"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Oppression Olympics: To Run or Not To Run?

Kameelah has a great post over at Black Looks about the 'Oppression Olympics'. What I like most about this post is that it quickly covers a lot of bases, but doesn't oversimplify the complexities involved in understanding and living within systems of oppression. Kameelah says:
Why are we obsessed with winning the award of the most oppressed? Why are we so fixated on positioning our pain and suffering above that of others? Do such self-congratulatory acts validate an authentic existence? What award is there for the oppression olympics? Does your voice become more legitimate when you engage in what ultimately is a narcissistic act that does discursive and real violence to the lives of others? Do we all want to be card carrying members of the “Most Oppressed”?

With all these questions, I must admit that when middle and upper class White women try to equate their experiences as women with that of being Black I do get upset. I am upset not because I do not deny the struggles of being a woman in any context, I get upset because in the assertion of oppression and equation with my life, they deny, obscure and make unimportant the advantages they reap (and take) as moneyed, white folks.

As a man who identifies as a feminist, I think a lot about the oppression olympics, in part because my place(s) within feminist discourse and activism always involve my understanding, to whatever degree I am able, my places of privilege. But also, I am always trying to better understand the oppression of others, trying to empathize with the feelings that oppression brings, by noting the places in my life where I am not the person with the *most* privilege. This is a dangerous business, because one has to avoid the temptation, which is sometimes really non-conscious, to equate one's experience of not-being-privileged in a certain respect with being oppressed in another respect. That is, I have to also be constantly aware that my experience as a man who tends to cry in private and public from time to time (say), and who therefore doesn't experience as much privilege that comes with traditional masculinity, may provide me some insight and empathy, it also will not compare in some important ways with most of the ways people experience oppression.

It's interesting, and Kameelah makes me wonder about the fact that both of the following seem true:
1. The Oppression Olympics seem to reinforce traditional hierarchies of power, and should be avoided.
2. We must recognize that oppression is a shifting, complex sort of thing, laced by interesectionality--and that the (say) American Xtian who claims he is oppressed because people don't say "Merry Xmas" to him, but instead say "Happy Holidays," is full of shit if he makes a claim of oppression in comparison with how, for instance, Muslims are maligned more and more often in the US.

So it seems that the Oppression Olympics must be avoided, but we must also point out that not all oppressions are the same. Which is a tough place to be, conceptually.


geo said...

Oppressions and "comparative oppressions" are a tricky area for all!

Who am I to say that anyone else is Not "oppressed" or the degree of their oppression? Even a wealthy, Het, White Man - may have had a horrific childhood and/or may have a horrible life.

Is he "oppressed"? Well he's not oppressed because of being "male" or due to his socioeconomic class.

I think that often individuals confuse "oppression" with having a messed up life. Having a messed up life can be important also.

B - my partner (she's Black, large bodied, assertive, and bi) - talks of attitudes demonstrated in different ways by what she perceives as Wealthy White Men and Women - where they don't see her or recognize her as having value or potential value as a person. (She sees Racism as affecting her more than Sexism.)

For women her issues often relate to shopping and similar. With men often the issues relate to "power" type issues.

It is important to listen and ask questions related to others' oppression issues. Racism and Sexism can both be important issues related to one's life experiences. It would be foolish to tell a woman who's survived rape or domestic violence that Racism is "more important".

Why though are we competing on oppressions? I am very, very impressed when I see others see the connections between oppressions. To hear a Black Man talk about anti-semitism (when he's not Jewish) is powerful. To see how Many Women of Color have connected issues of Sexism, Racism, Classism and Heterosexism in ways that build ties with others is great.

Often other people-of-color see anti-Arab and anti-Muslim Racism in a different way than many of us White Folks do.

Our biggest challenges as priviliged White Men are often related to What, if anything, we are doing to Help Change - connecting with other Men similar to ourselves.


Hugh Ristik said...

