Without a proper class narrative, Trinity’s liberal culture is oppressive

If we really care about social issues, surely we want these ideas to permeate through all echelons of society and not just those which we are a part of.


Reductive activism

“That’s what happens when a knacker…” she said in a group of people, liberal-minded people, people like herself. Up until that point, conversation had drifted between topics such as LGBTQ+ rights and feminism. Topics filled with words such as “oppression”, “elitism”, and “inequality”. However, when it came to class inequality, none of these words were mentioned.

Not one member of the group called her out on using a slur associated with the common caricature of the working class. No-one even flinched at its sincere utterance. Wealth inequality was not their concern. A few minutes later, they were back to discussing the oppression of women in society. The irony didn’t seem to strike anyone.

This is not an isolated incident. If you listen carefully, you can spot examples during any given week at Trinity. I’ll give one more.

Two days later, I was walking to a pub with a friend. We needed to get past two men who were standing in the way of a narrow alley, at the end of which was our destination. They spoke with strong Dublin accents and the way they were swaying suggested that they had been enjoying some drinks. We waited patiently for them to notice us. When they did, they apologised and step to one side so we could pass. After they were a few metres behind us, my friend leaned in into me and whispered sardonically: “The local wildlife”.

I don’t mean to shame either of these people, so the events are purposely vague. They’re included because their comments help elucidate a worrying trend within certain circles of Trinity PC liberals – the trend being how little some of these fighters for equality seem to care for those less financially well-off.  

Political correctness is centred on arguing for the rights of the vulnerable and oppressed within our society, which is an admirable intention. Many who follow the ideology have been at the forefront of great campaigns such as getting a marriage referendum, leading pro-choice activism, and attempting to stop direct provision. They’ve also been some of the strongest opponents of racism and sexism.

However, while still using much of the vernacular of traditional leftism, many have forgotten about one of the groups that equality rhetoric was originally intended to serve: the working class.

I was recently at an event arranged by some Trinity students associated with a personal-politics movement. The group asked attendants to take part in a privilege test. The idea was simple. We would be asked ten questions about our gender, race, and sexuality. If we felt, for example, that we weren’t discriminated based on our gender, then we would give ourselves one privilege point.

According to the test, the people with ten privilege points were at the top of society while the people with zero privilege points were at the bottom. It was the people at the top who exercised oppression to keep the others down.

It might sound like an admirable idea to some. However, the way it was conducted should leave any reasonable person with a little unease. There was not a single question about financial, geographical or family circumstance in that test. As long as you were white, male, and straight, your existence was apparently clear sailing.

Obviously, being white, male, and straight brings unfair advantages in western culture. However, to reduce privilege down to just these things is to simplify the incredibly complex and multifaceted concept that is oppression, to the point of it becoming hearsay or subject to trend.

The proof is in the pudding. We sat as a group of Trinity students, which is one of the most elite institutions in the country, on a Saturday when others less well off would have had to work, discussing how some of us were the most oppressed individuals in society.  I can’t be the only one who feels there’s something eerie about that.

When I brought this up, everyone admitted that a privilege test should include a broader set of questions. For an ephemeral moment we were in total agreement about how bad wealth inequality was, but then it was over. We returned to our privilege test, which was left unaltered. Our rhetoric went unchanged. Wealth inequality as a form of oppression was not mentioned again.  

Hollow activism

I was reminded of all those conversations I’ve had since entering Trinity where people are passively willing to admit that wealth disparity is a bad thing but show nowhere near the same conviction about it as they do for other social issues.

Obviously, I’m not speaking about everyone in Trinity. Some great work is done for those less fortunate than the average student. VTP, SVP, and TAP are all testament to that, and that’s just to name a few. However, that does not change the fact that the current debate about injustice seems entirely preoccupied with certain issues at the expense of others.

There has been a surge in debate over free speech in the last couple months, with some suggesting we need to protect oppressed and marginalised groups from hate speech. I feel the argument has been documented enough in the college media that there’s no need for another summary of the sides. Aside from the topic itself, though, what’s interesting about the debate is the question of who counts as an oppressed or marginalised.

Scanning through the last three articles published by Trinity News around the topic, the marginalised groups mentioned are Muslims, the travelling community, those who have been sexually assaulted, LGBTQ+, and racial groups.  I’ve yet to see any free speech arguments mention the working class.

