On The Definition of Oppression

I doubt there is any arguments in the social justice community that get quite as heated as the question of whether Group X is oppressed.

Things That Group X Can Be: poly people, kinky people, men, sex workers, people on the asexual or aromantic spectrum, vegans/vegetarians, animals, atheists, otherkin, multiples, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

The question that I’m asking myself is… who the fuck cares?

Well, okay, there are times where you’re arguing about whether Group X is oppressed where you are actually arguing about something that matters. For instance, if someone is like “rich people are oppressed!” or “white people are oppressed!”, I’m going to be like fuck no. I’m sorry, I’m upper-middle-class and white and I have yet to experience a single problem directly related to either. Like, I guess you could make a case that you’ve suffered from classism if you’re rich and lived in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge, or racism if you’re white and moved to Japan, but in 21st century America? No. Sorry. “I have to pay taxes” is not oppression.

But if you’re just arguing about whether it’s severe enough to be oppression… who cares? Is it somehow a good thing that young sadists often hate themselves, because there’s no such thing as vanilla privilege? Does it not matter that my mom refuses to admit that I’m dating people because only monogamous relationships are real, because ‘polyphobia’ isn’t a real thing? Do atheists not hurt when their schools (illegally) refuse to let them set up clubs, even if you don’t think they’re oppressed? Can we not agree that all those things are bad things that should go away even if we don’t think they’re oppression?

Hell, I would even be willing to agree that the negative consequences white people do get from racial prejudice (I’ve known a few people who got beat up in middle school for being white) are bad things that should go away, even if I would raise an eyebrow at white people who claimed to be victims of racism because of it.

For fuck’s sake, I once managed to explain how oppression worked to someone by talking about vegetarianism. (It was pretty funny. “Okay, see, institutional oppression is like when there isn’t any food for us to eat at restaurants, and microaggressions are like when someone is like ‘you’re vegan, that’s so great, I couldn’t eat nothing but salads,’  and privilege blindness is when omnivores don’t realize how lucky they are to be able to just go to a restaurant without researching the menu first and even then you have to custom-order a dish…”) Vegan problems are, on the grand scale of things, very small problems, and any vegan who doesn’t realize that is an asshole. That doesn’t mean they aren’t problems!

Even worse, I think a lot of times the simplistic “X is not oppression” thinking keeps us from a deeper analysis of how the kyriarchy actually works. Gender policing of men is one of the ways misogyny is perpetrated; even if you don’t think men are oppressed, you should be fucking concerned about gender policing. Someone who says that an asexual just needs to have sex with them and then they’ll stop being asexual is perpetrating rape culture; even if you don’t believe acephobia is real, you should be fucking concerned about that shit.

I can’t finish up this rant without pointing out that a lot of the people who are REALLY SUPER INVESTED in being oppressed are kind of assholes. Yes, vegans have problems. No, those problems are not as big as the problems that, say, trans people face. That doesn’t mean they aren’t problems. It’s not a fucking contest where the person who is most oppressed gets a shiny hat. Stop trying to defend your OMGSPESHUL Sparkly Oppression Hat, and start trying to fix the fucking problems we face. Other people being hurt worse doesn’t take away from your pain, any more than other people being happier makes you less happy.

Also, that whole business makes me think of someone who has a stubbed toe, and you’re like “shit, that must hurt,” and then the guy is like “MY STUBBED TOE IS WORSE THAN THE HOLOCAUST.” It really just kills my sympathy.

This also goes for people who are all “gay is the new black!” No. Shut up. Black is the new black, racism still fucking exists, denying other people’s problems will not make your problems seem problemier.

On a tangent, I am endlessly amused by people who are like “why are you concerned about men’s problems? Women’s problems are worse.” Of course women do face worse problems from sexism. On the other hand, trans women face worse problems from sexism than cis women, and you never see those people being all “we shouldn’t worry about abortion until trans women stop being murdered!”

TL;DR version of this rant:

1) If you are arguing with someone about whether Group X is oppressed, try to figure out if you disagree about the facts of the situation or just the definition of oppression. If the latter, stop fucking arguing, because it’s fucking pointless.
2) Problems being small does not mean that they aren’t problems.
3) Suffering is not a contest.

 

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About ozyfrantz

Ozy Frantz is a student at a well-respected Hippie College in the United States. Zie bases most of zir life decisions on Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and identifies more closely with Pinkie Pie than is probably necessary. Ozy can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter as @ozyfrantz. Writing is presently Ozy's primary means of support, so to tip the blogger, click here.

Comments

  1. I notice you write

    Suffering is not a contest.

