-lived.

Fricker,Miranda – Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Harding, Sandra – Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is Strong Objectivity, in Alcoff,Linda & Potter,Elizabeth, eds. – Feminist Epistemologies (Routledge, 1993)
Hartsock,Nancy – The Feminist Standpoint Revisited and Other Essay (Westview Press, 1998)
Alcoff, Linda – Epistemologies of Ignorance: Three Types in S. Sullivan & N Tuana, eds. – Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance (State University of New York Press , 2007)