Saturday, September 12, 2015

Privilege Appropriates the Language of Oppression

I used to be one of the many human rights advocates suffering from a condition I like to refer to as 'why-cant-we-all-just-get-along'-itus. By this, I do not mean so much that I was a peacenik who wanted us to all see past our differences and come together to sing kumbaya. Rather, what I mean is that I had a fairly whitewashed view of the cultural and social climate in which we each live. I did not want us to see past our differences because I had grown up being told and believing that we had no real differences. Race, gender, sexuality - these were all constructs of bygone ages, outdated relics we needed to repudiate and reject in order to overcome. And weren't we the lucky ones to live in a time where we knew better, a time where we were overcoming.

A good number of us living in the West tend to have this idea that the social is not real. We construct concepts like currency and make frequent use of them in our societies, yet the things on which we base them do not actually have any such intrinsic value. There is nothing inherent to the dollar that, even in better economic times, has made it count for a certain amount of gold or silver. Nor is there anything inherent to gold or silver that makes it particularly valuable. These things have what we call instrumental value, they are valuable to us only to the extent that they are useful to us. So it may seem to us that these social constructs are illusory in a sense, that they are not real things existing independently in the world.

Because I saw concepts like race, gender and sexuality as social constructs, I saw them as being somewhat similar to other social constructs like currency. They were projections made by people, placed onto other people, and defended by those people because they found them useful. Whether their motivations were to marginalize those of any particular group, or just to generalize for more studious purposes, the concepts themselves were only instrumentally valuable, and therefore had an illusory quality to them. What matters most, I felt, is that we are all human beings. Why get so hung up on illusory things? Those aren't what's real. Our shared humanity is.

This became something to be defended almost as fervently as some would defend the social constructs that mattered most to them. Somewhere in the haze of it all, insistence on these instrumental valuations became, in my eyes, an insistence on division. When someone said women are discriminated against, a deliberate distinction was made between men and women. This always pointed to the simple fact that someone was clinging to an outdated relic, treating women as if they mattered less, but other times it took on the appearance of treating women as if they mattered more. We're all people, and we're all human, aren't we? I thought. Why divide us by acting as if some problems are more important than others?

Lately this thinking seems to be behind certain sentiments expressed in reaction to various claims of oppression throughout our world. The "Black Lives Matter" movement has been met with responses like "All lives matter" and "Cop lives matter." The Men's Rights movement has at times tried to show that some types of discrimination affect men in a parallel way, or greater way, to how they affect women. Allegations of fat-shaming are answered with accusations of skinny-shaming for suggesting there is an unrealistic social standard of beauty. Though I have not cited any here, the examples are numerous, recent, and easily accessible from a Google search.

One of the ideas behind these reactionary sentiments seems to be that focusing on the experience of any one social group minimizes the experience of other groups. However, this assumes a general uniformity of experience across social boundaries, which is the very thing being disputed by most social justice activists. I also think this assumption comes to a degree from the view of social constructs mentioned above. If differences of gender, race, sexuality, and so forth are like illusory projections, are not the experiences people have as a result of those projections equally illusory? This does not follow any more than it follows that the social nature of currency means our experiences with currency are in a sense less real than our experiences with other, objective facts in the world. But I believe the bigger issue lies with the reality we assign to social constructs.

Sociologist Peter Berger notes that there are three elements that constitute an empirically adequate view of how societies are shaped:

Externalization is the ongoing outpouring of human being into the world, both in the physical and the mental activity of men. Objectivation is the attainment by the products of this activity (again both physical and mental) of a reality that confronts its original producers as a facticity external to and other than themselves. Internalization is the reappropriation by men of this same reality, transforming it once again from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness. It is through externalization that society is a human product. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis. It is through internalization that man is a product of society. [1]

Berger says that society is the result of our putting our selves and our ideas out into the world, of our selves and our ideas taking on a reality in how they affect us and others, and of our adoption of that reality back into our conception of our selves and our ideas. This well explains the way in which we both participate in our societies and yet the societies we belong to also participate in us. It likewise shows that social constructs have a non-illusory reality in that they are indeed made part of the world, able to influence and impact us in ways that are external to us. That is, they will exist and affect us whether we will them to or not. This is true as well for currency, which can affect us in a very real way, especially if we find ourselves unemployed or in great debt.

Social constructs are abstract concepts, and so there may be some controversy over whether they are real in the same sense that particulars are real. Physicists and biologists have not found evidence to suggest that race, gender or sexuality are out there in the material world, existing in space and time like a chair exists in space and time. But there are problems with a strict reductionist materialism just as there may be problems with a Platonist view that sees abstractions as having reality. For starters, time and space have experiential aspects, and they are what Immanuel Kant called the synthetic a priori - they make sense of our experience, but are prior to experience and yet not attained through reason alone. Wherever one falls on the issue of abstract concepts, though, it does seem that they at least have effects in the world that move us in respects that have real consequences.

On Berger's view, we not only see how social constructs can have a reality to them, but we also see how experience is not uniform across social boundaries. Externalization involves an outpouring of selves and ideas into the world that will not be equal, for a variety of reasons too numerous to elaborate here, though not difficult to imagine. Objectivation sees the products of externalization transcending their producers, and they take on a reality capable of affecting others, which will affect different people differently, as the initial outpouring was unequal. Finally, internalization is the absorption of that reality back into individual minds.

Privilege and social advantage often go hand in hand, but both are usually invisible to those that hold them. Social privilege provides something of a luxury in not having to consider anything that is not directly relatable to oneself. The privileged person tends to take the limited view that they do see as the absolute truth or the norm. Psychologist Beverly Greene remarks that we are each of us in a "matrix of categories and contexts, where in some contexts we may be privileged, and in others we may be disadvantaged," [2] and we exist at the nexus of these many categories and group identities.

