Sexism is culture, or the futile Oppression Olympics
Much ado is made about the ongoing Oppression Olympics. For those that aren’t familiar with my hip lingo, the Oppression Olympics is basically a clusterfuck wherein people (usually American white males, who are more unqualified than any single being on the planet to talk about cultural issues) talk about who has it worse. This advanced form of inadvertently ironic pedantry is used for many incompatible purposes, including the following:
1. Proving that one’s culture is better:
Sexism is dead in America, look at female castration/hijab/rape in third world countries!
2. Proving that one’s culture is worse:
If the sexism in the media gets any worse over Palin, I’m going to move to Canada.
3. Telling someone to shut up:
All you do is talk about abortion. If you care so much about women, try talking about child brides in India, m’kay?
4. Telling someone to speak up:
You stayed with an abuser for so long and didn’t do anything?
5. Denying responsibility:
I don’t have privilege. All the people I know are sweet as pie to women, black people, and that one down syndrome kid that everybody knows about but nobody wants to be seen with.
6. Granting responsibility:
The people of your race/class/gender/religion are so oppressed! If you are going to hold an office as someone who is of-color/a woman/formerly poor/not Christian we will hold you as a model of your background and expect you to speak for them at all times.
I’m certain that my esteemed readers could come up with many other examples on their own.
Regardless, my point is that the Oppression Olympics are just another tool in the box of hierarchy. Taken as a whole, the entire idea of comparing dissimilar cultures, none of which are a blissful Utopia of equality, to find evidence of which one is the “worst” at some artificially delineated form of oppression is absurd. In more words, here’s why:
1. Hierarchy is based on many intersecting forms of discrimination
Although many would like to pin down hierarchy and class in a concrete linear structure, it is simply not doable. American hierarchy, for instance, is based on many things: ableness, adherence to beauty standard, race, religion, sex, location, sexuality, image, etc. Within one form of an -ism, it is easy to say that one is the oppressed or the oppressor. For instance, in sexism all men benefit and all women are discriminated against. But that is not to say that there exists no woman who occupies a higher position in the social hierarchy than any man, only that women as a whole are less likely to do so. Very few people in this country fit the mold of the default human: a white, able-bodied, acceptably attractive, middle-class, heterosexual, Christian male. Thus, the experiences and privileges of every American are not identical, although they may be similar.
2. If the root causes of oppression are not addressed, efforts to prevent a form of injustice result in a backlash that is usually equally as serious
For instance, it is still illegal or considered indecent in many countries for women to wear shorts or tank tops in public. However, in those cultures that disallow more revealing clothing, it may be the case that women are less sexually objectified in public and in advertising. Likewise, it was not until governments begin to operate under the principle of “all men are created equal” that racism really became apparent in social interactions (class and religion were the dominant forms of social hierarchy beforehand). When one form of oppression is torn down, those in power invent new ways to keep their privilege and disadvantage those below them.
3. Hierarchy and culture spreads across borders
Capitalism, for instance, was all but unknown before the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Before governments began privatizing enterprise, the royalty and nobility decided the hierarchy and social policy of a country. However, it soon became apparent that a country would not be able to compete in the emerging global market without relinquishing state ownership of many industries. Thus, business owners and merchants began to seize more and more power from the nobility and royalty, ultimately using Revolutions to topple the old order. These businesses and the conditions necessary for them to operate now transcend borders. An even more evident example is advertising. McDonald’s, for example, has branches in most of the countries of the world. McDonald’s would not exist if it was not possible to hire easily-replaced cheap labor to kill the meat, raise the meat, and serve the meat.
4. An entire culture can assert itself as above another, and worsen the “weaker” culture’s already existing oppression to suit its goals
Take, for instance, Afghanistan. Since the country was “liberated” from the Taliban, women as a class have not received the promised benefits, and in many cases, their suffering has worsened as those that speak for them have been targeted for murder. Likewise, dead sons and husbands, a lack of infrastructure, and no governmental aid to speak of has forced many Iraqi women into prostitution. All of these are recent developments in the Middle East, born of the American-assisted collapse of old regimes. With a power vacuum, extremist groups are finding more room to operate. This has led to monumental increases in violence against women in Iraq for perceived violation of a dogmatically interpreted Qu’ran. Historically, it is quite possible that the American slave trade would have never gotten off the ground if it was not for the trading of guns and other goods to African warlords for their prisoners. Slavers took advantage of the warfare in Africa to open a new market for European arms, and in return, took human chattel to further increase their economic gain.
5. Cultures themselves are overlapping and rarely monolithic
Examine American culture. It is hardly completely homogenous from coast to coast. When I was in high school, we used to joke about the differences in “culture” between our school and the much richer high school in the South part of the city. Gang violence and truancy was much more prevalent at my high school, but reports of date rape and drug abuse were rampant at the other. The relevant differences in “culture” between two schools separated by only a couple of miles were strong enough to be identifiable by fourteen year olds. Likewise, it stands to reason that the cultural experience of a wife of a rich business owner, say in Dubai, is much different from the cultural experience of a poor widow of a construction worker in the same city.
6. Most forms of oppression are invisible, especially to those they benefit
This goes back to the concept of privilege. To those that have it, is is often invisible. In America, especially, the middle-class and above typically has no idea exactly the maintenance of their livelihood affects the economically vulnerable overseas, or even how dire poverty can be in their own country. The media, both in story and in “news”, usually fails to tell the tale of anyone who isn’t heterosexual, white, or moderately well-off. Is it any wonder that the average American has no idea how one that isn’t so average lives?
When you take into account the six factors above, any sort of cross-cultural comparison that is not merely descriptive, or attempts to order the severity of oppression in one culture over another, produces conclusions that are incomplete, absurd, and short-sighted. Invariably, they reveal a lot more about the author than the world itself.
In this day and age, we really should be smarter. The human condition is fraught with senseless racism, classism, sexism, ablism, heterosexism, and other xenophobias regardless of any sort of personal affiliation. No matter how far we run, we will find the legacy of or the oppressive behaviors themselves of all types of privilege and oppression continually benefited from, and in most places, ignored. Even if I isolated myself in my home and refused to interact with anyone for the rest of my natural and lonely life, I would find my own mind continually betraying myself.
This is called socialization: the damage society and cultures have brought upon every living person on the planet. We have chosen to order our entire social structure on oppression and hierarchy for millennia, and yet we think ourselves partial enough to judge others.
The fact of the matter is that sexism is culture. American values and America itself would not exist in anything like the present form if it was not for the continued and historical oppression of women through the patriarchy. This is true of all cultures for all kinds of imaginable discriminations. For the record, this is why I call myself a radical feminist. I truly think that for this madness to cease, the universal human condition would have to be so fundamentally altered that even feminists like you, or I, would seem hopelessly backwards in comparison.
Thus, when I say that burying women alive as a “tribal custom” is abhorrent, I’m not looking down on that tribal culture. I’m certainly not elevating my considerable prejudices above the oppressive inclinations of others. For when African men castrate their women, Americans are benefiting from industrial slavery in South East Asia for the purpose of cheap unnecessary consumer goods. We need not, however, remark on the injustices of one culture to find the actions or justifications of another unjust.
Rather, it is enough to realize that all cultures function as they presently do with the aid of thousands of years of injustice and present forms of resulting privilege. From this fact, we should be able to conclude that the point at which cross-cultural descriptions become the Oppression Olympics is the point at which rationality has left the building.