Privilege and Its Discontents

“Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their posts as soon as there is no enemy in the field.”

— John Stuart Mill

Continuing a theme of subjecting to critique a number of popular claims about culture and politics, I would here like to develop some arguments I’ve made elsewhere (here), here and here). I will present a number of recent scenarios with an eye to discussing some claims made across much of the left which cannot be held up to serious conceptual or empirical scrutiny, and are instead taken on faith and often bolstered by threats of moral persecution and social media shaming.

Patricia Lowther, reviewing Cordelia Fine’s new book Testosterone Rex, summarises its thesis – one she agrees with – as follows: ‘[H]ard wired behavioural sex differences make little sense for a species designed to be as adaptable as we are’. The myth of the hyper-plasticity of human nature is a persistent, and deeply misleading one highly incompatible with actual biology. The myth is used by much on the left to attack gender stereotypes, claiming that they have little basis in biology; despite, for instance, the finding that gendered interests are shown in children as young as 9 months of age, before they become developmentally aware at 18 months that gender event exists. In a recent report, Stuart Ritchie and colleagues undertook the largest ever study of sex differences in the human brain, and concluded:

“Males had higher cortical and sub-cortical volumes, cortical surface areas, and white matter diffusion directionality; females had thicker cortices and higher white matter tract complexity. Considerable overlap between the distributions for males and females was common, and subregional differences were smaller after accounting for global differences. There was generally greater male variance across structural measures. The modestly higher male score on two cognitive tests was partly mediated via structural differences.”

The authors go on to show that some of the neuroanatomical, structural differences in the brains of men and women can be used to causally explain certain higher-level cognitive differences. The closest Lowther gets to critiquing these sorts of arguments is the following claim: ‘Examples from the animal kingdom show us that even marked sex differences in brains may have little consequence for behaviour’. This is true, but it does not exclude the possibility (and likelihood) that other ‘marked sex differences in brains’ do in fact have behavioural consequences. Ritchie’s study also disproves the following claim of Lowther’s: ‘Where sex based differences have been found, they are so small and there is so much overlap, that they don’t support the idea of men being one way and women another, but are better understood as individual differences’. The 5,000-plus scans studied by Ritchie and colleagues and the significant variations they found cannot be brushed aside as individual differences. While gender roles are indeed social constructions (though ones which are often grounded in and reinforced by biology), gender and sex are not, and are just as biologically determined as blood type. We cannot, for instance, choose to become ‘transblood’, shifting our blood type from B to A due to personal convictions.

While expectant mothers have recently been forced in Britain to be labeled ‘pregnant people’ due to the minority of trans people who may be pregnant and transitioning, it is peculiar that transwomen (biological males) are now being hailed in a major new Dove advert as ‘real moms’. The affronts to women are seemingly endless, as biological men identifying as women continue to reap the benefits of this new cultural shift in the mainstream. In Dove’s world, women undergo the actual labour of childbirth and then men are permitted to choose their preferred parenting title, despite the fact that men are not, and can never be, mothers.

What these examples suggest is that while the feminist fight for the rights of transwomen is a worthy one, it should not be predicated upon equating the experiences of transwomen with ciswomen. Trans activists such as Shon Faye often talk about the violence transwomen face at the hands of men. This is doubtless a genuine concern, but it is often used in debates to distract attention away from the central issue typically bring discussed; namely, are transwomen in fact women? When confronted with a slew of arguments against the claim that sex and gender are highly fluid, trans activists often reply simply with ‘Do you have any idea how violently oppressed trans people are?’, as if this will serve to force their opponents to back off and retreat – which it unfortunately often does.

Many of the positions regarding gender on the left have found some purchase, and have been developed within academia. Take the recent phenomenon of pushing for gender equality at academic conferences. A useful tool can now be used, a Conference Diversity Distribution Calculator, to gauge how many speakers of a particular gender should ideally be hosted given a certain percentage of available speakers. This tool is doubtless a sensible one to have, but it is also worth being somewhat suspicious of being asked to meet arbitrary measures of age/gender equity, as if having 50% men and 50% women is necessarily the ideal no matter what the composition of the actual scientific field. Few people are complaining, for instance, that linguistics, psychology and nursing undergraduates are almost entirely female, although granted there’s the additional worry that senior academic positions within those fields also often go to males. I’ve personally attended neuroscience conferences in which people have strongly objected to male-dominated rosters, but then a few months later at a female-dominated conference, nobody bats an eye.

The creator of the Conference Diversity Distribution Calculator writes that ‘most conference selection processes are biased towards the dominant demographics – male, young, straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered’. This comment is certainly reflective of the general social justice mood present on many universities, but it also fairly vacuous. Academic conferences select their speakers based on the merit of their abstracts and submissions, and are usually completely ignorant about the skin colour, sexuality, physical ability, gender identity and even age of those who submit applications, so it is consequently unfeasible for them to privilege one group over another even if they wanted to.

Political conferences don’t seem to fair much better with respect to fending off these encroaching cultural orthodoxies. This year’s Green Party Conference changed the women’s toilets to gender neutral, while the men’s were left unchanged. Sadly, this simply demonstrated how gender determines which sex is imposed on and forced to adopt (often highly unpopular) changes. It is unfortunate and ironic that while the conference itself was boasting about an all-female panel, the boundaries of women and girls were being disrespected. This speaks to a more general trend or maxim that we can find today without much difficulty: Ignore or sideline male violence against women (such as the high levels of domestic violence women face from their male partners), and instead claim that laws, ideas, and words are forms of ‘violence’ instead.

In addition, contrary to a standard myth of the permanency of trans identities, many have found that therapy has altered their perspectives. Walter Heyer writes:

“[T]ransgender feelings are not permanent, immutable, or deep-seated in the brain. Feelings, no matter how powerful, do not justify taking hormones and undergoing surgery. Warnings have been sounded by doctors for nearly forty years, and yet the regret, unhappiness, suicide, and detransitioning continue. For me … psychotherapy did what surgery could never do: it cured me of the desire to become someone I could never biologically be. The application of sound psychotherapy ended my transgender feelings.”

Shortly before the death of actor Robert/Alexis Arquette of Pulp Fiction fame, he transitioned back into a self-identified man after having earlier transitioned into a self-identified woman for part of his life. Indeed, Wikipedia and a good deal of the internet still refers to Arquette as ‘she’ and only shows photos of his Alexis phase. The Hollywood Reporter provides the following details:

“In 2013, amid increasing health complications, Alexis … began presenting herself as a man again, telling [her close friend] Ibrahim that “‘gender is bullshit.’ That ‘putting on a dress doesn’t biologically change anything. Nor does a sex-change.’ She said that ‘sex-reassignment is physically impossible. All you can do is adopt these superficial characteristics but the biology will never change.’” That realization, Ibrahim suspects, was the likely source of her deep wells of emotional torment.”

The complicated and not well-understood phenomenon of ‘detransitioning’ (returning to one’s birth sex after having transitioned) is unfortunately not a topic of discussion across much of the left. If it were more centralised in discussions, it is likely that some of the core orthodoxies about, for instance, the fluidity of all gender identities (and indeed the sheer multiplicities of stipulated genders) would be exposed as baseless.

Not surprisingly, many of these ideas (often termed ‘progressive’) have influenced many on university campuses. Allison Stanger of Middlebury College reports an event she chaired in which she interviewed conservative political scientist Charles Murray:

“[M]y willingness as a liberal to grill Charles Murray face-to-face was deemed entirely unacceptable [by much of the student body and faculty]. I had tough questions on both the controversial “Bell Curve,” in which he partly blames genetics for test score differences among races, and his most recent book, “Coming Apart.” But the event had to be shut down, lest the ensuing dialogue inflict pain on the marginalized. Never mind that “Coming Apart” explores the negative consequences of marginalization, one of which is the election of President Trump.”

Stanger was attacked at the end of the event as she and Murray left the building and suffered serious whiplash, for which she subsequently had to wear a neck brace. Far too often is free speech and inquiry shut down, with an additional burden to bear being physical attacks. Jackie Walker recently spoke at an event at University College London celebrating the 50th anniversary of Noam Chomsky’s seminal essay ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’ – discussing the work of a man who has done a considerable amount to defend free speech – and when asked a confrontational question about her alleged ‘anti-Semitic’ remarks which got her suspended from the Labour Party, she responded:

“I think that’s a really useful question, and can I just say thank you very much for coming, because mostly people like you do not come. What they do is stand outside and stop other people coming. What they do mostly is write to people who want to organise arenas for people to enter into dialogue. So I think we should be very careful to protect freedom of speech, because that is really important.”

Walker’s suggestions are sensible ones. As an undergraduate from 2010-13, I was a student at the University of Nottingham and was involved in its Palestinian Society, regularly involved in boycotting certain on-campus products and firms involved in Israeli apartheid and the illegal occupation of Palestine. The British Ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, gave a talk on campus in 2013. Instead of opting to shut down the event, prevent people from accessing the lecture theatre, or engage in more drastic means of no-platforming, we simply handed out leaflets at the exit doors and asked probing questions during the Q&A session. One year later, in 2014 students began calling for trigger warnings and spoke out against ‘microaggressions’, and a new era for student politics began. Today, the tactics of the University of Nottingham’s Palestinian Society would likely be shunned and mocked by many student groups, particularly in the United States.

Returning to Stanger, she describes an environment in which the concept of free expression has been suppressed:

“The moderate middle at Middlebury currently feels it cannot speak out on the side of free inquiry without fear of being socially ostracized as racist. Most alarming, I have heard some students and faculty denounce reason and logic as manifestations of white supremacy. This is not a productive learning environment for anyone. This is not what the life of the mind is supposed to provide.”

Two books published in the last few months by leading scholars have managed to expose some of the dangerous myths on the left which fuel these forms of conflict. Scott Greer’s No Campus for White Men: The Transformation of Higher Education into Hateful Indoctrination dissects the obsession over diversity and victimisation found on campuses, while Laura Kipnis’s Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus pushes back against similar trends. As a leftist myself, it is uniquely frustrating to see that it is conservative writers who are overwhelmingly the only ones satisfyingly and comprehensively dissecting identity politics (with a few liberal exceptions like Kipnis), which ensures that they get to direct the emerging narrative in a certain direction. Meanwhile, the core features of identity politics – guilt and lifestylism – continue to dominate progressive movements, something which has a deeply divisive effect on their typically multicultural composition.

More generally, the modern urge to centre during any political discussion one’s own identity has been fuelled by these sorts of developments. For instance, during the recent Westminster attack, Oxbridge journalist Laurie Penny felt the need to tweet the following edgy comment: ‘Thoughts and atheist prayers with everyone in Westminster right now’. Identity politics forces itself to the centre even in times of serious political and religious tension, when many were speculating about the killer’s motive, race and religious beliefs. Instead of offering simply her ‘thoughts’ to those in Westminster, Penny insisted on prioritising her own identity as an atheist; an irrelevant, insensitive and – as the backlash to her tweet demonstrated – fairly offensive thing to do. The rash incompetence of much of Penny’s other tweets, and indeed some of her journalistic work, is likely not helped by the contemporary culture of gaining traction and attention not through careful scholarly work – be it peer-reviewed research or investigative journalism adhering to certain standards of social science data collection and analysis – but rather through re-tweets, YouTube views and Patreon funds.

The centring of personal identities also led to the peculiar reaction to Casey Affleck’s Best Actor Oscar win earlier this year. Tons of articles were written arguing that Affleck shouldn’t have won the award because – so the argument goes – this in some sense awarded him for his abusive behaviour. But Affleck didn’t win the Oscar for ‘Kindest Boyfriend’, he won it for his acting skills. The idea that Oscars should be awarded on anything else but merit is deeply regressive and dangerous. The corrosive effect of identity politics was also felt by Affleck’s close friend, Matt Damon, during the HBO show Project Green Light. Damon clashed with black film producer Effie Brown when he argued that the diversity of the film crew is less important than the diversity of the actors within the show being produced. Again, Damon was arguing that the film crew should be chosen on merit, not on arbitrary diversity scores, although he later clarified that he also justifiably believed that diverse film crews can naturally be a progressive force.

It is not hard to find other examples within Hollywood where similar frustrations seem justified. Consider Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As some critics  have pointed out, the cast of this film is ethnically diverse almost to the point of parody: There’s a good female Japanese character, and an evil female Japanese character. There’s a good black female character, and an evil black female character. And so on. Disney is clearly trying to simply tick every single ethnic box in a desperate effort to offend nobody. This is diversity for diversity’s sake, not for the sake of the plot or the characters or anything else related to the actual film, although it also understandable that many would repeat the importance of diversity at a time when regressive men’s rights activists complain that – after decades of male lead protagonists – Disney had the gall to cast two consecutive lead female characters through Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones. The same criticisms apply to Rogue One  and Pepsi’s recent cancelled commercial, both of which contain a surreal range of ethnicities, gender identities and personal styles. The young musician in the Pepsi ad that gets Kendall Jenner’s attention is appropriately ambiguous in his ethnicity; he could be Japanese, Mongolian, Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Filipino, Korean – more than enough ethnicities to make as many people feel ‘included’ as possible.

Consider also the popular concept of ‘institutional oppression’, which no doubt exists but is all too often used as an easily-digestible metaphor for ‘I can’t give you concrete examples but just take my word for it’. Consider Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar , who recently appeared on Sky News to discuss Britain’s racist colonial legacy – a highly important and urgent topic, but one which Sarkar failed to do justice to. Instead, Sarkar made a few references to ‘institutional racism’, although the only attempted example of institutional racism she gave was a general statistic about BME unemployment. Which institutions are responsible for this, exactly? Sarkar doesn’t specify, because there is no answer. Not every generalised statistical trend is the direct result of some institutional manipulation – there are more things on Planet Earth than state and corporate institutions, something Sarkar in her numerous Sky News appearances seems oblivious of. It may indeed turn out that specific institutional biases and failings result in high BME unemployment levels, but that requires work and research, not over-generalisations and unsupported empirical claims.

This is the same Sarkar who confronted (and failed to rebut) Lauren Southern during a protest in London last summer held by Remain voters after the Brexit vote. Southern holds a number of reactionary opinions about, for instance, Islam, has spent a good deal of her career promoting Trump, and regularly hangs out with white supremacists, but like any journalist she has the right to stand in a public park during a protest. Southern and her crew were attacked by anti-fascist protestors and pushed off the park, until police intervened and maintained that Southern did, of course, have a right to stay. The protestors also stole Southern’s union jack hat and punched her camera crew. Having witnessed this, Sarkar decided to intervene and confront Southern, wagging her finger and arguing that Southern was pretty much asking for it just because she wore a union jack hat, engaging in the sort of victim-blaming insanity that much of the left is usually quite sensitive to. Sarkar soon turned around and left as soon as her arguments were reduced to ‘You wore a hat and were asking for it’. One can only imagine Sarkar’s reaction if the Brexit vote had gone the other way and a pro-Leave protest had been organised during which a pro-Remain journalist had their EU-emblazoned hat stolen and was pushed off the premises after being punched. Denunciations of bigotry, racism and hatred are fine when directed at one’s enemies, but not when the situation is uncomfortably reversed.

Somewhat oddly, many of the criticisms of the regressive culture Sarkar represents are nowadays coming not from the far left, but from the right. Take Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Though a self-identified conservative (and someone who indeed holds some appalling views, such as a general approval of the alt-right and Milo Yiannopoulos), there are many positions Peterson holds which are more appropriately characterised as classical liberal (pro-dissent, pro-dialogue, prioritising personal liberties over the encroachment of external speech-restricting commands). Peterson has fast become a kind of right-wing Norman Finkelstein – both persecuted on campus, both prolific and leading scholars with a large number of overlapping personality traits. He acquired fame through objecting to Canadian law making it a hate crime to not use the correct invented pronouns of trans people, and has been perhaps unique in his staunch defences of free speech and attacks against what the Nigerian novelist and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  calls a ‘language orthodoxy’ maintained by much of the left. There are certain limitations to Peterson’s approach, of course. He does not, for instance, object to right-wing ‘political correctness’ found in terms like ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ or ‘collateral damage’, instead focusing purely on left-wing terms. As long as Peterson focuses purely on critiquing the left, his defence of free speech can never be properly comprehensive.

