In recent weeks there have been increasing demands for people to think about their privilege. Some, perhaps concerned that their privilege might be denounced, have even taken to pre-emptively denouncing themselves so that the world knows just how privileged they are and how much they intend to go away and think about it, until things blow over at least.
There are, of course, hierarchies of privilege, something we learn from the earliest days at school. Although I don’t recall there being any permissible prejudice against anyone because of the colour of their skin at my state primary, other groups were not so lucky. Throughout my schooling, aside from an intense antagonism towards gays — this was the 90s — there was a vast amount of opposition to people with ginger hair, ‘othered’ to such an extent that redheads were defined by nothing but their hair colour and were bullied accordingly. Yet even this was obviously minor compared to the real matter of privilege, which only expressed itself after we left education.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
At this point, as we all struggled to find work and somewhere to live, one group of people were fortunate above all others — those who, fresh out of university, were able to put down a deposit on a flat in London straight away, rather than spend years in rented accommodation, seeing most of their salaries disappear each month into someone else’s pocket. It was not only that this was a divide between renting and owning — having a stake in a property or paying for someone else’s stake in it — but that it had serious knock-on effects down the line.
People who owned a place of their own in the capital had a wider and more appealing choice of jobs that they could go into — not because they were any more brilliant, had better CVs or any particular skin colour or hair colour. In contrast those forced to rent had to take whatever work was available in order to paddle fast enough not to sink in the big city and thus boomerang — fear of all fears — back to their parents’ home.
Many of the most desirable, hard-to-get-into, careers went to this former group of people. To take just the most high-profile example, many if not most of the people in my generation who made a stab at acting — whether successful or not — were able to make that attempt because their parents had helped to buy them a property, house them in the capital, or otherwise keep them financially afloat.
Of those who did succeed in that profession I can think of any number of people at least as talented as them, if not more so, who would have been just as likely to succeed but who never had the opportunity to give it a shot. Now you could say that if they had really wanted it, and fought for it, and stacked shelves at night while doing endless read-throughs during the day, then they could have managed it.
Perhaps. There are always exceptional and exceptionally motivated people who make the exceptions, but in most cases that is not how things work. And it has got bigger, this privilege divide, since I left university. This explains why so many professions, not just acting but also the media, have become dominated by the ‘privileged’, where once the working class were well-represented.
And this divide does neatly map onto class far more than any other ‘characteristic’. I can think of black friends and contemporaries who had families able to help them onto the property ladder, and white friends and contemporaries who did not. The same can be said for gays (or members of the LGBT community, one should now say) and even gingers. I can think of people who would now be called BAME whose families were able to relieve them of the pressure of ever having to make the rent.
And I can think of many people from what is now being called (somewhat sinisterly to my ears) the ‘white community’ who never had that luck and struggled along in jobs they hated, paying most of their wages into accommodation they disliked.
One thing that is so striking about the ‘privilege’ discussion of recent years is the way in which it has come to be interested only in a very specific set of issues. It is utterly obsessed with what it deems ‘racial privilege’, insofar as it is obsessed with ‘white privilege’. As a secondary order of duty it is interested in the privilege alleged to be withheld from people who are not male or heterosexual.
Yet in my own ‘lived experience’ (to steal that typically grandiose and tautologous phrase of the social justice warriors) parental-housing-ladder-help [PHLH] privilege seems to me the most significant privilege variant among my contemporaries.
So, since we live in an era which has decided that a privilege found is a privilege that must be addressed, what are we to do about this one? The first step, presumably, would be to raise awareness of the issue. After having raised it, perhaps we could ask people who have PHLH privilege not just to educate themselves but also to speak more about the privilege that they have enjoyed in their lives? Perhaps that stage having been accomplished, we could move to something slightly more vindictive.
Possibly those who have benefited from PHLH privilege could be asked to put signs in their windows saying ‘Sorry’, or “This house was purchased due to unearned privilege”. I imagine that over time this could have some negative effects; shaming people in this manner might lead to them moving out to areas where there are more people like them, and fewer people willing to shame them or otherwise look down on them.
A final stage could be to insist that all of those who enjoyed this privilege could be made to pay up — the taxation and stamp duty already levelled against them having still not levelled the divide. A great wealth transfer from those who bought their properties with parental help towards those who did not could be in order. It could prove divisive, but it could also be claimed that after this ugly but necessary episode we would live in a fairer and more equitable society.
Why do I raise this issue? Not just to point out that the privilege games we are currently playing are curiously selected, do not apply in every country all the time in the same way, and are almost certainly unequal to the task of discussing ‘inequality’ in the UK today. But also to point out that in playing this game we are doing almost everything possible to make more people unhappy.
The emerging ethic of this age tells people that they must scour the world looking for grievances to hold up; to locate power or privilege and destroy it or disperse it. But the world being what it is, and human beings being what we are, there will always be a profound number of grievances that we could find and point to. They might be said to be structural, personal, political, familial and much more. Some are just down to luck — health, wealth or good looks, and anyone who doesn’t think the latter a privilege needs to ‘educate themselves’, to use another sinister phrase of the age.
Sometimes there are injustices that we cannot allow to continue and that we can do something about — such as the treatment of some group of people as second-class citizens. But the privilege discussion now implies that once any privilege is identified it must be campaigned against and ‘dismantled’ until the playing field can be said to be levelled.
There is another solution, or at least approach, to problems that are endemic and unfair, but not oppressive. That is to try to reconcile ourselves to the world around us. To find our own attitudes towards, and ways around, inequities and inequalities that may be endemic but are also unfixable. The alternative is, at best, endless unhappiness, and at worst, something far more dangerous and divisive.