Posts tagged ‘structural oppression’


Nothing happens when you’re offended; except when it does

I’m afraid I’m going to be political again; comes of hanging out in social media too much in a U.S. election season.

The other day on the Face Book, someone posted some version of this:

along with a little essay about political correctness, and how trigger warnings are censorship, and how kids these days are so thin-skinned that no one can say anything anymore, and so on.

I posted a comment disagreeing, and got (and this is very unusual for me) two different people that I like and respect texting me privately in the Face Book (which I always forget is even a thing) expressing surprise at my opinion.

I’ve been thinking about how to write down my thoughts on these subjects for some time, but without actually doing it. So I thought maybe I’d start with just the basic message of the video clip itself: that when you’re offended, it doesn’t mean anything, and nothing happens.

To first order, I agree with this. The mere fact that I’m offended by something doesn’t in itself mean anything.

But depending on why I’m offended, it may be a sign of something that is meaningful.

The implication of “when you’re offended, nothing happens”, and a thing that the comic up there says more or less right out, is that if someone’s offended, they should just suck it up, sit down, and shut up about it.

But that’s wrong. Words mean things. Words build things up, and wear things down. Structural oppression exists, and words are part of the structure. Sitting down and shutting up does not help us get to a more just society.

If enough people are offended by casual references to some stereotypical negative property of some oppressed group, and refuse to sit down and shut up, and other people stop making those references as often, a little bit of the structure of that oppression has been lifted.

If I’m offended because some comedian punches down for laughs, and I give that comedian poor reviews and recommend that people avoid him, maybe he, or his colleagues, will look for laughs somewhere else.

Or if I’m offended because people are no longer deferring to me because I belong to some privileged group, or because structural oppression that favors me is being questioned, and I complain about that, I both tend to look like an idiot, and to shed light on the privilege and oppression that I’m upset about losing, and even that helps us along toward justice.

If I’m offended because someone said “shit” instead of “poo”, well, probably I should sit down and shut up about it.  :)

So it depends. But also it matters.

Because sometimes, even often, people take offense because of the way they are impacted by injustices in society.

And that’s not nothing.

Maybe sometime in the future: Trigger Warnings, Why the Kids are Alright, and so on.


Demographic substitution does not preserve truth

When I was in kid-school, a Social Studies teacher pointed out to us that there was no entry in the index of our textbook for “Women’s history” or “Women” in general.

I flipped through it and raised my hand, and said that hey, there was nothing for “Men’s history” or “Men”, either!

This is because I was a smug little shit who didn’t have the first clue how the world actually works.

(I like to think that this is a bit less true now.)

The teacher more or less adored me just because I was smart and (usually) well-behaved, and rather than giving me the smack-down I really needed, she (I vaguely recall) just said something like “It’s not the same thing”.

Which is entirely correct.

It’s easy to see why we might expect statements about one group to have the same status (truth, objectionability, etc.) as the same statements applied to another group.  In many contexts, there is basic fairness involved.  “Women should be able to participate in government” and “Men should be able to participate in government” are both true.  “Men should not be jerks” and also “Women should not be jerks”.  Or simple fact: “Most white people have toes”, and “Most people of color have toes”.

On the other hand, a few moments of thought reveals lots of statements for which this doesn’t work.  “Most pregnant people are women” is true; but “Most pregnant people are men” is false.  “Until comparatively recently, the law considered women to be essentially property” is true; but “Until comparatively recently, the law considered men to be essentially property” is false.  “Western society grants extensive privilege to white men per se” is pretty clearly true, but “Western society grants extensive privilege to disabled women per se” is implausible at best.

So far these examples are all of “ought” statements that survive under demographic substitution, and some “is” statements that don’t.  But in any plausible morality, situated “ought” statements are implied by “is” statements about their situation; their context.

A very strong case could be made, for instance, that “Western society grants extensive privilege to white men per se”, and “Mainstream study of history has been from a heavily male-oriented perspective” are both true, and that as a result “It is unfortunate that there is no entry about women in the index of this history textbook” can be true, while “It is unfortunate that there is no entry about men in the index of this history textbook” is silly (because, as I vaguely recall my Social Studies teacher pointing out, the whole book is about that).

More significantly (and I imagine more controversially, although perhaps not among y’all weblog readers), there are sets of “is” statements that don’t survive demographic substitution, from which we can conclude that for instance “Women, people of color, and LGBTQ people have a legitimate need for safe spaces that exclude those not in the relevant group” is true, whereas “Men, white people, and straight people have a legitimate need for safe spaces that exclude those not in the relevant group” is not. Or in shorter words, Women’s Rights and Black Power are not necessarily in the same moral categories as Men’s Rights and White Power.

And I am happy to have written that down, because I’ve had the argument rattling around inchoate in my head for some years.

Now there are a significant number of people posting things on the Internet who would claim that that the concluding sentence, that Women’s Rights and Black Power are not necessarily in the same moral categories as Men’s Rights and White Power, is just obviously false, and unfair, and sexist / racist, and so on. Some of them are, I imagine, smug little shits who don’t have the first clue how the world actually works; some others are just doing a good imitation.  To avoid the argument that we would use to get to the conclusion, they would either deny some of the initial “is” statements (denying that there is currently structural oppression of women or people of color, for instance), or deny in one way or the other that those statements imply the conclusion.

Or, perhaps more commonly, they would just repeat that the concluding sentence is sexist / racist, because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, because fairness, and so on.  Because, that is, demographic substitution ought to preserve the truth of “ought” statements, and saying that it doesn’t is sexist / racist / etc.

What finally pushed me over the edge to write this down was some Twitter discussion of this rather baffling story on the often-odious “Breitbart” site, by the often-odious Milo somebody.  It’s still not clear to me what the intent of the story is, aside from a general suspicion that it’s supposed to be humorous in some way (I do like the part where someone asks what direction they’re driving, and someone else looks at the GPS and says “up”; that’s funny!).  But at least some of the Milo supporters in the Twitter thread that I foolishly walked into, thought that it was obviously a parody of feminist claims that various aspects of technology are gendered against women.

The argument would be, I guess, something like “I have written this piece claiming that an aspect of technology is anti-male, and the piece is silly; therefore other pieces, claiming that other aspects of techhnology are anti-female, are also silly.”  Or, perhaps more charitably, “See how silly this claim that a technology is anti-male is; claims that technologies are anti-female are similar to it, and are just as silly!”.

And this brought to mind some sort of claim like “It’s silly to analyze technology for signs of structural oppression of women, because it’s silly to analyze technology for signs of structural oppression of men, and demographic substitution preserves silliness!”.

But (whatever other additional things might or might not be going on in the case), demographic substitution doesn’t preserve silliness.  Or various other properties.

So there we are!