The Highway Robbery of Your Oppression
Posted by Jenn
I thought perhaps the most irritating thing someone could do was to insinuate that I was the other, or less human, than them because I was Jewish, female, or gay. It seems that I was wrong.
Over in a post on the blog of Nine Deuce—a fellow rad fem—a couple of fucking idiots have decided that the distaste some have for their sexual practices is akin to oppression, in specific, the oppression of homosexuals.
If you’re having sex in a manner completely consistent with the dominant idea of gender roles, you honestly can’t call that oppression. Perhaps if you were madly in love with two people, who were in turn madly in love with you, and you couldn’t recognize that relationship legally like most couples, I might be tempted to call that some sort of injustice, given that it defies the usual heterosexual one man one woman shebang.
Unless, of course, those three people really wanted to throw down and insinuate that criticism leveled against them is exactly like the oppression of homosexuals.
Let’s get this straight: the oppression of homosexuals is exactly like nothing else. There are other forms of oppression, obviously, but all of them are experienced differently—sometimes in an intersecting fashion with other oppressions—than the oppression of homosexuality and all of its flavors such as transphobia, homophobia or denial of bisexuality.
My ire has everything to do with what oppression is, and what it is not. Think of the word “oppression”. You might notice that this insinuates the heavy hand of something is “pressing” down on the oppressed. Oppression seems like some sort of pressure or burden, something that encumbers the back and strains the spine. Or you could think about a press, like a clothing press. Someone who is oppressing is trapped between stronger forces, molded and flattened, their essence wrung out of them. This common interpretation of the word is almost identical to the etymology. The English word “oppression” comes from the Latin word oppressio which means “a pressing down” or “violence”.
Oppression, divorced from its present misuse, seems to be a word that implies a very grave perversion of human dignity, a burden that an individual is made to bear unjustly, or something that distorts and twists the social and internal perception of the self. It might be accompanied by shame, self-blame, and immobilization of the one’s autonomy. This “pressing down” is something that not only warps the self; it functions to keep the self from truly grasping the injustice of the oppression. Socialized in the notion that they are wrong—or the other—oppression is accompanied by a heady dose of self-hatred that may be consciously rejected at some point, but never erased from the psyche.
From the above, it’s easy to understand the general idea of oppression as it is experienced by the oppressed. But this only captures half the picture. The true nature of oppression cannot be grasped only by the effects it has upon the oppressed. To do such would be misconstruing all sorts of unhappiness as oppression. One can be genuinely miserable without being oppressed. Because of the current misuse of the term, “oppression” has been hijacked to apply to all forms of unhappiness that stem from social censure.
This highway robbery, so to speak, is not only invalid; it directly undermines the suffering and legitimacy of the truly oppressed. It functions as a backlash against the unwanted realization that large swaths of our society—both domestically or abroad—have been, and continue to be, wrongly oppressed. The true recognition of oppression of a member-group that one is not part of inspires a sort of guilt or shame over one’s majority status once that the privilege has been unmasked as atypical rather than something shared by all on virtue of their humanity. Since most privilege also exists solely because it is not extended to all, this inspires an even greater sense of guilt and betrayal of one’s faith in what one thought to be a just world.
This is a fundamental character to oppression: the experience of an unjust world. Oppression is something that is furtively hid by the dominant class. And for all oppressions, there must be a dominant class that oppresses, or at least directly benefits from oppression. What this means is that the oppressed will not be able to observe their experiences being portrayed in the dominant culture. If their existence is ever acknowledged, it is for the function of ridicule, reestablishing inferiority, or elevation of the oppressed.
The features of the oppressed life are characterized by constant double-binds, self censure, and social disapproval. Because it is their identity that is stigmatized, the choices that the oppressed can make in life are not only severely limited, but subject to social critique regardless of outcome in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” manner. The oppressed will often self-limit their choices and full enjoyment of society for fear of censure, or under the heartbreaking assumption that the crime of being who they are in public is inappropriate or obscene. Thirdly, and most importantly, the lucky few of the oppressed who realize the wrongful nature of their oppression and decide to freely be themselves in the social realm to the same, or even lesser, extent that the majority class can be will often be subjected to the most cruel and unusual social alienation, stigmatizing, discrimination, violence, and even death either sponsored or allowed by the state. Even ideally, the state or any other body of justice (such as a community) will actively fail to protect the oppressed from the violence of the majority class by not criminalizing hate crimes, dismissing the epidemic violence, punishing transgressions of the oppressed class’s rights half-heartedly, and/or punishing retaliations—real or assumed—against the oppressors more harshly.
The present manifestations of oppression must also be accompanied by historical oppressions and norms that dictate that the oppressed stand outside the default definition of full humanity. These will be accompanied by what I have detailed above as well as institutional underrepresentation, economic vulnerability, unequal labor distribution, and rigid expectations of dress, demeanor, and visibility.
As an aside, the radical feminist presumption is that all forms of oppression are modeled off of the division of labor by gender and the resulting sexism. As far as anthropology has suggested, other than differences in bodily strength and intelligence, the earliest form of differentiating human worth has been by gender. Even racism, presently a very real epidemic, was only invented when the popularity of differentiating by specific physical features supposedly related to origin arose to justify colonialism and slavery.
But I digress.
The vital characteristics of oppression, therefore are:
– alienation, marginalization, and invisibility
– some sort of self-censure or internal lack of worth
– scapegoating or exploitation
– historical precedent
– location of the individual and group on the lower end of a continuum of subjective worth
– vulnerability and violence
– institutional maintenance of oppression, or at least unwillingness to correct via injustices, underrepresentation, etc
– limiting of choice or increased social critique of choices
– stereotypes, rigid expectations, confinement specific roles
– formation of society in such a way that blocks or severely impedes the formation of self-defined autonomy and the expression thereof
I argue that while the above list is not exhaustive, all forms of valid oppression are characterized by most, if not all, of the above.
What then, qualifies as “oppression”? A part of me is deeply saddened that I even have to delineate these identities, in no particular order, and correct me if I miss any:
– mental or physical ability and/or health
– body size and physical norms
– sexual orientation
Take sexual orientation. Homosexuals are undoubtedly alienated from full enjoyment of social life, their love and experiences are marginalized, and their lives are invisible. Because of the internalization of their “othering” they are more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. They have been scapegoated with such things as Hurricane Katrina, the spread of AIDS, and sexual abuse of children. They are considered “less than” heterosexuals, as evidenced by the pervasive social insult of insinuating that someone is “a fag”. 1 in 5 gay men and 1 in 10 lesbian women report having been assaulted because of their orientation. In many countries around the world, homosexuality is punishable by death. In the United States, discrimination by orientation is not criminalized or prohibited. The choices to adoption, choose any profession, and get married are routinely held from homosexuals. Ridicule through stereotypes and the demonization of those that defy the heterosexual precedent is swift and pervasive. Finally, the stigma attached to homosexuality severely impedes the formation of individuality within a society that shuns a homosexual identity. Thus, non-heterosexuality clearly meets the principles of oppression I have delineated above.
However, sexual practices and fetishes are not oppression. This includes things such as BDSM, pedophilia, foot fetishes, water sports, and fur-suiting. The post that inspired this philosophical examination of oppression featured various practitioners of BDSM or a “BDSM lifestyle” insinuating that the questioning of their fetish was analogous—identical or at least relevantly similar—to the hate speech and oppression of homosexuals.
What this asinine proposition ignores is that while practicing BDSM may meet some of the conditions of oppression, it obviously does not meet all of them, or even most of them. Most importantly, it is not an identity. While one could argue that the formation of self may somewhat depend on sexual practice, this is not a pervasive and broadly recognized locus of identity that is commonly stigmatized. Furthermore, the formation of identity solely on sexual practice is something that is self-decided, not imposed. An important and mandatory feature of oppression is that the classification of the privileged and the other are unfounded and delineated solely to structure oppression and define it in a concrete “us versus them” dialogue. While race and gender roles are constructs, the choice to internalize them is not freely taken, nor is it optional. Defiance of imposed identity and assertion of one’s experience as part of valid human life results in swift social consequences. Think of a man wearing woman’s clothing or a woman who does not have any sexual feelings for men.