The working class are as relevant to this debate as any other group. Consider The Catherine Tate Show, where the character Lauren embodies the “chav” caricature.  Hannah Frankel writes in the Times Education Supplement that Lauren “can leave working-class people feeling patronised and laughed at” – yet there was no uproar last year when Tate’s name appeared on the list of potential Phil speakers.

Chris McGeal, in a recent Guardian piece, spoke to Dee Davis, a local of Bettyville Kentucky, which is described as “America’s poorest white town”. Davis and others successfully prevented CBS from remaking Beverly Hillbillies.  According to the piece, “the planned programme reflected a sense that white people living in poorer communities were blamed for their condition”. Davis stated, “There’s this feeling here like people are looking down on you. Feeling like it’s OK to laugh at you, to pity you. You’re not on the same common ground for comparison as someone who’s better off or living in a better place.”

In Ireland’s case, shows like “Damo & Ivor” and “Hardy Bucks” portray the working class as dumb, dirty and naturally deserving of less. As far as I know, there’s been no college debate around the ethics of such shows, and there’s been no petition or online campaign trying to improve the media’s portrayal of such groups.

And we’re not just ignoring those who are poor within the parameters of our own state. Because of the effects of globalisation, most of us are contributing to the plight of the economically deprived all around the world. You would think this would be a focal point around college, but the recent visit of Tim Cook suggests otherwise.

In a University Times article published last week summarising Tim Cook’s talk with the Phil, the phrase “human rights” is used five times. Tim Cook is quoted as saying, “It takes courage to overcome oppression.” He was speaking about the need for racial, gender, and sexual diversity.   

However, his stance against oppression doesn’t extend to the workers of Foxconn, the leading manufacturing partner of Apple. Foxconn have been at the centre of controversy over how they treats their workers for years now. There have been explosions in their factories leading to several deaths and allegations of using underage workers. They have had to put nets up to prevent the increasing amount of suicides taking place inside.

In a New York Times piece released in 2012, a year after Tim Cook became CEO, a former executive of Apple said: “We’ve known about labour abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on. Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

It’s disturbing that no one thought this was an issue worth addressing in relation to human rights. Regardless of what Cook has done to diversify his staff, if he’s in any way contributed to the deaths and injuries of several innocent people then he is not a human rights activist.

I’m not trying to demean the personal being political. The way women and minorities are treated in society is an important issue, one that should be given full support. My fear is that those in Trinity who are ignoring the class element of equality are themselves belittling the issues that they stand by.

Expanding outreach

PC culture, in my experience, has created almost a second language around campuses, and one that seems entirely confined to its students.

Going to a school that sociologists would define as “lower middle class”, I had never heard of political correctness before entering college. I knew a lot of people from minority backgrounds, in fact more than I do now, and yes, jokes would have been made at their expense.

There was never any spite involved, though. We had our own boundaries about what was too far and no longer considered a joke. The way we spoke to each other was a product of solidarity, a mutual attempt to make friends, of “having a laugh”.

When I came here, I quickly realised the way I had learned to talk to people was offensive to some and proceeded to change it. I was perfectly fine with that, as I, like most, don’t want to offend people.

However, not all the people I know went to universities and had the chance of learning this second language, and usually it was those less well off than myself who didn’t.

If PC views are only reaching people in certain cohorts, then they can easily be manipulated into a way of fostering a sense of moral superiority amongst a certain group over another. Suddenly, political correctness seems less liberal and more like a return to conservatism of early 20th century Britain.

If we really care for these social issues, surely we want these ideas to permeate through all echelons of society and not just those which we are a part of.

We need to stop pretending that this attitude about social issues is self-evident. People have been around a long time and these views are relatively new. Unless we share the resources to be financially comfortable, as well as to learn, it’s unfair to vilify those who don’t immediately come around to a new way of thinking.

If we really care about equality, we will be out on the streets campaigning for better education funding at all levels, so that people from all backgrounds can become aware of everyone’s equal opportunities and stake in society. We will campaign for better conditions for low paid workers to prevent the alienation of the working class, which has, according to social scientists like Robert Ford and commentators such as Owen Jones, been partly responsible for the increasing support for far right groups across Europe.

We will fight for these things and more – not only because they will help us achieve our goal of a socially liberal democracy, but also because a state that gives everyone, without exception, the opportunity of living comfortably is a state worth fighting for.