    … in the same post where you write …

    Of course women do face worse problems from sexism.

    *sigh*

    • Yes. Of *course* you can (roughly) rank the problems that people experience, and be like “cis men have it better than cis women have it better than trans men/female-assigned nonbinaries have it better than trans women/male-assigned nonbinaries.” That doesn’t mean that cis men’s problems aren’t real, or aren’t problems, or aren’t related to the other problems, or aren’t something that we should try to fix.

      • Everytime a major war happens however sexism against men becomes far worse, women end up with privilege even from being spared conscription. And no, you won’t convince me it’s not privilege to not be forced into war, because there is no male privilege with conscription.

        What’s really sad about people who write about issues of men is so many throw in the women get it worse line. It truly makes me start to dismiss what they’re saying, not to mention how insulting it is. Hey men here are some really bad stuff you guys face, but don’t forget, women get it worse!

        But truly how can you say women face worse problems from sexism? How can it be quantified? Read any article describing the horror women face in Afghanistan and you’d be right in thinking women have it bad there but who talks about the men and what they face there? The men who need to grow a beard so they aren’t beaten or worse by the taliban, etc?

        I am not convinced at all sexism in the world is worse for women, I think simply we’ve had many years of feminism which has highlighted sexism. There are good parts and bad parts to being either gender, if I had to choose I would go with a coin flip, one gender gets conscripted and suffers extreme levels of violence, the other gets high levels of violence as well and forced to be child minder more often than not.

        In my experience those who’ve said sexism is worse for women have never lived a man’s life, nor truly investigated how badly men get it. Neither side has it worse, neither are winners, I dunno why people assume life is better for men, especially in War or places where there is no stability. Women get raped, beaten, shot, men get raped, beaten shot. In my country women face sexism at the workplace, men face it around children, women suffer violence, men suffer violence, there are no winners.

        Racial privilege however is very easy to see, white people are at the top of the ladder there in Aus, aboriginals cop a whole load of racism and have a tougher time on average compared to white people. But male vs female? Neither gender is more appealing to be, only difference is a heck of a lot of troubles men face we DO NOT TALK ABOUT IT much and most people remain absolutely clueless to the troubles men face.

        • I don’t want to play oppression Olympics, but since y’all have jumped on that bandwagon after an offhand comment at the end of an article about how the oppression Olympics are stupid, it’s happening. If you’re going to use conscription as your example, you damn well better be comparing that to what was going on at the time there last was an actual conscription in the US, 1972:
          – The uterus was public property. If the thought of being forced to carry an unwanted child for 9 months and then go through the pain of childbirth isn’t enough to make you wince, think about that, but with a father who raped you.
          – Marital Rape laws did not exist. Married? Husband rape you? Tough luck.
          – There was a huge deficiency of domestic abuse shelters, a crime in which women are victimized far more than men. Battered women routinely could not escape their circumstances, because there was nowhere to run to.
          – Discrimination by sex in hiring, education, and crediting was far more widespread than it is today.

          Do I think women had and have it worse? Yes. Do I think that matters? No. And seriously, it’s a waste of time arguing, since I’m pretty sure we all agree on the second point.

          • Well now, damn well better. Aren’t we forceful today? Archy didn’t say that women didn’t have any issues during the era of conscription, just that women had the privilege of being spared conscription.

            So if it doesn’t matter who has it worse then why the mention of how women have it worse when talking about men?

            Let’s take a relatively simple but current example like civilian casualties in war torn areas of the world like the Africa and the Middle East. If it doesn’t matter who has it worse then why are civilian death tolls usually reported in terms of “x were killed, y of them women and children”? Are the lives of innocent men not even worth mentioning in a news bite?

            • “So if it doesn’t matter who has it worse then why the mention of how women have it worse when talking about men?”

              Did you even read the post? The point being made in that paragraph was that it doesn’t matter! The “women have it worse” was just an example! It could have been kittens have it worse than puppies for all the relevance it carried! Ozy said zie gets emails about it, so it was probably just on hir mind at the time! I am overusing this punctuation mark!

              (fwiw, kittens totally have it worse than puppies. Which I’m fine with, because the fuckers like to scratch my arms and make them swell up with allergies.)

            • Yes I did read it.

              And yes you are using that mark too much and if the exact question I asked bothers you so much then by all means feel free to use the generic,

              “So if it doesn’t matter who has it worse then why mention that the Xs have it worse than the Ys when talking about the Ys?”