These constructs and formations of identity on the basis of orientation, size, ability, class, nationality, race, religion, and appearance are recognized forms of separating and ranking the subjective worth of an individual within a system of artificial hierarchies. To any outside observer within the same society, the tabulation of an individual’s identity within these parameters is useful and often required. This can be for benign reasons of recognizing their alternative and varying experiences, but also is for—and usually is—designating an individual as the “other”. For example, American society typically considers a straight moderately attractive middle-weight able-bodied middle-class American white Christian man as the default exemplar of citizenry. This default is the most often expressed when a representative of a large group is chosen, or when one wishes to construct a representation of human life. To all people who fit this default, most aspects of non-default life—especially if it deviates from the default in more than one way—are invisible or incompletely understood. However, to those that deviate from the norm and are therefore oppressed, moderately or severely in some fashion, the minutia of the default life are readily apparent and intimately known. To say that a black person does not understand white culture is to completely ignore the pervasiveness of white identity, and how it is accessible to all, whereas black identity—especially the features outside of the stereotypes and the unpleasant realities of oppression—are underrepresented in the public sphere and invisible to those who do not deliberately seek them out if not actively ignored, denied, or suppressed.
While BDSM is not as readily available as “vanilla sex”, it is an identity that is self-chosen and not at all relevant to public life. It is wholly unlike oppressed identities, which are stigmatized, universally recognized, and form organizational structures of privilege and discrimination. Thus, to say that the content of a critique of a sexual practice is equivalent or at least relevantly similar to hate speech about homosexuality is to completely ignore the difference oppression makes in the functioning and structuring of everyday life and society.
Why people have hijacked the definition of “oppression” is three-fold. First, they have a misunderstanding of what oppression entails, and collapse the complex and valuable recognition of oppression into simple perceived wrongs stemming from social critique or censure. Secondly, the denial of oppression has been conflated, wrongly, to insinuate that the feeling of unhappiness or the wrong someone has suffered is illegitimate or unworthy. Thirdly, the hijacking is an attempt to ride the coat tails of legitimate protests of oppression by undermining them and opening the idea of oppression so wide that it fails to capture the gravity of what oppression is.
I have already delineated above what oppression is, how it functions, and why certain things—such as fetishes—are not oppressed identities. However, it is absurd to think that only oppressions are things which people may feel genuinely wronged or unhappy about. A default person can be unjustly passed over for a raise by a less qualified peer. But this is not a manifestation of oppression of white male-hood (which it is often misconstrued to be if the promoted is female or a POC), it is simply a personal injustice again a specific individual. Injustices are still things that may be debated and condemned in the public sphere, and I would be stupid to deny that negative feelings are unfounded if they stem from individual injustices.
But thirdly and most importantly, the hijacking of the word “oppression” specifically has undermined the determination of what oppression is, how it functions, and whether or not it is something that we must publically recognize, denounce, and correct. When a man asserts that he is the victim of “oppression” when wrongly accused of rape, he directly undermines the legitimacy of feminism by denying the power structure of gender that has always penalized women more harshly than men to the benefit and privilege of men. When someone who practices BDSM in a heterosexual male-dominant context asserts that they are “oppressed” when their sexual acts are critiqued they are undermining the legitimacy of gay rights by denying the power structure of heterosexuality that has never discounted domination as the “other”, nor has it subjected those who play with power structures in the bedroom to the most cruel and unusual social discrimination. When a white man asserts that he is “oppressed” when a POC gets promoted over him, he undermines the legitimacy of racial movements by denying that his whiteness grants him any privilege or authority, or that throughout his life and that of his ancestors (whom have undoubtedly passed down some of their privilege to him) he has directly benefited because of discrimination by race.
Thus, the hijacking of the term “oppression” is ignorant, insulting, and bigoted. There is absolutely no need to use hyperbole for individual injustices in such a way that completely undermines the legitimacy of movements that attempt to correct specific and pervasive forms of oppression. If you are wronged and unhappy, that does not automatically mean that the entirety of society has stigmatized your identity in such a way as outlined above. Furthermore, I am completely and totally unsympathetic to those who try to ride the coattails of legitimate social movements opposing oppression in order to lend their complaints validity. If you cannot assert that you have been wronged without specifically, ignorantly, and shamelessly undermining other’s suffering shut the fuck up.