However much hardship a straight white guy may have to deal with, there are whole worlds of hardship he’ll never experience, says MITCH BENN.
Something which most outwardly progessive-thinking people can generally be expected to agree upon is the principle of the level playing field.
This is, of course, the idea that a person should be given, in as much as is possible, the chance to succeed according to their personal merits rather than (in the case of the fortunate few) have it handed to them on a plate or (in the case of everyone else) be required to surmount insurmountable odds simply in order to get a look-in.
Even outwardly non-progressive thinking people can be heard to speak out in favour of the level playing field; generally libertarian types objecting to any attempt by the state or other supervisory body to interfere in what they see as the ‘natural’ processes of society in general and the distribution of wealth and/or opportunity in particular.
What these libertarian types are missing (apart from a proper understanding of the meaning of the word ‘freedom’ – it either applies to everyone or no-one at all, but that’s a rant for another time) is an essential fact about level playing fields: they don’t occur in nature.
If you’re playing on a level field, it means that someone levelled it.
That wealth, power and influence tend to collect in certain narrow social strata is an inevitable by-product of the familial and tribal way in which human society tends to organise itself, and once gathered, this power and influence does not easily disperse, unless required to do so by moral, political, or, on occasion, brute force.
Whatever opportunities those of us not born with silverware protruding from every orifice might have to make something of our lives have been hard won by the (literal) blood sweat and tears of previous generations, and, as any good groundskeeper will tell you, the job of keeping the field level is never done. There’ll always be a need to get the roller out once in a while.
What sometimes surprises me is that there is a rump of supposedly progressive opinion that, while it recognises the truth of all this with regard to the inequalities between the social and economic classes, can’t accept that exactly the same thing applies to inequality between the sexes.
Some of you have asked how I felt about yielding my column space in last week’s edition to ‘the feminists’. Well, on a political level it was a good thing and something more papers and magazines could give a try (although of course I guess the ultimate goal is to achieve the kind of gender parity where a publication could put out an all-women edition and nobody would notice – I bet there are a couple of entirely male-written papers on the stands even as we speak). On a personal level it was quite nice to get the bank holiday off and while this is going to leave a slight monetary shortfall at the end of the month, let’s face it, there are still a hell of a lot of advantages to being a middle-aged straight white guy.
Or rather there are a lot of not-disadvantages.
I’ve been pondering why there is still, as I alluded to earlier, a degree of resistance even among supposedly ‘woke’ types to the whole concept of ‘privilege’, in the sense in which the word is used with reference to social inequality, and I’m beginning to wonder if ‘privilege’ wasn’t perhaps an unfortunate choice of word.
Don’t get me wrong; that which ‘privilege’ describes in this context is absolutely a thing, be it ‘male privilege’, ‘white privilege’, ‘cis privilege’ or any of the variants: the unearned benefit of being fortunate enough to be in ‘the majority’, to be ‘normal’. That’s real, and I benefit from it every day.
My acknowledging that is neither a boast nor an admission of culpability, it’s simply a fact: as a straight white guy, I can actively oppose sexism, racism and homophobia all I like, but I’m profiting from racism, sexism and homophobia every minute I’m alive.
Or at the very least, I’m being exempted the impediments that these beliefs impose upon others.
I’m not sure on which side of the pond the word ‘privilege’ was first used in this context but I’d be surprised if it was over here. I think the resistance to the concept of male/white/straight/cis privilege in this country might stem from the more traditional usage of that term: to describe the high-born, the privately and expensively educated, the impeccably shod and magnificently well-connected – the actual elite. To British ears, ‘you are privileged’ sounds like ‘you don’t have a care in the world’.
When a guy who happens to be straight and white but in every other regard comes from the bottom rungs of the ladder (poor family, badly-equipped state school, lousy job prospects, no property-buying prospects whatsoever) finds himself being sternly reminded, generally by people a few rungs above him, to ‘check his privilege’, his indignant reaction might be understandable.
Because what we’re talking about is not really privilege. It’s not even really advantage, it’s the absence of disadvantage.
However much hardship a straight white guy may have to deal with, there are whole worlds of hardship he’ll never experience. And however meagre his prospects, they are nonetheless (perhaps barely perceptibly) enhanced by the fact that opportunities for happiness and advancement are being actively denied to others. Once people get that this is what we’re talking about, the truth of it is undeniable (that’s not to say it can’t be denied; just not honestly denied). Once we communicate with each other, it’s my experience that most people tend to be on the same page about stuff. We misunderstand each other far more than we actually disagree.
Do we think ‘check your absence of disadvantage’ could catch on as a slogan?