              (fwiw, kittens totally have it worse than puppies. Which I’m fine with, because the fuckers like to scratch my arms and make them swell up with allergies.)
              I can respect that. In fact I respect it enough to say that if someone were to be talking about how hard puppies have it I think it would be out of line to sweep in about how much worse kittens have it.

              Personally I prefer cats to dogs.

          • “- Marital Rape laws did not exist. Married? Husband rape you? Tough luck.
            – There was a huge deficiency of domestic abuse shelters, a crime in which women are victimized far more than men. Battered women routinely could not escape their circumstances, because there was nowhere to run to.”

            Husbands raped by wives laughed at, in 2012. Tough luck if you don’t consider yourself lucky.

            Just about zero shelters for battered men, who contrary to your opinion, represent roughly 50% of victims. Battered men CURRENTLY cannot escape their circumstances, heck sometimes are jailed for it.

            And before you say most male victims of DV are gay men – no they’re not. Most male victims are cis straight men.

      • I guess it comes down to what goes does (roughly) ranking the problems do and when is it worth mentioning the rankings.

        One could turn around and say there are sexist things that harm men worse just as there sexist things that harm women worse (although there does seem to be a tendency to regularly flatly declare that women do have it worse overall and ignoring the different measurements).

      • Isn’t ranking the problems people experience the *definition* of oppression olympics?

    • Yes, such a highly contradictory article….

  2. It is far from self-evident that, in the U.S. in 2012, “cis men have it better than cis women.” Men at the very top of the hierarchy (maybe the top 5-10%) arguably have it better than everyone else, but AFAICT women in the vast middle have happier, healthier lives overall than men in the vast middle.

    Now, you may disagree, and I respect that. You’re entitled to that opinion; there are a lot of value judgments to be made in looking at all the different dimensions in which people’s lives are gendered. But I don’t respect the idea that “of course men have it better than women” as some kind of self-evident truth that everyone should just accept. AFAICT that assessment is based on ignoring or minimizing a whole host of toxic phenomena that comes with being male in this society. I expect anyone who claims that I must believe that men have it better than women in modern day America to show their math, that is, to assign values to the various advantages that come with being either gender, tally them up, and show that, ta da, one score is way higher than the other.

    Literally no one in my experience who has ever claimed that “women have it worse than men” has met that expectation.

  3. You’ve hit the problem on the head. Oppressed/not-oppressed is a binary. In reality, problems are on a spectrum.

    I’ve lost count of the number of times where I’ve stated clearly that while I think there are plenty of women’s issues that require urgent attention, there are still mens’ issues that I view as important too, only to be met with “Why do you men expect women to do all the work for you? Why are you saying these issues are as important? There are worse things!” when I’ve said nothing of the kind. (I appreciate that there’s a time and place for these things without derailing discussion of other issues, but I’ve had this even when the discussion topic was misandry)

    To say nothing of the fact that I’ve seen plenty of backlash from people when the “There are worse things” line is used towards women when they’re discussing their issues. If I was being cynical (and let’s face it, I usually am), I’d say that because of this oppressed/not-oppressed binary, you only “qualify” for oppressed “status” once you’ve passed an arbitrary minimum of privilege. If you don’t qualify, well tough shit to your “issues”, privileged-boy!

    From my experience, I’ve decided that it’s simply ok to have your own concerns, issues, and passions – even in-group ones – as long as you don’t impose false equivalencies, and that your facts are straight. There is surely room in our collective action to take on multiple issues simultaneously – and given how male/female/trans gender roles interact/overlap/intersect, that’s probably the best way to solve it, rather than solving things one group at a time. This seems a better plan to me than instantly entering zero-sum thought mode when a group you think is privileged in some way comes along trying to earnestly express their issues.

    This There-Are-Worse-Things reaction really just needs to sod off and die. I could shut down everyone’s concerns instantly by saying “Yeah? Well, DARFUR. What are you all complaining about?” But that would get no-one anywhere! If you’re not actually talking about The Worst Thing, then there will always be A Worse Thing that you could be talking about.

    • This, so much. Problems don’t cease to be problems just because they’re smaller than someone else’s problems! We don’t tell toddlers, “Stop crying about that scraped knee. There are people who suffer worse than that all the time!” unless we’re really bad parents. If we can acknowledge that scraped knees suck for little kids, then we can acknowledge that there are different kinds of problems that need solving in different ways.

      Yes, there are people who complain about things that are much too little for adults to complain about–and many of those complaints are on sites like WhiteWhine, and I’m guilty of laughing at them myself. But that doesn’t mean that nobody should ever try to solve anything ever until it’s on the scale of the Red Purge or the Holocaust. That would be fractally wrong, and it would invite the people causing problems for others to actively make those problems worse.

