It’s astonishingly easy, it seems, for people who have the privilege of writing in national newspapers to be very, very wrong about very simple things. This is relatively easy to explain: when you’re writing for a newspaper, you’re not writing with the intention of being right, but rather to make the people reading that newspaper feel righteous about themselves. That’s how you keep getting commissioned to write articles for that newspaper: by helping it sell copies.

It’s a privilege all columnists should examine, because it can lead to them being wrong en masse. That’s happened here. To recap, Louise Mensch wrote an article complaining that British feminists spend their time analysing categories of privilege rather than getting out there and making strides for the sisterhood. It’s not surprising that Louise thought this, because she’s a Tory and many contemporary feminist battles over equal pay take place within unions, far away from her ken. However, given that even Cosmo is running a campaign for equal pay, her research may have been limited – or perhaps, given that she’s wealthy, she doesn’t even consider the enormous bulk of the female workforce receiving the same pay for the same work an issue at all. Indeed, her call for a ‘power feminism’ in which women empower themselves by making lots of money and achieving office sounds more like a girly Nietzschianism than something about securing equal rights. There’s a lot of analysis she needs to carry out on her own position before critiquing others.

Painfully, Laurie Penny responded by being nearly right, but as is so typical of the private-school-educated girl she failed to set her argument out properly. ‘Check your privilege’, the three little words that have given birth to far too many other enormous words, simply means to her ‘consider how your privilege affects what you have just said or done.’ This relatively simple phrase is far too easy to misinterpret, as Dan Hodges has taken great glee in doing, because unfortunately one has to talk about about domains and categories before something that is simple really makes any sense to anyone not versed in it. In claiming that it’s simple I’m exemplifying my privilege of having read stuff about this before. However, to start us off easily:

  • CYP only applies to a limited domain of questions. It does not, for example, mean that only a disabled albino can be right about the distance between the Earth and the Moon.
  • CYP does not preclude the possibility of every black person everywhere being wrong about the effects of racism.
  • CYP does not stop well-educated white middle class people being right about most things on account of their education.

It only really refers to the domain of opinion about how people experience things. I can claim that something’s not racist but my only experience of racism is being called a ‘Gyardee Angreszch’ (‘stupid English’) on the streets of Jaipur. That’s an indication both of my privilege and my pomposity. How I analyse and understand the experience of people being racist to someone else is through that framework, which I cannot avoid. Therefore, when someone claims that an act is racist and my initial reaction is to say that it’s not, I should check whether the framework through which I’m analysing that act is adequate. I might dismiss something as a minor sleight, but to someone who’s spent their entire life being told they’re stupid because they’re black, that minor sleight may be yet another reinforcement of a society that’s holding them down. In this instance, they would be right.

Of course, there will be lots of instances when that same framework will work against them. I’ve lost count of the number of tribunals friends and colleagues have been to when they’re trying to get rid of a useless member of staff who’s screamed racism as soon as a P45 was wafted in their direction. Just because society is racist doesn’t mean you’re not rubbish. What this implies is that ‘privilege’ is the wrong word: even if you’re less privileged, you should be aware of you’ve become predisposed to interpret society. I’d prefer ‘Check your framework’ but that’s much less catchy. It’s a useful intellectual discipline for everyone.

What this means is that the villain of this minor commentariat vignette is Laurie Penny. Dan Hodges we can forgive; he doesn’t understand what CYP means and wants the Left to win ultimate victory through the creation of a race of non-reflective Spartan super-campaigners. Louise Mensch we can forgive; she doesn’t understand what CYP means and just wants all women to become world-bestriding Dagny Taggarts. But Laurie Penny does understand what it means and despite that decided to (a) use it in a context ill suited to it (‘What is racist? is a CYP issue, ‘What is an effective way of combatting racism?’ is a much more empirical question once you’ve sorted the first one out) and (b) bemoan having to use it. Learning that you’re wrong is wonderful, because you learn something. Analysing your own position to make sure it’s correct is also wonderful, because it gives you intellectual integrity. Despite this, she used her position as a national commentator to complain about having to learn. That’s a privilege she wants to get sorted out pronto.

I’m a man. I’m in crisis. At least, this is the contention of Diane Abbott and Laurie Penny, who claim I’m currently being oppressed by outdated gender stereotypes about my role in society, and that I feel under constant pressure to get out there and win some bread.

Obviously, they’re not referring to me personally, but to men in the abstract. This Abstracted Man doesn’t understand his place in the world now that women are in the workplace, because he’s been told that he’s got to get out there and earn money for his family while the little woman stays at home looking after the kids.

