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What Andrew Scheer Gets Wrong about “Privilege”

“…we have a new entry in the contest for the most craven wielding of social justice lingo in Canadian political history: Andrew Scheer exhorting the individuals aiding indigenous rail blockades to, ‘check their privilege.'”

Even by Canadian standards, our last election was a master class in political superfluity. With little difference between the two major parties (voters got to choose between tax cuts and tax cuts, a toothless environmental policy and an even more toothless environmental policy), the election focused on questions of personal morality, with both the Liberals and Conservatives scrambling to unearth decades-old instances of politically incorrect behavior committed by the opposing party leader. The Liberals struck first, highlighting a fourteen-year-old video in which Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer—then an upstart Tory MP—expressed his disapproval of gay marriage (something unlikely to surprise anyone above the age of adolescence, as in 2004 this was the position not just of the Conservative Party, but of most Canadians). Shortly thereafter, photos of Justin Trudeau donning himself in blackface on multiple occasions surfaced. The Prime Minister, then, held a press conference in which he rattled off PC buzzwords with such eagerness that you’d be forgiven for thinking the Canadian Human Rights Commission had paid him for product placement. “Systemic,” “intersectionality,” “privilege,” “micro-aggression”…we’re good, right?

One might think that tacky gestures such as these would be confined to election season—a time when, to paraphrase former Prime Minister Kim Campbell, one needn’t talk about serious issues. Today, electioneering—like war in Orwell’s 1984—is constant. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that we have a new entry in the contest for the most craven wielding of social justice lingo in Canadian political history: Andrew Scheer exhorting the individuals aiding indigenous rail blockades to, “check their privilege.” 

A bit of context is needed. In British Columbia, TC Energy is currently attempting to construct a 670km pipeline, “Coastal GasLink”, to ship natural gas from Dawson Creek to Kitimat. The pipeline passes through the traditional lands of several First Nations, including unceded territories. (The absence of historical treaties in British Columbia between the Crown and indigenous peoples has made it particularly susceptible to First Nations land claims.) TC Energy has engaged in a consultation with said groups and boasts that Coastal GasLink is supported by all 20 of those whose traditional lands overlap with the pipeline’s projected length. The problem is with whom they consulted. While it’s true that 20 of the elected band councils agreed to back the project, many of their hereditary chiefs, including those of the Wet’suwet’en nation, continue to oppose it. Making matters more complicated is the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada already recognized both aboriginal land title and the authority of hereditary chiefs to co-govern in a 1997 decision, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia. The question of whether the Wet’suwet’en’s hold a legal title to their own traditional lands was, however, not resolved by this decision. Due to procedural errors, a retrial was ordered, but it has not yet taken place.

Since early February, First Nations groups across Canada have launched blockades of railway traffic to protest the arrival of federal police (the RCMP) on Wet’suwet’en territory, who were sent to ensure the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. These Wet’suwet’en demonstrators have been joined, in many cases, by non-indigenous protesters seeking to help them. These non-indigenous supporters include environmental activists, university students, and so on. It’s these individuals whom Scheer urged to “check their privilege,” characterized as having “no connection at all with the First Nations community,” and as, “having the luxury of spending days at a time in a blockade.” 

A study done on the Occupy movement in New York City by City University of New York found that over a third of activists involved had incomes over $100,000, making them far richer than a given average cohort of Americans.

For an affluent career politician like Scheer to claim that supporters of the Wet’suwet’en are privileged is obviously hypocritical. This is not the same, however, as saying that he’s wrong. A study done on the Occupy movement in New York City by City University of New York found that over a third of activists involved had incomes over $100,000, making them far richer than a given average cohort of Americans. A similar phenomenon can be observed with the supporters of the Wet’suwet’en, given that so many are university students—when less than one-third of all Canadians aged 25-64 are university degree holders. 

Of course, the majority of First Nations protesters who are supporting the Wet’suwet’en , are not, in PC parlance, “privileged.” But should we we wish to understand why many of their supporters are, it will help to parse Scheer’s comments. (After all, the fact that so many protesters tend to come from privileged backgrounds often proves distasteful to working people.) By invoking the language of “privilege” to describe the protesters who are aiding the Wet’suwet’en, Scheer is following (rather than deviating from) the politically correct, liberal-left playbook. This playbook dictates that—regardless of your position on the issue in question—if you are identified as being “privileged,” you should immediately relinquish said position (lest you demonstrate yourself as—gasp!—insensitive to such concerns). The difference here lies in the way Scheer conceptualizes privilege. For most politically correct liberal-leftists “privilege” refers to racial or sexual distinctions (being white, male, “cisgender,” or any combination of these). Scheer, instead, makes it about class, painting Wet’suwet’en allies as wealthy layabouts who threaten the livelihoods of “hard-working, everyday Canadians.”

What Scheer is doing here, then, is exploiting the way the notion of “privilege” is usually deployed. It is, after all, typically used as an extra-argumentative, ad hominem attack—so that the mere dropping of the word is sure to shame opposing parties into silence. In this case, he focused on the class element. His statement is hardly the only example of the Right appropriating the language of social justice. Indeed, it is common for those on the Right today to claim that the Left, for instance, is racist because, in the words of  Quilette’s Vincent Harinam and Rob Henderson, it, “believe[s] in the superiority of whites.” (Whereas this “superiority,” for the Left, refers to a recognition of the social advantages bequeathed by whiteness.) This, of course, is a bit like saying that garbage men are responsible for the reality of garbage because they believe garbage exists.

This abuse of the term “privilege” cannot be fully blamed on the person who coined it. In Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” McIntosh explicitly identifies “economic class” and “social class” as important variables when assessing its delegation. Ironically, while liberal-leftists rarely heed this injunction, the insurgent socialist left in the United States—led by Bernie Sanders—has managed to acquire the support of a wide swath of “underprivileged” supporters by foregrounding class issues. These supporters understand that focusing on class does not mean sidelining identitarian concerns. This is because racial and sexual distinctions are not simply static. On the contrary, they exist because of the economic structure of society.

A similar observation can be made of Scheer’s assertion that non-indigenous Wet’suwet’en allies are “appropriating [the] agenda” of indigenous protesters. Scheer is surely alluding here to the concept of “cultural appropriation.” This refers to the idea that it’s wrong for white people to crib from the cultures of non-white people. Yet in a certain way, doesn’t the politically correct Left share some blame for Scheer’s idiotic gesture? By treating the concept of “cultural appropriation” as abstract and unmoored from economic concerns—as if every white girl with cornrows is a threat to the body politic—liberal-leftists render it virtually meaningless. In this way, their position is merely the flipside of the empty claim that cultural appropriation is acceptable because, “all culture is based on appropriation.” The only way to get beyond such platitudes is to attempt to grasp concretely how cultural appropriation intersects with political economy. Should we do this, we’ll find it is Scheer—and not the Wet’suwet’en allies—who is guilty of cynically appropriating their struggle.

Conrad Bongard Hamilton is a doctoral student at Paris 8 University pursuing research on the relationship between agency and the value-form in the work of Karl Marx. He is a co-author, with Matt McManus, of the forthcoming text Myth & Mayhem: A Left-Wing Critique of Jordan Peterson.

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Louis-Simon
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Louis-Simon

Most of the vocabulary of political correctness, privilege and cultural appropriation is dangerous and counter-productive. The very fact that it has become the bread and butter of political discourse is ridiculous. I would have expected the conservative party to be a staunch opponent of these notions and the fact that they are appropriating (ha) them is worrisome indeed.