In the wake of Trump and Brexit, many people are struggling with how to react to what has happened. Should we accept that some of the bigoted concerns of those voters have to be addressed, that globalisation has failed and that immigration has to stop? Or should we be unashamed about our outlook, and fight the fascist nostalgia of a previous age that never existed? I think that Laurie Penny’s great call to arms in the “On the election of Donald J Trump” shows that the values of liberalism can’t be diluted because some people have become uncomfortable with them. Laurie is done with pretending that their concerns are legitimate, encouraging progressives to speak out against this bullying and ‘stop the ship from sinking’. The only question is how to take up the fight. An ‘us against them’ approach is dangerous, as it will only create deeper riffs between people. We have to find a way to fight the bigoted views of people without dismissing the people who hold those views. It is only by attempting to find what unites rather than divides us that we can stop the ship from sinking. Being ignored – not just politically but also in everyday life – can be a powerful incubator of resentment.
We are living in times of increasing intolerance. It’s not just the right wing bigots who are intolerant but also the progressive left. Take ‘no-platforming’ as an example. It is the idea that those whose views you find morally repulsive should not be allowed to speak, having the platform for their views pulled from them. This is what people tried to do to Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell – two progressive giants in previous lives – because they were seen as trans-phobic. Rather than wish to listen to them, understand them and argue with them, some people thought the best thing to do would be to ignore them. I don’t think this tactic helps anyone, those who hold the offending views will not be won round and those who attempt to no-platform lose an opportunity to win someone round.
This intolerance of the left has seeped into other areas of debate quietly, on the back of good intentions and important ideas. And I think this hidden intolerance has led to some seeing the progressive movement as the enemy rather than as a friend. The phrase “check your privilege” is one of these offenders. It is an important reminder to some people to remember the position they are speaking from when they complain about something. It also lacks nuance. I am an incredibly privileged middle class man and I like to think I am aware of it, though I could probably be more so. I am also the child of immigrants, who has a Muslim name. When I have been told to “check my privilege”, the good intentions always refer to my designation as a middle class man, ignoring the issues I have as the child of immigrants with a Muslim name. The person telling me to check myself has probably never been stopped under the Terrorist Act, called a “fucking immigrant” or been made to feel unwelcome in their own home. My point isn’t to moan about this but to illustrate the fact that human beings are complex creatures, who can’t be put into neat little boxes. Progressives sometimes forget that. They sometimes forget that just because someone is a white man – the group blamed for Trump – doesn’t mean that he isn’t struggling. If he is told to “check his privilege” by a college educated successful woman, it’s probably going to fall on deaf ears if he has no job, and can barely get his rent money together. That he doesn’t get stopped and searched as much as black men probably won’t matter to him.
What the phrase does do is remind him that the progressive movement is not his friend, that it doesn’t care about his unique experience as a white, poor, man. He needs someone to fight for him and it isn’t going to be the people who completely dismiss him as a struggling human being. Is it any surprise that he then finds an ally and friendship in more sinister movements? Progressives need to learn from the intersectionality movement in feminism, which argues that “certain groups of women have multi-layered facets in life that they have to deal with”. This movement arose out of the idea that the feminist movement was too white, middle-classed and cis gendered, meaning that women who did not belong to those groups were being ignored within feminism. Progressives too have to realise that people are multi-layered, with different things in life that they have to deal with. They have to show that they are there to fight for everyone, even those who have traditionally been seen as the ‘privileged’. Because not every white man is Donald Trump.
An example of this can be seen in how some members of the LGBT community formed ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ during the Miners’ Strike in the Thatcher years. The majority of the LGBT community didn’t see the point because the Miners were part of the heterosexual society that had made their lives so difficult. The Miners didn’t want their support because they were gay. But eventually a friendship grew, with the National Union of Mineworkers coming to participate in gay pride parades and voted in blocks to ensure that the Labour Party officially supported LGBT rights. This is the example progressives must follow if we want to defeat the dark forces of Trump and Brexit. We must build friendships with those who seem bigoted, to show them that our fight against inequality is also theirs.