      • We don’t tell toddlers, “Stop crying about that scraped knee. There are people who suffer worse than that all the time!” unless we’re really bad parents.

        Your dinner, children starving in Africa, etc.

  4. I also always, always, ALWAYS hated it, when talking about problem X people “counter” it by complaining that “but Y is also a problem”. It just leads nowhere, and helps neither one of the causes.
    Just because there’s something worse than problem X, doesn’t mean we should ignore it.
    Not to mention, as you said, minor problems are problems too. It’s worthy to take note of them, but just get your damn priorities right!

    I’m a vegan. I’m an atheist. I am gender neutral. I’m a gamer.
    I’m also a dozen other things. Sometimes I get shit for being what I am. Or sometimes even for not being something I’m not, can’t and wouldn’t want to be.

    I have problems related to all of these and then some, but I don’t bitch about them unless it’s relevant to the topic being discussed. And yes, I realize that, all things concider, a lot of these problems are pretty insignificant on the grand scale and they aren’t disturbing my daily life either. They can ruin my day when they emerge but that’s pretty much it. I’m symphathetic for other people regardles of the scale of their problems but at the same time I agree with what was said… It’s hard stay that way when the other issue is blown out of proportions.

  5. Anne de Vries says:

    What this article seems to ignore is that very often in a discussion about X, “But Y have it bad too!” is used as a derailing tactic to not to have to talk about X

    • Yup, it plagues any discussion on male victims of abuse. So many articles will mention how women get it worse near the end of them, the authors derail their own articles to keep this oppression olympics alive.

      • This bums me out especially on the topic of male victims of abuse. It seems way to often that the “we have to help male victims” line gets buried under the constant reminder that “men are the ones that do it more” that it’s hard to tell if they actually want to help male victims or if that is just a bone to toss to critics.

        I was on the Indiana State University site last night looking at their sexual violence prevention section. Looked around and there is almost no mention of male victims that is not immediately followed by something to the effect of “but it happens to women more” or “but men are still the majority of perpetrators”.

        Its like folks are scared that actually taking a moment to acknowledge male victims will somehow take attention away from the all important female victims (sounds like a zero sum game doesn’t it?).

      • That specifically is decidedly frustrating.

        Some of the groups listed in the OP do have a bit of a history of deliberately blowing their dispriviliege out of proportion, and I think there is a kind of a segment between those which have been deliberately hunted and attacked and those which have not. I also believe that two of those groups are composed mainly of appropriators who either lie about their subjective experience, or are deceived about it or draw the wrong conclusions from it. However, it seems like anti-derailing is usually performed via minimizing the experiences of anybody not a designated victim. This can result in some pretty huge messes. One of the worst was the way that radfems declared women the only victims.

        One issue that DOES have to be considered is that a lot of things commonly claimed as privileges for women come with big tradeoffs whearas many of the male privileges don’t. (although some of them do).
        OTOH, it bothers me when people say that various female privileges / male disprivileges are the results of men oppressing each other because it’s not like our culture is totally male controlled, no where close even BEFORE the 1950s, and many of the female disprivileges are in part enforced by women. Plus as Ballgame said, the people who benefit most from all of them are not the people we talk about in either casse.

        • “One issue that DOES have to be considered is that a lot of things commonly claimed as privileges for women come with big tradeoffs whearas many of the male privileges don’t. (although some of them do).”

          The majority of them do. On both sides of the issue.

          Unless you consider children to be objectively a bad burden pushed mostly on women, while working 40 hours a week is an objectively Very Nice Thing – making men so much more privileged. Personally, I’d rather neither. Some people would prefer one. They won’t always objectively prefer the slave wage.

    • No, it’s not. It’s like having a discussion about the Seattle Mariners, and someone brings up the Miami Marlins. That doesn’t necessarily mean they want to stop talking about the Mariners. It probably means they want to compare the two teams.

      The problem with these sorts of “derailing” accusations is that they really mean “I don’t want to talk about that”. They also assume that you can’t talk about the oppression of the “privileged” group without somehow diminishing or ignoring the oppression of the “victim” group. Which is odd, because feminists have no problem dealing with the oppression of transpeople. Almost as if it were some kind of rationalization to avoid discussing the fact that “privileged” groups can be oppressed as well.

  6. wellokaythen says:

    A few years ago, I attended a three-part diversity awareness workshop focused on making the participants much more aware of the many forms of privilege and discrimination out there. I learned about things I had never been aware of and got a better understanding of where other people were coming from. In that way, it was a positive experience.

    For the most part, however, it sort of backfired in my case. The more I heard about how fortunate I was to be an able-bodied, (apparently) white, English-speaking, educated, employed, middle-class, heterosexual cis-male, the more *distance* I felt towards people who were not in any of those categories. By the end I thought, “boy, it sucks to be one of those people. Thank God I was born into the group I was. Thank goodness I wasn’t born a poor black lesbian – that sounds like total hell in this country. I don’t know how I would get out of bed in the morning.” I felt a little bit like a lottery winner, actually. But, that generated much more relief than it did sympathy.

    The workshop leaders had their own preconceived notions that refused to be challenged in any way. We participants filled out a survey designed to quantify how privileged each of us was. Answer on a scale of 1 to 5 how much this applies to you, etc. We then lined up in the room according to our points totals. At my end (off the charts!) were all us “white” folks, and at the other end were most of those who identified as people of color. However, in the exact middle of the distribution was one African American woman in her 40’s, which surprised the hell out of the workshop leaders. They grilled her with question after question to make sure she really answered correctly. You got the sense that she was supposed to be at the lower end and the leaders thought she was just being contrary or willful or in denial. She said she experienced some of the things on the list, but hadn’t experienced others. She said she knew of people who experienced all the things on the survey, but her own individual experience was more mixed. That just did not seem to be the correct answer, however.

    At one point I raised the question of what to do to reduce discrimination. I wanted to know what concrete ways I could work for more a more equitable system. I was essentially dismissed by the argument that we need to fight against the “myth of progress” and the myth of a post-racial society. Basically, it was racist and insensitive to even bring up the question of how to make progress, and it was because I was a white guy that I was saying such things. I was being goal-oriented and looking for ways to make the situation better, and that was just not an acceptable approach.

    So, that’s my most direct experience with privilege consciousness raising. It still leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

    • PsyConomics says:

      That sounds like a truly horrible experience.

      The observation you made about them grilling that poor Black woman so hard shows pretty clearly that they the people putting on that workshop did not understand their own material. The story of the human condition is the story of variance between individuals, especially with a small n-size, it is not surprising they ran into a Black person who had not felt racism that much. But the fact that they could not grasp this? Bleh.

      Also, your question about “what can be done to help” IS EXTREMELY VALID. Yes we have a long way to go, but saying that there has been no real advancements or that trying to make advancements is a toxic notion effectively nullifies not only the point of their own workshop as well but the contributions of countless activists throughout history as well. Some of the ways are very simple, very powerful, and make for great facilitated discussion points.

      I went through a sort of “diversity” seminar back at my old college as part of a volunteer program and it was basically the exact opposite of your experience. They started out with the assertion “no group knows what it is like to the part of the other group, so we will focus on each group in turn (including men, I didn’t realize how revolutionary that was at the time and the more I read the more I am thankful for it).”

      If you ever get the chance to take a similar workshop (from a different group of people) it might be worth it since when done right they are very interesting, informative, and although stressful in a unique way, not accusation-based or toxic. That being said if the taste in your mouth is just too sour that is understandable. If it is any consolation, at least one other person agrees that you got the complete crap end of the stick.

  7. >Gender policing of men is one of the ways misogyny is perpetrated; even if you don’t think men are oppressed, you should be fucking concerned about gender policing.

    Even assuming that to be true, it’s also an example of misandry, just like telling a woman she can’t be “butch” would be an example of misogyny.

    I am really, really tired of people saying oppression of men is really misogyny, especially since it doesn’t actually apply in any other context. It’s special pleading. I once read a comment somewhere by a white guy who was told, to his face, that he couldn’t get a job he was qualified for because he wasn’t a woman or ethnic minority. The interviewer actually said they wished they could hire him. I don’t think there’s any plausible way that could be twisted into racism or misogyny, so most commenters didn’t even try. They just accused him of saying that white men had it just as bad as minorities, when all he was pointing out was that white men are oppressed as well. Ironically, he himself was a minority; he had a debilitating but not obvious chronic ailment .

Trackbacks

  1. […] An evaluation of some aspect of life where women have it better than men . . cf. “Suffering is not a contest,” but “Of course women suffer worse problems from sexism than men…. […]

  2. […] An evaluation of some aspect of life where women have it better than men . . cf. “Suffering is not a contest,” but “Of course women suffer worse problems from sexism than men…. […]

  3. […] Seriously. What About Teh Menz, Ozy Frantz wrote two articles about oppression and privilege. The first article, the one about oppression, is a contradictory piece that argues, as my former co-blogger ballgame […]

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