Voices: The left has a language problem – just look at the Anne Frank ‘white privilege’ debate
Sometimes Twitter feels like one of those really unethical social experiments from the 1960s, crafted by some deranged psychologist to see if it’s possible to invent a website that makes somebody angrier than they’ve ever been in their entire life while also ensuring they still check it for updates every 30 seconds.
It’s an endless competition to see who can come up with the absolute worst take imaginable; a perfect verbal grenade designed to obliterate the final remaining vestiges of your dwindling sanity.
This week’s winner is whoever started the current discourse around whether or not Anne Frank had “white privilege.” If you aren’t aware of this discussion, first of all let me say I’m sorry to be the one to tell you about it. There’s still time to turn around, and keep living in a pre-“did Anne Frank have white privilege?” world.
For the masochists who decided to stick around, the conversation seems to have been triggered by a screenshot of a user who tweeted “hold on I want to make sure I say this carefully. Yeah Anne Frank had white privilege. Bad things happen to people with white privilege also but don’t tell the whites that.” A perfect verbal grenade.
The tweet triggered the kind of responses you’d expect. People agreeing with it, people making fun of it, people openly debating the popular white supremacist talking point of whether or not Jews can be considered white (okay you might not have expected that last one). As is the case any time some overly enthusiastic but ultimately misguided leftist goes viral on the world’s worst website, it became something of a black eye for the left as a whole, while also validating the beliefs of some of the absolute worst elements of the right.
It’s not the first time something like this has happened, nor will it be the last. Right-wingers thrive in an ecosystem where every take, whether it comes from a teenager with 200 followers and an anime profile picture, or the actual sitting president of the United States, is treated with a similar amount of authority.
Every time one of these tweets goes viral, it somehow becomes an indictment of an entire wing of the political spectrum, as prominent right-wing accounts hold it up to their followers and claim “See? This is what the left actually believes!” It’s why accounts like Libs of TikTok are so popular; it’s a lot easier to ignore the concerns of the left, which is a belief system that is primarily concerned with altruism and social justice, if you can convince yourself that the people who hold those beliefs are lunatics.
The problem is, the left makes it easy. Terms like “white privilege” become popular among left-wingers, usually because they describe a very specific and uncomplicated issue in a succinct way. However, they get bandied about with no thought for people outside of that bubble, which means that when they inevitably reach people who aren’t familiar with them, it becomes very easy for them to become perverted.
White privilege, for example, is a very simple concept: all it means is that people who are white have the privilege of not suffering the same discrimination as people who are visibly not-white (I’m oversimplifying, but that’s broadly correct). The problem is, when people hear the term “privilege” they assume that their every other disadvantage is being dismissed out of hand. Does an unemployed white man who struggles to pay his rent every month have “white privilege”? Well, yes. But try explaining that to him.
These little rhetorical loopholes become an absolute playground for right-wingers who have a vested interest in tearing down their ideological opposites. It’s easy to take advantage of a left made up of people who seem determined to gatekeep ideas behind complex, almost academic-sounding language. It’s why it was so easy for southern Republicans in America to make a bogeyman of critical race theory, despite it being a pretty useful framework for thinking about history.
It’s part of the reason Tory leadership candidate Penny Mordaunt is able to politicise the question “do I know what a woman is?” on Twitter. Who is the average person going to be more receptive to? The person giving them simple, uncomplicated answers, or the person who makes them feel like they need a masters in sociology to even engage in the discussion?
What makes this problem so difficult to address is that “the left” is an amorphous and decentralised blob. They don’t have a newsletter. They’ll never agree on a leader. I’ve been using the term “the left” throughout this article, but what I’m really talking about here is a loose collection of liberals, anarchists, anti-Starmer socialists, anti-Corbyn centrists, working class people, “champagne socialists”, students, union leaders and everything in between.
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“The left,” if you can even call it that, is a bunch of people who love nothing more than fighting over minutiae, so getting them to agree on something as complex as language is all but impossible.
If it was possible, though, here’s what I’d say: tone it down. Stop arguing for the sake of arguing. Stop showing off! I’m sure you’re very clever, but you are in an ideological war with people whose entire political philosophy is built around simplicity. Simple answers to complex questions. Leave means leave. Level up Britain. Make America great again.
People don’t want complexity, and more importantly, they don’t want to feel stupid. They don’t want to be talked down to and told they have “privilege” in the middle of a cost of living crisis, even if you didn’t mean it that way. They want a message that fits on the side of the bus, or in a hastily written 3am tweet. They want memes, not a PhD thesis.
You lose a lot of nuance with that kind of hyper-simplification, but you also lose the wiggle room that allows your opponents to deliberately misconstrue your intentions. You may not fully appreciate the value of that, but just wait until you’re 50 tweets deep in a thread about whether a child who was murdered in the Holocaust had “privilege”.