Who is it who’s saying this? Laurie Penny claims it’s a conglomerate of evil Tories and enigmatic Forces of Conservatism who push the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. Unfortunately for this argument, the forces of Conservatism are exceptionally bad at their job:

Percent Ag

Source: European Values Survey, GB Data

People think that women working doesn’t harm children and that both men and women should win bread. More significantly for the argument to hand, they see both men and women having the same responsibilities for homelife:

men should

Source: EVS Data. This question was only asked in the 08-10 wave.

But regardless. We men are suffering from these social changes, which is why we’re killing ourselves in greater numbers than ever before:

UK Suicide Rate


Source: Samaritans

Clearly more men kill themselves than women. It is absolutely true that the suicide rate amongst males rose between 2011 and 2010. It’s also true that it rose amongst women as well. What’s not true is that we have a sudden onset crisis of masculinity that is just begging to be solved; men and women clearly kill themselves at different rates, and may always have done so.

What is a problem is the fact that gender roles continue to be reinforced. Take this example, from someone talking about encouraging employment amongst young men:

The decline of heavy industry and manufacturing jobs has left a lot of men in a position where they don’t feel the jobs on offer – particularly service jobs – are ones they feel comfortable with.[…] We need more advanced, rigorous vocational courses and a new focus on technical learning and skills”

Apparently men are only men if they bang bits of steel together. I’ve spent my entire life being told that men will lose out in the ‘new’ workplaces because we don’t have ‘soft skills’. Unaccountably this hasn’t happened; by and large, men still run the world. However, working class men – to whom the author of the quote was apparently referring – aren’t given the sort of ‘soft’ skills that the men who went to private school and now run the country were given. This is because people like the person who wrote the above, which was taken from Diane Abbott’s speech, keep reinforcing gender roles which require working class men to feel bad about taking service sector jobs. I can guarantee you that middle class men never have this problem.

An extremely limited understanding of the roles that men play in society – which for Diane Abbott is apparently either gang members in Hackney or traders in the City, with nary a fella in between – should disqualify you from pretending to say anything useful about issues relating to men. There are specific issues for working class men which are related to the impact of globalisation & immigration on unskilled labour, but those issues also apply to women with the same skill sets. If demand is increasing for employees in the service sector (which is a big ‘if’) our politicians need to stop banging on about how apprenticeships and big factories are what we need for our young men, and start saying that there’s nothing wrong with men being secretaries. If they don’t, we’re going to continue seeing people with limited viewpoints banging on about a crisis of masculinity year after year.

Yesterday was fun. While I do enjoy the writings of Johann Hari, there’s no denying that he’s frequently sanctimonious and pompous, and the sight of hundreds of people gently mocking his erstwhile practice of replacing quotes from his interviewees with quotes from their other public outpourings was, quite frankly, hilarious.

Hari appears to have taken it all in good, albeit pompous, spirit. This is much more than can be said for Guido, who took this example of Hari’s pretentiousness and decided to run a politically motivated attack piece. This spoiling of the joke allowed other pompous blowhards on the left to rush to Hari’s defence. Guido then had the nerve to ask if those blowhards would’ve defended him in a similar situation. A more pertinent question would be if Guido would demand that a right-wing journalist be stripped of their awards for systemic deception. Somehow, I doubt it, otherwise he’d do little else.

However, this whole saga raises an interesting point. It’s clear that the public have different expectations of journalists than journalists do of themselves. Many of Hari’s defenders seemed to think that an ‘unstylish‘ peccadillo like this was not something worth mocking Hari over. Moreover, his defenders in what you could call the celebrity twitterati seemed to resent the fact that their friends were as open to public mocking as the likes of Jan Moir. Twitter provides a near-instant expression of popular opinion on a given subject, and in this instance it appears that a significant number of tweeters were of the opinion that any transgression of journalistic integrity was worth, if not condemning, at least worth mocking.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that journalists now want to draw a line under this episode, and move on. The Hari issue will go away. However, it’s clear that the issue of accountability in journalism will not. The market provides an inadequate method of assuring journalistic integrity, because people who buy news products do not necessarily do so on the basis of the accuracy of that product, but on to what extent that product coheres with and confirms their worldview. The columnists of the Daily Mail are not held to high standards because their product is so effective at appealing to their audiences’ worldview that purchasers of the Mail do not stop buying it when their inaccuracies are (repeatedly) revealed. We need another mechanism for insuring such integrity, in the interests of having the sort of properly informed public debate necessary for a liberal society to work. The Press Complaints Commission, chaired as it is by Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, does not constitute such a mechanism. The crowd-sourced mocking of Twitter might point the way towards something that does.