This post made me chuckle... You argue that "the Oppression Olympics must be avoided," yet you identify as an ally of a movement that is one of the biggest players in the Oppression Olympics. You and the post you cite discuss the relationship between the oppression of women, and the oppression of people of color. Yet what about the oppression of men? Or is it so obvious that they aren't oppressed that feminist claims that women are oppressed (and men are not oppressed, or less oppressed) do not even register as what they are: a transparent play in the Oppression Olympics?

It's hypocritical for feminists to object to oppression comparisons between women and people of color, while assuming without argument that women are oppressed more than men.

Maybe feminists are right that women would win the Olympics over men. If so, then they should allow a fair competition, instead of excluding men as participants, and declaring women the winners, all the while pretending that they aren't playing in the Oppression Olympics at all.

No feminist has ever provided a non-self-serving criterion of "oppression" justifying the claim that women are oppressed and men are not, or women are oppressed more than men. (At least, they haven't provided a criterion that makes any sense and wouldn't be either over-broad, or so narrow that it excludes many examples of what feminists consider "oppression" when it happens to women.)

Since you have a background in philosophy, you can see that what I'm asking feminists to provide is some form of conceptual analysis that argues for (rather than simply assumes) a criterion for oppression, and shows how the condition of women fulfills it better or more often than the condition of men. Yet the other reason that feminists can't provide that argue is that their knowledge of the victimization and mistreatment of men is so dismal.

My complaint here is not necessarily that feminists are wrong, but rather that their arguments in this area simply suck, when they actually provide arguments at all. Yet of course, whether an argument is sound or existent is a different subject from whether its conclusion is true or not.

Sometimes I try to flesh out feminists' missing reasoning in my head, to see if their conclusions make sense. If X is a disturbing proposition that relates to interactions between men and women (e.g. "women are unjustly disadvantaged in society"), then it is moral for me to inquire whether reasoning could be provided to support X, even if I know that feminist reasoning behind X is nonexistent, or full of holes. I suspect that you do the same thing. From watching your thinking, I suspect that you know that large swathes of feminist argumentation are total shams, yet perhaps you find some of their conclusions salvageable through your own reasoning. Maybe you consider the importance or plausibility of flawed feminist arguments to outweigh feminist misrepresentations, while I don't.

When men are confronted with constant feminist sophistry in service of a true proposition or a worthy goal, then that sophistry will poison the well and make it hard for them to acknowledge the truth of that proposition in the future. Personally, there are some examples of injustices towards women that I would like to be able to get more angry about; yet it's hard, because whenever I hear about an example of that injustice, what comes to mind is typical feminist misrepresentation of it, exaggeration, undue blaming of innocent men for it, or ignorance and denial of how men are victims of the same or similar injustice.

Well, this post turned into a rant, and then rambling, but I'll post it because you might find it interesting. Something I'm always trying to figure out is how men with similar views, attitudes, and temperaments in many ways end up on opposite "sides" of the big feminist divide.

jeff said...

Sorry for the delay in responding.

Since you have a background in philosophy, you can see that what I'm asking feminists to provide is some form of conceptual analysis that argues for (rather than simply assumes) a criterion for oppression, and shows how the condition of women fulfills it better or more often than the condition of men. Yet the other reason that feminists can't provide that argue is that their knowledge of the victimization and mistreatment of men is so dismal.--Hugh

I think what you and I often end up doing in our discussions is play what one of my professors used to call "Burden of Proof Tennis". You want arguments from feminists that convince you that women are more oppressed than men; I have yet to see an argument that satisfied me that men are as oppressed as women. So where do we go from here, on this point?

I tend to talk about how traditional gender roles negatively affect men quite a bit here on FA--whether or not I call that oppression, do you think that sort of stuff is helpful? I don't hear you chime in with agreement when I make such points--I pretty much only hear from you when you disagree (which I think is at least partly a result of crap regarding traditional masculinity!).

On another note, I think that you're reading only parts of my post--when you point out that I'm arguing against the Oppression Olympics but taking part in it at the same time, as if that is some sort of fault, it makes me think you didn't read what I wrote, which was (in part) a post about the complexities of being invested in the OO while at the same time seeing the inherent problems with the OO. (Or perhaps I didn't communicate those points very well!)