The reality of Privilege and why our discussions often head South

I caught this conversation on Twitter between Laurence Fox and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Now, my purpose in writing this isn’t to suggest who is right and who is wrong. I generally don’t agree with Laurence Fox on the wider issues with which he has no truck at all, though I do think some of the specific things he highlights are, indeed, a real issue. In contrast, I largely agree with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on the wider issue at play, but happen to think some of the specifics voiced can well over-step the mark. The issue is, as ever, far more nuanced than a Jeremy Vine-led discussion was ever going to draw out (who knew, right?!)

But this is life these days. Everything must be polarised. People are either dismissed as part of the looney-left, woke-brigade – as though nothing they raise might have any value and truth to it – or they are regressive right-wing fascists who hate the poor and ethnic minorities, as though none of the issues they perceive might be a problem either. Neither side gives any credit to anything the other has to say.

As it happens, despite disagreeing with his wider views on the particular subject at hand, I think Laurence Fox came across far better in this discussion. He didn’t use pejorative, he didn’t totally dismiss the other view (though he did disagree), he did listen and he did – contrary to the opposing position – insist it might still be possible to be friends or find common ground. Ms Alibhai-Brown, by contrast, was dismissive, insisted there could be no common ground and no possibility to ever being friends. It came across as far more narrow and small-minded than Fox. Saying, ‘we can never be friends – not even vague acquaintances – but we can talk’ is not likely to lead to any sort of constructive conversation. It does not demonstrate any sort of openness to even countenancing that, amid all the things you disagree on, there may be a valid point or two in there somewhere. It is to have a completely closed mind on the matter.

Where Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is right, Laurence Fox is a privileged white man. That is just a fact. Fox is wrong to pretend, ‘I am just a man’. It simply isn’t true. Privilege really does exist. Where Alibhai-Brown is wrong (on my view) is to judge a man inherently because of that fact, which she clearly does. It is on that Laurence Fox insists he is not so happy. I think he is wrong to claim he isn’t privileged (presumably he doesn’t claim he isn’t white too), but he is right to say that such shouldn’t define him and that he should be treated negatively as a result. He is right that for somebody to say we can never be friends simply because of that – which is entirely out of his hands with nothing he can do about it – is to judge him because of his race. Which is, to all intents and purposes, racist.

The problem Fox faces, however, is that he also wants to deny the existence of privilege. Whilst that shouldn’t mean he is treated negatively for his immutable characteristics, it should lead to a recognition that there can be hurdles for others that he simply doesn’t have to face. Again, that much should be obvious. The answer is not to, therefore, negatively relate to those who seem privileged but rather to try to remove the barriers that exist for those who are underprivileged by comparison.

You see, Fox is also privileged compared to white working-class people too. The problem is when ‘white privilege’ is labelled at anyone who is white regardless of how deprived their background is. When we listen to BAME thinkers using that term, what they mean is that there are areas in which BAME people will face barriers that even white people from deprived communities will not face. Again, that much should be evidently true to anybody who cares to look.

But we cannot ignore that, for white working-class boys from deprived backgrounds in particular, they are now the most left-behind group in the country. To hear, then, that they are ‘privileged’ simply because they are white, often raises hackles. As noted by Matthew Goodwin in this Times article (paywall):

If we’re now going to start teaching them in school that not only do they have to overcome the various economic and social barriers within their community, but they also need to now start apologising for belonging to a wider group which strips away their individual agency, then we’re just going to compound many of these problems.

If you go into these communities and try to tell them that they’re suffering from white privilege — it seems to me a completely nonsensical response to this problem. They are way behind everybody else — they’re falling through the cracks.

He went on to state:

My fear now is with the onset of new terms — toxic masculinity, white privilege — this is even actually going to become more of a problem as we send yet another signal to these communities that they are the problem. That it is not the system more generally that has let them down, it is they are now the problem and they should make amends for simply being who they are. That would be a very dangerous turn of events.

Privilege is certainly a phenomenon and there are many different manifestations of it but when immutable characteristics are used to suggest that one is privilege – despite suffering and facing serious deprivation and lack of privilege themselves – that can be a hard term to hear.

Often, the response to this is that there is a history of white people trying to control the conversation and insisting that BAME people should speak differently. I think that is essentially true. However, this is not a matter of controlling the conversation. People are, indeed, free to use whatever terms they think best. But just as I cannot tell others what language to use (though I might point out why I think other language might be better), I equally can’t insist that when I am speaking those listening must hear me in a particular way. If we want to communicate ideas to people that are right, we have to think carefully about how we will be heard. We cannot simply insist that this is the language I choose to use (which is your prerogative) and you, therefore, must hear what I say in this particular way (which is not within your control).

Unfortunately, the language often employed does lead to division where (in my view) there would be a natural understanding. Under privileged white working class people would, I believe, get behind a lot of issues being raised by BAME people in respect to their lack of privilege. There is an understanding there that systems do not always work for the good of all and do favour particular groups over others at times. But where group identities are viewed as being pitted against each other – especially when comments about privilege are made to those from deprived backgrounds and whom the stats and reality bear out are, in fact, less privileged than those making the comments – that is always going to be hard to wear. As Matthew Goodwin notes, if that goes further still and underprivileged, deprived working class people are then being asked to apologise for privilege they simply see now evidence of, it is only going to increase that sense of division, feeling left-behind and tribal identitarianism. When the only people who then openly acknowledge this are the hard and far right, who listen to those concerns and speak to working class people without holding their noses, we cannot be surprised when people are drawn to such groups even though their ‘solutions’ are no such thing. We do need to be careful that our efforts to make matters right from one underprivileged group do not lead to the demonisation and alienation of another similarly underprivileged group.

But what struck me most about the above conversation is how this is the reality of what we are dealing with in our area. Based purely on that short clip, I would rather deal with a Laurence Fox whom I deeply disagree with on the terms he engaged rather than an Alibhai-Brown, who I largely agree with, on the terms on which she engaged. I am so glad the South Asian Muslims in my area do not take the same approach that she did here.

I know lots of South Asian Muslim people and I genuinely want to be friends with them. They seem to want to be friends with me too, which is nice. But we clearly do not agree on a whole host of issues. If we agreed, we would join our mosque and our church together and worship together as one. But we don’t because we both clearly believe what the other does in worship is not what we ought to do. We do, in reality, worship different gods and approach them in distinctly different ways. That is just a point of fact. But we are happy to talk about those differences openly and honestly.

But imagine we took the view of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Fine, we’ll talk to you, but we can never ever be friends. The fact is, some Christians (and, to be fair, some Muslims) do take such a view. Both my imam friend, and I, bemoan our fellow believers who hold such a line. That is hollow. That is to say, I don’t care about these people; I just want them to know I am right. Maybe I am right, but if I approach things that way, I can hardly be surprised when nobody really wants to listen.

Talk for talking’s sake is hollow. I don’t talk to my Muslim neighbours because I want them to agree and nothing more. I talk to them because I want to be friends with them. And because I want to be friends, I naturally want them to know the gospel I believe to be true because I want the best for my friends. I respect the fact that my Muslim pals want me to become a Muslim for exactly the same reason. They think being a Muslim is the way to paradise and they want that for me because we’re friends. That makes our conversations meaningful and fruitful because we are both wanting the other to hold to what is true because we want what is best for our friends. As we talk, we can see there are areas on which we agree and areas where we don’t. The more we know each other, the less likely we are to demonise each other, no matter how far we may disagree.

That seemed to be the problem in the discussion above. Based on one comment, on one panel show – and a load of tweets since then – a whole view of a person had been built up. I’m sure Laurence Fox is a nice enough bloke. I’m sure – as he suggested – if we tried hard enough, we would find all sorts of things to agree about. I’m also know we’d find plenty to disagree about too. But if I go into a discussion demonising a person, we can’t be that surprised if they happen to respond very badly to what we have to say. If we go into a conversation assuming the best, ready to listen, being willing to disagree but not insisting disagreement means we can’t possibly be friends, I suspect most of our conversations would be much better served.

Probably worth our while remembering that next time we jump into a Twitter pile-on too.