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The phoney war on 'privilege'

By Laurence Maher - posted Monday, 7 June 2021

It was only a matter of time before the quasi-religious contemporary ideology of identity politics began to collapse under the weight of its inherent authoritarianism, contradictions and absurdities. That inevitability is a product of the fact that identity ideology has been imposed top-down. It does not and never will enjoy popular support. This was demonstrated in the selective outraged opposition to the holding of, and the predictable substantive result of, the same-sex marriage plebiscite in 2017.

It is easy enough to lampoon the latter-day cultural cringe embodied in the importation by sections of the Australian intelligentsia in the past half-century of this or that postmodern "critical theory" underpinning identity ideology.

The American [mathematician] Alan Sokal scored a direct hit by having his deliberately ludicrous paper, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", published in the journal Social Text in 1996 which did not survive despite the howling rage of the defenders of post-modern abstractionitis.


Two decades later (2018), James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian achieved similar publishing success more than once as described in detail by Pluckrose & Lindsayin their book, Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody (2020).

Were it not for the extent of its missionary success, the confected division of the whole of Australian society into people whose lives are controlled by, and those who reject, the identity ideology, would be the stuff of political satire to be likened to Nancy Mitford's take on the marvellous literary device of dividing the British into those who were "Upper class" and those who were "non-U".

However, the Australian devotees of the anti-free speech ideology can loll about and gloat. Their decades-long zealotry has, in varying degrees, colonized the universities, schools, sections of two of the three main monotheistic religions, sections of the major political parties (and the fast-disappearing organized labour movement), the community sector, the mainstream media (especially the ABC), public administration, "Big Tech", the professions, the literary/artistic communities, and miscellaneous other groups.

To be a member of one or more of the anointed identity attribute groups is, by definition, to be stereotyped by the ideologues as "oppressed", "vulnerable" or "powerless", worse still to be "demonized" and "dehumanized". The arbitrary nature of the identity ideology cannot account for why the homeless and the unemployed/underemployed are not at the top of any list of "oppressed", "vulnerable" or "powerless" Australians. Furthermore, how is it that nationality and citizenship are not acknowledged as "identities" when many if not a majority of Australians see themselves in that light, or the others who flock here to acquire that citizenship?

Within the binary universe of identity ideology (the ins and the outs), both superior and inferior identities overlap. Some categories relate to fixed inherent personal characteristics. Others arise from ideas and attitudes which are matters of personal choice and can change from one day to the next or whichever way the wind blows.

Race/ethnicity is now at the ideological apex of identities and at the forefront of its far-from-respectful lexicon. The ideologues now use the words "racist" and "racism" as slurs so formulaically that the words are becoming meaningless. One bizarre rhetorical flourish is the use of the word "privilege" as a racial slur.


It is a label which is trotted out as if it is a universal constant at the forefront of the obstacles to the attainment of perfect social justice. In that ideological setting, it is one propaganda instrument in a big tool box of "hate speech" projection.

One ordinary application of the word "privilege" is to describe an exception to a general rule such as the "absolute" and "qualified" privileges which are fundamental to securing the freedom of speech which is protected by Australian defamation law. Another is found in the use of the words "privileged" and "underprivileged" as referring to persons situated on a line measuring enjoyment or deprivation of economic and social wellbeing. And yet another is the common use of the word in a non-condescending complimentary sense.

The identity zealots have now appropriated the word "privilege" to stigmatize entire groups of people who are non-conformists, and to suffocate debate concerning ideas about approved identity attributes. For identity ideologues, the over-arching "truth" is the claim that "privileged" Western Civilization itself is the ghastliest stage in human history.

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About the Author

L W Maher is a Melbourne barrister with a special interest in defamation and other free speech-related disputes. He has written extensively on Australian Cold War legal history.

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