‘Educate yourself!’… ‘Check your privilege!’, for many who have spent time engaging with left wing identity politics the term ‘call out’ will be familiar. It is a phrase used to describe the shut down of ‘non-inclusive’ or un-PC behaviour or language. This is something I think of as needed, it is how this is often done that bothers me. I think it’s initial objective is very worthy. It is it’s use by certain groups on the left to shut out debate or discussion that is problematic. It is so problematic that I would include it as a central feature of a modern critique of the left. A dogmatic orthodoxy has developed that has replaced discussion with arrogant anger and doesn’t feel the need to engage with the uninitiated. This becomes a problem as it means certain groups are viewed to be standoffish and easily offended by those whose lack of ‘education’ is pointed out so rudely. The call out culture has become seen as closely relate to identity politics in recent years. With groups like the ‘alt-right’ developing their own lexicon to describe this perceived relationship.
I am going to take two of the phrases I see the most and discuss the problems with them. This is of course anecdotal and I am not trying to say they are indicative of the overall call out culture.
‘Check your privilege!’
I have seen many a debate descend into anger when someone growls ‘check your privilege!’. As often as not I have seen this growled by privately educated individuals in forum closely related to some of the worlds best universities, Oxford, Leeds, York and Cambridge. It is not the sentiment I disagree with, it is it’s use as a tool in debating. The implication is ‘your life is easier than mine, therefore your opinion less valid’. I don’t think privilege is something one can entirely tell from looking at someone, and if it was it would not be a productive way of getting someone to see your point of view. Surely gently pointing to where their experience may differ from one’s own or another person’s might be a better way of getting them to see a particular perspective.
Equally, the term ‘educate yourself’ I find immensely problematic as it assumes the person has the academic tools to process and understand an ivory tower full of ideas, concepts and terms that make up the lingo of modern identity politics. Ideas like cultural appropriation, trans-exclusionary feminism and intersectionality require a firm understanding of humanities. For many this understanding is developed at university. To simply cast off someone else’s behaviour or opinion with ‘educate yourself’ whiffs of an intellectual middle class shouting down at the other from their ivory tower. In my mind a more productive action would be to not command education, but to attempt to educate.
What is to be done? I don’t think I have the answers. By developing a culture of angrily refusing to engage in debates on a range of issues as they come up in day to day life certain aspects of the left have excluded themselves from discussions on these topics. They have instead constrained themselves to discussing well thought out theories in ivory towers such as the Facebook groups Race Matters or Cuntry Living, while less well-informed discussions happen elsewhere. If more of societies deep bigotries were met with intellectual and accessible discussion I do not doubt slowly many prejudices would slip away.
The left is in a dangerous position if it sees itself as too good, sophisticated and humane to rationalise its ideas to those who have yet to come to the same conclusion. Therefore, it’s important that those who feel strongly about certain issues make sure they can make their arguments accessible to anyone who might engage with them, both those who receive privilege and those who lack it.