No sacred cows

Virtue signalling is really status signalling

23 October 2021

9:00 AM

23 October 2021

9:00 AM

A £19,000-a-year London day school was in the news this week because it has started instructing its pupils about ‘white privilege’ and ‘microaggressions’. Apparently, St Dunstan’s in south London, which boasts Chuka Umunna among its alumni, teaches its well-heeled students that the royal family bolsters expectations of ‘inherited white privilege’, asks them to ‘explore’ why Meghan Markle faced ‘additional challenges’ compared with Kate Middleton when she married a prince, and tells them why it’s important for the National Trust to examine the colonial past of its country houses and links to the slave trade.

I was surprised this story attracted so much press interest. Surely a majority of top independent schools have been teaching their charges about these issues for some time? And quite right too. I say that not because I’ve made a Damascene conversion to critical race theory, but because children need to master the lingua franca of social justice ideology if they’re going to shin up the greasy pole in their careers. It’s the equivalent of being taught French during the age of empire.

What critics of these trendy initiatives fail to grasp is that concepts like ‘white privilege’ are not intended to be taken at face value nor have any real-world impact. Rather, they are almost wholly performative. To be clear, when the teenage son or daughter of an Anglo-Saxon power couple is told to denounce ‘whiteness’ and affirm that it is a toxic affliction responsible for all the injustices in this world, they are not being asked to forego their place at a Russell Group university in favour of a student of colour or prepare themselves for a life of atonement. On the contrary, they are being taught a kind of catechism that they’ll need to re-cite several times a day to preserve their privileged status. Think of it as like joining an exclusive dining society. Part of the initiation process involves being given a special item of clothing that they can wear to signal their membership of the ruling class. In the Bullingdon, it was a fancy waistcoat. Today, it’s a T-shirt saying: ‘White silence is violence.’

We’ve seen this before — fashionable political credos that purport to be revolutionary but in fact are a way of advertising your status at the top of a rigid social hierarchy. Professing your faith in Russian communism became a means of signalling your membership of the intellectual elite in the 1920s and 1930s, but few authors or academics actually wanted to live in the Soviet Union. Ditto Mao’s China in the 1960s and 1970s. But the social justice movement is well-suited to serve this purpose.

For one thing, to be fully conversant in this gobbledygook, you need to have been to an expensive private school and a good university. That makes it a reliable status indicator, like having an upper-class English accent was until about 50 years ago. Then there’s the fact that a working-class white person would be unlikely to engage in racial self-flagellation, making it a useful way for the professional class to differentiate themselves from those beneath them in the food chain. When a top BBC executive says no one wants to watch white men explaining things on television any more, he doesn’t mean Sir David Attenborough. No, he means Jeremy Clarkson, whose sin is that he appeals to white working-class viewers.

Above all, being a subscriber to this doctrine requires you to express your passionate belief in things which are patently absurd, such as claiming that sex isn’t binary. The role these statements play is to convey to the gatekeepers of elite social and professional circles that you are so beholden to the intersectionality cause that you’re prepared to go to any lengths to promote it, including intellectually humiliating yourself. It’s a way of communicating that your loyalty is absolute — and the more absurd the things coming out of your mouth, the better. That explains why social justice warriors often make claims that are directly contradicted by empirical evidence, e.g. that Britain is one of the most racist countries in the world, even though the international survey evidence suggests it’s one of the least.

So of course children are being taught this nonsense at London’s most expensive private schools. Parents shelling out £19,000 a year need to know that when they present Tarquin and Esmerelda in society, they will condemn their ethnicity, denounce their country and decry capitalism before washing down the caviar with a glass of Cristal.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments