What Orwell Taught Me About ‘Checking One’s Privilege’

George Orwell is often remembered when authoritarian, or ‘Orwellian’, tendencies start creeping up in governments the world over. However, the author of the dystopian novel 1984 and the political satire Animal Farm has also composed many other remarkable works, one of which is The Road to Wigan Pier.

Written in the 1930s, the book meticulously describes the lives of industrial workers, especially miners, in north England, and is a call for adopting socialism. While some have drawn parallels between the book and present-day conditions in England, it also includes lessons that are relevant irrespective of spatial context.

These have to do with what we today call ‘checking one’s privilege’.

This idea points out some ‘default’ advantages that people might have owing to their social and economic identities. It calls for a reflection and acknowledgement of the ways in which society privileges some people over others, and how these (dis)advantages shape people’s experiences and struggles. Once the acknowledgement has been made, greater compassion and understanding towards others’ struggles can emerge and prejudices can be challenged. The idea is not new, nor are its defendants or detractors.

While Orwell didn’t use the same term, his descriptions of the class-divide in England and the resultant social attitudes are based on the same principle. Consider this:

I was very young, not much more than six, when I first became aware of class-distinctions. Before that age my chief heroes had generally been working-class people…But it was not long before I was forbidden to play with the plumber’s children; they were ‘common’ and I was told to keep away from them…So, very early, the working class ceased to be a race of friendly and wonderful beings and became a race of enemies.

Here Orwell is talking about the middle-class, which he elsewhere described as the “shock-absorbers of the bourgeoisie”. While the real bourgeoisie were only remotely aware of the working-class, the less prosperous middle-class had to live in intimate contact with them. This middle-class was a section “struggling to live genteel lives” on effectively working-class incomes. Since the economic gap between these two classes was small, the former tried compensating by adopting semi-aristocratic social attitudes characterised by “sniggering superiority punctuated by bursts of vicious hatred”.

Also read: ‘Bhimayana’: Why You Should Be Reading This Anti-Caste Narrative

But another dimension revealed the “real secret” of class-distinctions in the West, according to Orwell:

…the real reason why a European of bourgeois upbringing, even when he calls himself a Communist, cannot without a hard effort think of a working man as his equal. It is summed up in four frightful words…The words were: The lower classes smell.

This was an “impassable barrier”:

For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling…it is when [the average middle-class person] is brought up to believe that [the working classes] are dirty that the harm is done…Very early in life you acquired the idea that there was something subtly repulsive about a working-class body; you would not get nearer to it than you could help.

Orwell writes that middle-class people seem to think that the working-class “are somehow inherently dirty.” The author describes his own transformation in getting rid of these notions, as a result of “rubbing shoulders with the tramps”:

Tramps are not really very dirty as English people go, but they have the name for being dirty, and when you have shared a bed with a tramp and drunk tea out of the same snuff-tin, you feel that you have seen the worst and the worst has no terrors for you.

Today too, even if you discount the olfactory notions of dirt attached to marginalised groups (and such notions do exist), you still have subtler manifestations of prejudices creating the physical revulsion about which Orwell spoke. As a child, I used to be uncomfortable with the idea of eating food prepared by my housemaid, even though she had never cooked for us and so I had no idea how it tasted; my discomfort was rooted elsewhere. And I wasn’t alone. Even now, many households keep separate glasses or cups to give water or tea to the plumbers or other such workers.

Also read: Stop Patronising the Poor, Let Them Go Home

But Orwell isn’t talking about “tramps” as a distinct species on which one can conduct some social experiment for our own enlightenment. The point is that in order to shed our prejudices, it is crucial to step out of our shells – our ‘privileged bubble’ – to see the other side. However, it so happens that even well-meaning people of privilege, in their attempt to do this, end up infantilising the marginalised. If ignorance, apathy and prejudice are at one extreme, the other end often romanticises the marginalised or sees them as a helpless monolith. We must listen, but listen the right way.

Orwell critiques people who are simultaneously both “snobs” and “revolutionary”, which he admits being in his youth. While he described himself as a socialist and could agonise over the working-classes’ suffering, he “still hated them and despised them”. Similarly, the average middle-class person of his time, even while identifying with socialists or communists, did not let go of their bourgeoisie mannerisms and habits. “He still habitually associates with his own class,” he writes.

There are parallels between this middle-class person of Orwell’s time and the average elite college-student of mine. In our youths, we college-goers attend talks and debates and throw jargon about the oppression of people from whose contexts we are far removed and with whom we rarely ever have an experience. We talk about casteism but patronisingly imagine the ‘lower-castes’ as a monolith (we also debate the strategies for emancipation they should adopt). We promptly brand ourselves ‘feminists’, but it is from our ranks that many sexual harassers and predators keep emerging. My two years in the Delhi college debating circuit have taught me that we are the snob-revolutionaries.

While I agree with our author that reducing everything to the idea that “the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong” is a “mistaken theory,” it remains true that prejudices stem from our upbringings and that getting rid of them requires more than simply pretending to be prejudice-free. Thus, Orwell was certainly calling on his fellow middle-class people in so many words to check their privilege.

For all the times we compared the coronavirus lockdowns to the curfews of Kashmir, or scoffed at migrant labourers ‘breaking’ the lockdown rules, we better had checked our privilege in the manner Orwell called for over eight decades ago.

Prateek Pankaj is a second-year student of History at Hindu College, University of Delhi, and an aspiring journalist. You can find him on Instagram at @prateek_pankaj and Twitter at @Prateek_Pankaj3 

Featured image credit: Flickr