Woke privilege

Brendan O'Neill
Nov 9 · 4 min read

The Australian, 9 November 2019

We need to talk about privilege.

No, not about “white privilege” or “straight privilege” or “cis privilege” or any of the other made-up privileges that the woke lobby bangs on about endlessly.

And I don’t mean we have to check our privilege, either.

Checking one’s privilege is one of the weirdest rituals in the cult of identity politics.

It is essentially a form of self-flagellation, where supposedly privileged people – especially white men – must metaphorically whip themselves across the back for having allegedly enjoyed super-comfortable existences.

Identity politics is an extremely binary system. It sees only two kinds of human beings.

There are the oppressed, who are Good. These include Muslims, black women, brown women, some gay people (not white male gay people!), and of course trans people.

And there are the privileged, who are Bad. These include white men, especially old white men, who are of course behind every ill on earth.

White women are privileged, too. Remember the woke fury visited upon those sisterhood-destroying white women who had the temerity to vote for Trump or Brexit in 2016.

And cis people are also privileged. Cis is short for cisgender, a word invented by people who have blue hair, degrees in Queer Studies and way too much time on their hands.

It refers to people who remain the sex they were born as. So, err, the vast majority of humankind.

No, we need to talk about the meaning of the word privilege. The real meaning, not the warped meaning dreamt up by woke warriors who are hellbent on organising humanity into lists of The Oppressed and The Privileged.

Because it strikes me that one of the most unfortunate consequences of identity politics has been its hollowing-out of the word privilege and the way this has made it impossible to have a serious debate about where power and authority really lie in 21st-century Western society.

This was brought home to me while watching Mona Eltahawy’s excruciating appearance on Q&A.

I cringed so hard as I watched Ms Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American feminist and author, spout the F-word and boast about being uncivil.

It was all so adolescent. I can’t believe someone over the age of 14 thinks it’s cool to say f**k.

But even more striking than that was how try-hard it felt. It came across as extraordinarily performative. It felt like an act.

Then it struck me. Eltahawy is playing at being oppressed. She’s donning the garb of the downtrodden to distract attention from the fact that she has had a very nice, comfortable and, dare I say it, privileged life.

Consider her Q&A comments on Barack Obama’s very sensible criticisms of woke culture and the trend for “cancelling” people who hold different views to our own.

Eltahawy slammed Obama. She said she often goes online precisely to say “f**k off” – cringe! – to people who criticise her.

She said: “I do not have the luxury or the privilege to sit there and be civil with people who do not acknowledge my full humanity.”

In short, she’s a member of the Non-Privileged. And therefore she is good and you must listen to her.

There’s only one problem with this: it isn’t true.

Eltahawy had a privileged life. And I’m using the word privilege in its true sense here.

She grew up in a very middle-class family in Egypt. Her parents both had PhDs. They worked in medicine. They even got government grants to study and work overseas, including in the UK and Saudi Arabia.

A third of Egyptians live in extreme poverty. In contrast to them, Mona grew up in great comfort.

And that’s a very inconvenient fact for someone who’s super keen to be a member of the woke, where being oppressed gives you moral power and social influence.

So Woke Mona must pose as someone who lacks “luxury or privilege” and who therefore cannot be expected to be polite to her detractors.

This is a woke form of blacking-up, where very middle-class people self-identity (to use PC language) as oppressed in order to improve their social standing in PC circles and to give themselves the right to lecture the rest of us, especially white men, about how dumb and prejudiced we are.

Indeed, Eltahawy insisted on Q&A that words like civility and respectfulness were invented by white men for the benefit of other white men.

Which white men? Rich, powerful white men like Donald Trump? White men like my father, an immigrant to the UK who worked on building sites his whole life? The white men who fix the plumbing in Ms Eltahawy’s no doubt lovely apartment block in New York City?

The woke elite’s sweeping, dehumanising category of “white men” erases everything to do with class and wealth. It views all white men, whether dirt poor or filthy rich, as culturally problematic.

So Ms Eltahawy, from her lovely, privileged background, is oppressed, while white men, including the ones who have no money or power, are privileged. This is morally perverse and historically illiterate.

Woke Mona isn’t alone in using the language of oppression to disguise her privileged origins.

The woke universe is full of plummy Guardianistas, feminists from wealthy backgrounds and Ivy League activists who all claim to lack privilege.

Identity politics increasingly looks like the revenge of the elites against the masses. It is the disguise well-off people wear as they lecture the throng, including working-class white men, about our moral defects.

That’s the great irony of wokeness: it poses as a revolt against old power structures, but it is itself a new power structure, one of moral censorship and social control led by posh people pretending to be victims.

And no matter how many times Mona says f**k she can’t hide this fact.

This column was published in The Australian on 9 November 2019.

I only Instagram: burntoakboy

Brendan O'Neill

Written by

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade