As Christian belief has dwindled in the UK, and for the majority of the population adherence to its tenets has slowly, slowly morphed into lip service at best, we’ve seemingly forgotten one of the key ideas that used to shape our attitudes towards any new arrivals in the family. Whilst certain church rituals continue to take place around the hatch, match and dispatch points in a person’s life (and death), and whilst christenings are still undertaken by new parents, even those for whom the process is so alien that they often have to take a crash course in Christian belief to get the local church to do the ceremony in the first place, very few people, it now seems, believe in one of the fundamental ideas which underpinned and justified christening a child, amongst other religious practices and beliefs. That idea is ‘original sin’. This notion – that a child, by entering the world, somehow needs to atone for the sin which already exists in the world – was a motivating factor behind the development of the rite of passage of baptism, and even remains as such for the religiously observant. By undergoing this ritual, a child may in some way be cleansed of the ancestral evil which we can date back to Adam and Eve’s Fall. They’ll still be predisposed to sin, of course, but they’ll be free of the taint of original sin, the sin that was there, floating around menacingly as they were born. It’s a way of acknowledging man’s fallibility, just before things get going.
The vast majority of people, I would suggest, might take issue with the idea that a baby which has only just started to draw breath might in any ways be responsible for the bad things which a mythological figure in a mythological place is meant to have done, and so when things like christenings take place with all of the ritual lines concerning turning from sin, rejecting evil and so on, many people would take it with a pinch of salt. It represents an old way of thinking, after all, and it’s part of tradition, rather than a genuine belief that junior comes from inherently bad stock, right? I’d anticipate a straw poll on Britain’s streets would not return a high percentage of people who believe that babies need to ritually apologise for existing. How odd, then, that many of the same people – particularly if they’ve traipsed through enough websites or even found themselves on the wrong side of an average arts degree – have essentially reinvented original sin for the modern world. And this time it’s inarguable; it’s ‘end of career’ inarguable. It’s been rebranded, and now it’s called ‘privilege’.
‘Privilege’ invariably attaches itself to having white skin, so far as its apologists – who are usually white, middle class and comfortably off themselves – would have us know. Being white, middle class and comfortably off isn’t necessarily damning in and of itself, mind; the key thing is to acknowledge and perform the odd polysyllabic mea culpa on the subject, maybe even getting something published by Jezebel or Teen Vogue. Rather like babies (or converts) go through the process of baptism, one purges oneself of the worst of white privilege by simply saying what an awful person you are because of it. You don’t need to downsize, hand your job over to someone else or take part in any sort of activity that might address injustices, unless you’re not getting many casual lecturer hours that month and you want to stop off at a food bank for a quick Tweet; the great thing about addressing white privilege is you basically only need to say you’ve addressed it. Oh, but I’m being too simplistic and unfair here. You do need to say you’ve addressed it, but you need to show that you’re fluent in the kind of weird reductivist intersectional language which shows you’ve partaken in the right social rituals, and can say without it seeming weird and, yeah, racist that you’d clump together all non-white people as automatically discriminated against, with their battles in need of your specific lily-white acknowledgement.
Just as the idea that babies being responsible for things which happened before they were born seems like lunacy, then so does the parallel idea that all white babies will need to atone for their crimes because of their privilege. The concept breaks down so easily, so readily when you give it so much as a prod that it’s no less silly than the outmoded religious belief in a child’s inbuilt sin.
In a UK where white, working class boys are doing worse than any other ethnic group in schooling, where they’re under-represented in HE (whatever your thoughts about the notion that half of us need a degree) and where they often chafe against a society which offers none of the safe jobs and economic security enjoyed by their grandparents, then it seems to be both vile and wrong-headed to suggest that, whatever, these boys are still more privileged than their peers. We have an abbreviation now which lumps in massively geographically-diverse Black, Asian and Middle Eastern people together and we’re coached in ignoring the fallacy that these people have the same struggles and issues because they happen to be non-white (it’s nothing but another rebrand, this time of the term ‘non-white’ which people for some reason find acceptable). Yet we’re genuinely expected to believe that successful Chinese students are still worse off than the white students struggling in their year group, because white means privilege. It just does.
Falling back on the idea that equality of opportunity should be matched by equality of outcome is another facet of this quasi-religious belief. Every few weeks, The Guardian is exasperated to find that a white-majority population seems to have a lot of white people in the top jobs. This isn’t privilege; this is exactly what you’d expect given the current demographic, but this is used to prove the lie. Again, hypocrisy has always propped up religion and it props up the new one, too: many of the commentators claiming immense and continual bias against their intersectional selves are at the top of the ladder themselves, perpetually uninterested in any sort of real change which might invalidate their profitable sermons. Meanwhile, class and poverty march on, inviolate, sheltered from the kinds of sober, studied measures which might actually uncover some means to improve people’s often limited, unhappy and struggling lives.
Original sin in its original form might now be confined to certain communities who are still apologising to the One True God, but we certainly have a replacement for it and for its deeply unpleasant sense that you just can’t win. People, it seems, still want the repetition of comforting, closed ideas, a sense of in-group and out-group; they want to learn their prayers, they want to repeat them within earshot of other believers and they still take any opposition as evidence of heresy, of people who have not yet been brought into the light. But, as with original sin, it’s the people facing down this new orthodoxy who stand to bring about any sort of meaningful appraisal of what it means to be here, now. The banal concept of ‘privilege’ is failing to indoctrinate everyone, and this can only be a positive.