“Left-wing privilege”: a right-wing delusion
“I have left-wing privilege”—that’s what the newest buttons at U of T’s Arts & Science Student Union office read. They are a response to a Varsity comment article by Emmett Choi that claims progressive students have privilege on campus over their conservative peers, citing protests against men’s rights groups, the left-leanings of many academics, and the existence of “inherently progressive” departments like women and gender studies.
The article has drawn criticism because it compares the oppression faced by women and racialized and LGBT peoples to the flack that some (often white and male) conservatives receive on campus for defending the oppressive status quo.
Some have justly argued that it is insulting to apply the word privilege to ideological groups rather than to people belonging to more fundamentally-ingrained identities like race and gender. Choi’s biggest wrong, however, may not be his claim that an ideology can be privileged, but rather the ideology he labels as such.
There is a privileged ideology on our campuses—and it’s not “leftism.” The privileged ideology is so obviously privileged that to call it privileged would be an exercise in redundancy. It is establishment privilege, not left-wing privilege, that plagues our campuses.
In my first year at U of T, I took a two-credit seminar program in political science and history, along with Political Science 101. If leftism was privileged on campus, you would think it would be championed by the department that most obviously studies political ideologies: political science.
Yet both my seminar program and POL101 opened with a discussion of Francis Fukuyama, a member of the Bush Sr. administration who argued that the end of the Cold War meant that history was over and that free market capitalism was the world’s permanent future. The only alternative viewpoint we were offered to this was Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” theory, a model drenched in enough racially-charged pessimism to make Fukuyama’s neoliberal approach look progressive by comparison.
Socialist perspectives were few and far between in these curricula. In fact, on the first day of POL101, our lecturer made the case for Fukuyama by dismissing socialism as dead outside of “Cuba, North Korea, and the front steps of Sidney Smith.”
While I cannot speak to the experience of taking classes in many other departments, nothing that I have seen at U of T suggests that its classes broadly deploy a leftist agenda. For instance, take economics, a subject that, along with political science, plays a key role in influencing our governing ideologies. At U of T, economics is taught as a science, and therefore tutorials are not a majo
r component of lower-level economics classes. The implication of this is that economics students are not encouraged to ask questions about how socio-economic power structures shape economic epistemologies—i.e., the exact questions radical leftist professors would expect their students to tackle.
Left-wing students and staff may have ideological hegemony in certain circles on campus (one of these circles, the Transitional Year Program, has faced severe cuts), but overall U of T is an institution that serves the liberal-conservative political establishment that it grew out of. Choicites the presence of building-blocking picket lines during last year’s CUPE 3902 teaching assistant strike as a sign that left-wing privilege exists on campus. If such privilege exists, then why didn’t U of T administration feel compelled to bargain with TAs throughout the strike? And why after a month of action did TAs have to settle for an arbitrated deal that was widely viewed as a victory for U of T administration?
Conservatives will continue to spin out polemics about how “social justice warriors” are dominating and destroying campuses, but these analyses ignore the forces that truly have the power to shape privilege at universities. At the same time as these think pieces are being run, professors in disciplines like political science and economics will continue to discourage anti-establishment thought. Corporate donors will continue to hold seats on governing councils and exert influence over academic programs. Anonymous student confession websites will keep spewing out statuses disparaging political correctness and equity studies students. Administrators will continue to remain out of touch with student demands on issues ranging from fossil fuel divestment and sexual violence policies to tuition.
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If this is what left-wing “privilege” looks like, then this is one form of privilege we can’t afford to check.