Louise Mensch has caused a stir with this article. She appears to favour the American tendency towards social action as opposed to merely splitting linguistic hairs.
In some aspects I agree with her I believe we do need to actually work out as women what we stand for and what we want to achieve. For without such grounded rational thinking the feminist movement is in danger of implosion and disintegration; two things which I feel no feminist would want.
In some aspects I disagree also.
When I was growing up, before I was old enough to have an electric wheelchair I was pushed around in a manual wheelchair by my mother. I would often hear her having subconscious dialogues with herself from above my head about how lucky other people were when they wouldn’t move out the way in a shop to let the in my wheelchair past, or similarly when they parked in a disabled parking space. As I have grown older I have taken on board these difficulties too. Her problems she had negotiating the vast array of obstacles that somebody in a wheelchair encounters are now my problems also.
But I still think privilege checking is something of a moot point. On my down days yes, I do think that other people are lucky to be able to do all the things that I would want to do, and echoing the words of my mother how lucky they are.
But that does not mean I want them to constantly have to check their privilege and look over their privileged shoulder. This engenders a feeling of guilt in people. It makes them feel guilty for something that is part of circumstance as opposed to a vendetta to single you out.
It is like when people ask the question “why me?” I think a far better question to ask is why not me? What is so special about me that my life should be rose tinted in comparison to other people’s?
Implicit too in the notion of privilege checking is that privilege is something that, as well as being acknowledged and apologised for that it is something that can be changed. That is to say that a person should want to reduce their privilege in order to restore equilibrium to an unbalanced system.
However people cannot help how they were born. I may think at times my able-bodied friends are lucky but I don’t have a chip on my shoulder and spend my life resenting them. That would be counter-productive and only lead to my own needless suffering.
Everyone has some level of privilege. For example even though I am disabled I have speech. For the technological nerds amongst you I am dictating this article using speech recognition software. Yet nobody tells me to check my speech privilege. It is important that we know what our privileges are and be proud of them and own them.
But I am also trans as well as being disabled and lesbian. Therefore I am part of three minority groups. I could regard these as an ocean between me and the rest of society. I could promulgate the misery narrative and the suffering narrative but I don’t. I choose to use my experience to help others and to empower them to live a life of their choosing.
Louise picked up on the word “cis” short for cisgender. The use of this word as some kind of in group special vocabulary ironically seems to anger a lot of the people it describes, for they say they would not use it to describe themselves and resent other people using it when talking about them.
Here too there is the notion of “cis privilege”. Now this even as a trans woman inherently worries me. It worries me because it assumes that because women are not trans, and they have been born women that therefore this is somehow something that should be grateful for. Surely it is obvious that when one transitions into womanhood that they are not transitioning into a privileged position. The female narrative is one of struggle and hardship. Women suffer greatly in society. They suffer discrimination and domestic violence at times at the hands of men.
My mother brought me up on her own single-handedly. The trials and tribulations of being a woman are not easy. Whilst I may feel jubilant and authentic at last I must be sensitive to the fact that being a woman, or indeed being a man is not always an easy ride.
By the same logic just because people are able-bodied and not in a recognisable minority group it does not mean that they do not have problems of their own. Conditions both economically and socially are tough right now, so we should be careful when accusing people of privilege.
Being born cis is definitely not a privilege. Ask women in developing countries, or in situations where there is war and conflict whether they feel privileged. I think we must be careful at times even though our own circumstances matter greatly to us not to freeze out the narratives and personal experiences of others.
The issues people face go far beyond language as well. It is not only what people say but what is done in society that counts. Which is more ableist? Is it a person using the word walking or a car obstructing a dropped kerb? In other words, which of the two is the greater problem and which needs the most urgent attention?
It is not a trick question I am posing here. It is a question of priorities. Do we want to police everything and control every infraction or do we want to pick our battles wisely and concentrate on the most important issues facing feminism?
This is rather reminiscent of the Twitter storm that my colleague Helen Lewis at the New Statesman became unfortunately embroiled in. She stated that if she used the and in turn phrase “walking out the front door” she would get a Tweet telling her that some people can’t walk and can’t leave their houses and by implication she would be accused of being ableist.
I was incredulous at this. I, Hannah Buchanan, disabled woman have used the phrase walking to describe my kinetic movements all my life. How intersectional is that? I think I deserve at least a round of applause. I am assimilating with the able-bodied population. Heaven forfend, even integrating!
All of this brouhaha sounds alarmingly similar to the brown eyed blue-eyed experiment created by the feminist Jane Elliott. She divided the children in her class up and gave the ones with brown eyes more privileges than the ones with blue eyes and vice versa.
What this was meant to show in essence is how people in minorities feel. It is hard to watch other people doing things you can’t do, going to places you can’t go and having experiences you cannot share. However it is not a question of privilege checking for people cannot help their birth. It is a question of living successfully and beautifully as a minority in a majority world. I do not think that people who can walk and who are not trans are more privileged than I am. They may experience problems of which I am not aware so I shouldn’t judge and manipulate their majority status as a stick to beat them with. I do not want people to have to walk on eggshells in my presence and apologise for their moving legs or for their not being trans. I want them to feel comfortable and happy around me.
Privilege checking is useless on its own without action to back it up and without dialogue in a non-aggressive manner.
It is not only a question of policing and telling people when they get things wrong but also when they get things right. Language is a fixation and does matter while sticks and stones matter too. Physical obstacles matter as well. It is important that we use the privileges we have in the right way to benefit society as a whole.
But that said, I am an intersectional being and I am proud to be so. My lack of privilege gives me a vast array of insight into issues that more privileged people may lack. So what then is privilege really? It is a subjective phenomenon based on individual experience. I have also had a University education, but that doesn’t negate the issue of not being able to walk.
There have been times when I have heard people complain about small minutiae, and felt aggrieved. But checking privilege and telling people to do so. is meaningless alone.It’s like checking the price of Corn Flakes at the supermarket.
What I want is for privilege checking to be an agent of social and cultural change.That’s when we will know things are changing for the better.
For Louise Mensch, privilege is something to be proud of. It is how you use it that matters.