Developing some ideas of Peterson’s, I think it is appropriate to propose the following general principle with respect to privilege politics: We should seek to explain particular instances of oppression by invoking natural, biological, or non-anthropocentric constructs, and only when the explanatory force of these lower-level constructs is exhausted is the need for more complex structures, like societal and institutional phenomena, justified.

For instance, it is without doubt that the oppression of the people of Gaza is not down to their behavioural tendencies, personal ideologies or intelligence. It is purely down to the actions of the Israeli state. Lower-level constructs like biology play no role in the analysis. On the other hand, when it comes to the gender imbalances found in the number of male students taking nursing courses, or the number of female students signing up to engineering and physics degrees, it is unlikely that blaming any particular set of institutions (ranging from the Department of Education and its policies, to Hollywood and its portrayal of gender differences) can explain the disparity. Instead, lower-level factors like gender differences and personal choice can carry out the explanatory work. This approach is in keeping with basic assumptions in philosophy of science, such that principles arising from lower-level physical theories which can explain some seemingly more complex, higher-order phenomenon should always be prioritised, with the need to resort to more complex theoretical notions being redundant.

Relatedly, there are a number of different ways an individual can be oppressed and privileged: Looks, accent (consider the subtle confession of Zarna ‘all white people are racist and all men are sexist’ Joshi of Hugh Mungus fame, that she greatly benefits from her British accent living across the Atlantic and uses this form of privilege to get her voice heard much more effectively than if she spoke with, say, a deep Scunthorpe timbre), innate intelligence, body height, weight, and so on. Privilege is found in many places, not just in one’s gender, race or class.

In this spirit, the classic formulations of intersectionality by the likes of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Sue Ferguson and David McNally were a welcome, nuanced approach to political subjectivity which take into account these kinds of observations. However, it remains fairly ill-understood how certain identities (black, gay, disabled, and so on) interact and why particular forms of oppression often get intensified when they do. Instead, contemporary proponents of identity politics have often been satisfied with simply and dispassionately listing different identities – some fine-grained, others belonging to larger and broader categories – without exploring the degree to which they can influence each other. This is likely the main reason why so much emphasis has recently been placed on the concept of white privilege, since without a comprehensive grasp of how and why different identities can overlap it is naturally tempting to simply stick to much larger (and grossly inaccurate) overgeneralisations.

It may also explain another tendency among many young, social justice types; listing in long-form what they oppose – ‘heteronormative patriarchal sexist imperialist white supremacy’, etc. – without going into any serious detail how they might go about challenging these things. It is much easier to identify, to label, to guilt-trip, than it is to act. Salar Mohandesi  summarises a major corollary of contemporary privilege-oriented identity politics, a wholly inaccurate and often fairly offensive go-to maxim:

“Only those who belong to a given identity are said to be able to understand certain oppressions. This implies not only that those who do not belong to the identity cannot understand that oppression, but that all those who belong to said identity will have an automatic knowledge of it: no white person can ever truly understand racism, just as every person of color will naturally understand racism simply by virtue of having darker skin. It is then further assumed that this experiential knowledge will necessarily lead to the right political stances against those oppressions.”

In brief, much of the terrain currently being explored by conservative intellectuals should ideally open up new avenues for the far left, which is still largely bogged down in standard social justice orthodoxies concerning trigger warnings, microaggressions, no-platforming, safe spaces, and so on. With the help of writers like Stanger, Kipnis, Greer, Peterson and others, the fight against some of the regressive cultural orthodoxies discussed here can feasibly be won, gradually, over a series of race-related, gender-related and class-related issues – something that the left could contribute to and benefit from, if it had the courage.

Elliot Murphy is a writer based in Houston, Texas, and the author of Arms in Academia: The Political Economy of the Modern UK Defence Industry (Routledge, 2020) and Unmaking Merlin: Anarchist Tendencies in English Literature (Zer0 Books, 2014).