Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Appropriating victimhood

In the progressive movement, there tends to be a sharp division between victims and allies -- if you are a victim of something, the rules are different for you than they are for allies.  Likewise if you are an oppressed minority, the rules are different from someone who is more privileged.  Privileged people are supposed to do all the work to understand those who are oppressed; they can't speak for them; they're supposed to listen.  Intersectionality is the understanding that people can be privileged in some ways while oppressed in others.  For instance, a white person may be privileged due to skin color, but oppressed due to poverty.  So because of that, they are supposed to listen to black people on the subject of racism, but they're allowed to be central in a conversation about poverty.

I don't really have a problem with all that.  I learned early in life that a good joke punches up -- that it's funny when someone respected or powerful is the butt of the joke, but when you pick someone disadvantaged, it's just mean.  But there's a new trend that's beginning to worry me.

See, in a competitive culture, everyone wants to be powerful.  You hide your weaknesses and try to be brave, because peers will be merciless.  Ours is more about a preferential option for victims -- we try to be extra nice to people with an obvious disadvantage.  But the problem is, soon everyone wants to be a victim.  After all, that's how you get sympathy.

And that's how this new trend got started when everyone started claiming to a victim.  Men?  Victims.  White people?  Victims.  Christians?  Victims.  It doesn't matter that these people have (in our country at least) the vast majority of both political and economic power.  They can always point to some disadvantage they have.  Men, for instance, commit suicide more often than women.  White people are accused of being racist sometimes.  Christians get mocked in ways that, in our country, polite people never joke about Muslims.  Basically people from dominant groups are arguing that political correctness -- the protection of "victim" groups -- has turned them into the new victims.

I find it pretty infuriating, because the hidden assumption throughout is, "We are being oppressed, so in order for things to be fair, we need more power than we have."  Which is a reasonable thing for a group that is actually being oppressed to say -- I mean, yes, black people could stand to have more money and women should hold more public offices and people should harass immigrants a lot less.  But if you're not being oppressed, it raises the question of what you actually want.  If you are speaking for straight white males and you claim that your group is being oppressed, what can possibly be a corrective that will satisfy you?  You already have most of the government and the CEOs of most Fortune 500 companies and most judges and most police officers and on and on and on.  What do you want, one hundred percent straight white males?  Or are you just concerned that some straight white males care too much about women and minorities, to the point of ever hiring them or awarding them custody?

I guess I have three main points here.

First, it actually matters whether or not you are being oppressed.  Microaggressions like jokes or wearing your culture's clothing are no big deal generally if you're not being oppressed.  Irish-Americans generally can laugh at St. Paddy's Day jokes because they're not meant seriously; but one hundred years ago those were dead serious and Irish people would never have laughed at them.  The difference is that when you're denied jobs, service in some businesses, and a position in respectable society, those jokes hurt a lot more.  So I don't think it's hypocritical to say that you shouldn't make black people the butt of jokes, and at the same time say that white people should have a thicker skin if they hear an occasional joke about themselves.

Second, suffering and oppression are not the same thing.  Oppression suggests that something is unfair, that the oppressed person has a lack of power which needs to be rectified somehow.  So I will freely agree that a man who identifies as incel is probably suffering.  I empathize with it.  But I can't agree that he is oppressed, because he has everything reasonable for him to have: a free shot at convincing someone else to love him.  We all have that, but we can't have anything more without encroaching on another person's freedom.  To call himself oppressed suggests that he doesn't want women to have freedom, and obviously women feel threatened by this.

Third, maybe it would be better if, at least when talking with the general public, we phased out all this talk about victimhood, oppression, and privilege and talked instead about fairness.  Everyone should have the same things, and any small differences should be about making up larger differences.  If we talk about fairness, it soon becomes clear that fairness is the last thing (for instance) that MRA's want.  They want every situation where things are unfair for them to be rectified (no domestic violence shelters for women unless men get one too!  equal custody!) but they generally want to keep any inequalities they benefit from.  That's a distinction that can be lost when we're busy arguing about privilege (a word many conservatives find offensive) or who the real victim is.  It's possible that men are victims of some things -- weaker friendships, poor mental health, a lack of role models -- and women are victims of other things, like rape or discrimination.  So it's not a matter of victims and oppressors, heroes and villains, as it is about rectifying things in our society that cause unhappiness -- preferably without taking away anything from anyone else.


Brenda said...

I'm not certain how your own privilege doesn't preclude you from even commenting on these serious issues. You're a white hetero-female in a monogamous relationship with a white hetero-male, and you have a college degree. I've only been reading for a few months, but I'm not certain where your own oppression is, except insofar as you are a woman, and thus are oppressed by society (and likely the very institution of your marriage itself). I'm not too different from you, so I just tend to apologize, listen, and not white-splain. Good post though.

G.W. said...

@Brenda, this IS basically an apology. Chill.

Sheila said...

Yeah, I consider myself highly privileged. I've just found that when speaking to other people who are privileged, especially when they're not very "woke," it's best to simply say, "Don't you want things to be fair? Here are some ways in which they are not fair," instead of using social-justice buzzwords. To borrow a religious example, saying "you are privileged" to a person who isn't woke is like saying "you should lean more on the atonement" to a person who isn't Mormon. It's meaningless jargon and they don't accept the premises which would make it meaningful.

Though really, the main problem is something that I can't help, which is people as privileged as myself or more so whining about how oppressed they are. It drives me bananas, but there doesn't seem to be a way to stop them from doing it. When talking to them, I just cut through the victim narrative and ask what they want, and whether what they want is actually fair. (Spoiler: it's not. But they usually refuse to admit this of course.) And when talking to others, I feel it's helpful to have a shorthand (I think the phrase "appropriating victimhood" works but I'm sure there's another out there, I can't be the first to need a name for it) to quickly explain the difference from an incel who SAYS he's a victim and a gay black person who actually IS.

The Sojourner said...

There are definitely a few people i know who have knee jerk reactions to certain phrases--you say "Many Cinco de Mayo celebrations are basically cultural appropriation parties" and they hear "You are a bad person because you like tacos." For those people approaching the issue in a more oblique way can be a good strategy for making them a bit more woke.

On the other hand, some people are so entrenched in their point of view that they would totally insist to the bitter end that they are in fact getting the short end of the stick.

The trick seems to be figuring out how much airtime you give the latter in the hopes they'll turn out to be the former, and I doubt there's any one right answer to that.

(To be clear, I'm referring to conversations with those who share your privilege, e.g. talking about race with other white people. I'm certainly not going to tell a black person "Maybe if you just EXPLAINED NICELY why they shouldn't burn your house down...")

Sheila said...

Exactly. I often try to explain something very carefully and gently in the hopes of getting through, only to find out after spending a lot of time on it that the person was closed to my point of view from the outset and was only asking questions to pick apart my answers. But I still do sometimes, because I'd hate to make the opposite mistake and tear down someone who's just ignorant.

Brenda said...

Someone is talking about you, and your FB and blog posts. Got this from a friend:

Sheila said...

Ugh. Always sickening when I see these. It's not like it's anything surprising or new, but the facts that a) they are stalking my internet presence, on my friends' facebook walls, and b) I don't know who they are, so they could be anyone, just make it creepy.

I certainly am amused that calling me a blue-haired liberal feminist was the best they could do. The hair, yes, it is blue. If I were embarrassed about it, how could I go out in public?

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