Externalization takes in these privileges and disadvantages, and some will be more predominant than others. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the privilege of the majority is always a literal privilege in numbers. Power structures and institutions often undergird majority privilege even where there may not be a literal majority. These structures and institutions play significant roles in all three moments of Berger's social process, especially in externalization and internalization (lobbying and advertising would perhaps be the most apparent examples). Privileges and disadvantages become objectivated, and we internalize that reality which we perceive. In a society with lots of people, power structures, and institutions that privilege a particular class, the step of internalization may explain why so many partaking in the predominant privilege seem to be unaware of the fact. What they absorb as the norm, or objective truth, is what they have all put into the social process to begin with.

As I see it, this is all quite relevant to the increase of reactionary sentiments that I mention above. It additionally shows why these sentiments are misguided at best, and are at worst further efforts to marginalize others and defend privilege. Julia Craven writes in an article for The Huffington Post:

Race brings on individual issues for each minority group. Saying "all lives matter" causes erasure of the differing disparities each group faces. Saying "all lives matter" is nothing more than you centering and inserting yourself within a very emotional and personal situation without any empathy or respect. [3]

The purpose of "Black Lives Matter," as she notes earlier in her article, is to draw attention to the fact that our nation has a history of suggesting some lives do matter more than others. Replying that all lives, white lives, or cop lives matter is to miss the point, because even while it is true that all lives should matter, the rejoinders fail to address the central problem: not all lives are understood to matter equally. These responses likewise ignore privilege and the structures in our society that protect it, and so unwittingly call for the status quo, wherein the problem lies. Philosopher Judith Butler explains that "to make that universal formulation concrete, to make that into a living formulation, one that truly extends to all people, we have to foreground those lives that are not mattering now, to mark that exclusion, and militate against it." [4]

Melissa Fabello makes some very similar distinctions in discussing the differences between fat-shaming and skinny-shaming, noting that fat-shaming not only expresses a general fatphobia of Western society, but that "the very structures that hold up our society prioritize the comfort and safety of thin bodies." [5] Later in her post, she comments on how calling out fat-shaming is sometimes treated as being itself an instance of skinny-shaming, like how Black Lives Matter is misunderstood as an exclusionary statement. Again, most of us seem to agree that all bodies should be respected, but this fails to address the actual problem that some bodies are given more respect than others within our society.

None of this is meant to suggest that skinny-shaming is acceptable, or that there are no cases of discrimination against white people, or anything remotely along those lines. But it seems to me that even having to make that qualification says something about the intense sense of entitlement that exists in these responses and that tends to come with privilege. It's an entitlement to always be represented in conversation, to be acknowledged even when it isn't so relevant. It expresses an attitude of suspicion, not willing to give even the benefit of doubt, or to look honestly and nakedly at the stated experience of someone else. Phrased in the dialectic of Hegel, it is the self's attempt to force recognition for itself from the other by negating the other and treating them as an object.

Cultural appropriation has recently become a widely discussed topic in light of celebrities who are alleged to be taking from the cultures of other ethnicities and races in their stylistic choices. In certain contexts, this may be another example of objectifying the other in the struggle for self recognition. I think another way this has been happening in the modern day is in the appropriation of language used by some groups and cultures to describe and respond to their own oppression. This is most notable with the Black Lives movement, whose rallying cry against oppression has been appropriated into an almost antithetical slogan that minimizes the experience of many African Americans.

Another example may be found in the current controversy over the actions of Kentucky's county clerk Kim Davis. Released only days ago, Ms. Davis was jailed for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses to couples after the Obergefell ruling. She and her supporters have claimed that issuing the licenses would violate her freedom of religious belief. Rather than resigning, as many county clerks have done because of Obergefell, she chose to refuse to do her duty as a public servant and served jail time as a consequence. Davis' legal support have suggested the whole ordeal could've been prevented by just removing her name from the licenses, however as Zack Ford of Think Progress notes, Kentucky law defines what goes on the licenses, and the only time that has changed was in reaction to the Obergefell ruling. [6]

While using the language of freedom and liberty for herself, Ms. Davis has asked the state law and federal law to change to accommodate her in denying the freedom and liberty of hundreds, if not thousands, of couples who are now legally able to be married. Despite a marriage license being a legal certification and not any statement of moral or religious authority, she feels it is her religious duty to violate her constitutional duty and refuse to provide the licenses. The LGBT movement has pushed for decades against the oppression that has denied them their right to marry, and even though the tide has at last begun to shift in the US, they are still far from being in any position of privilege. Christians, on the other hand, have a long and standing history as a privileged majority in America.

Privilege appropriates the language of oppression to assert itself over and above those it oppresses. It minimizes the experience of others and marginalizes their self expression in order to try and reclaim the recognition of which it feels it is more deserving. The morbid irony is that the privileged rarely ever lose recognition, it's only that they increasingly come to feel like they should have more than is currently there. It's no wonder, then, that its favorite answer when confronted by the oppressed is not a mere reassertion of power, but a grab for further power. The risk of losing recognition - either by a decline in its own influence, or a rise in the influence of the others - is too high a price to pay, even when the scales are already grossly unbalanced.

1. Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967, Anchor Books), p. 4.
2. Beverely Greene, in Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences, ed. Linda Garnets and Douglas Kimmel (2003, Columbia University), p. 391.
3. Julia Craven, Please Stop Telling Me That All Lives Matter, The Huffington Post (Nov 25, 2014).
4. Judith Butler, interviewed by George Yancy in What's Wrong With 'All Lives Matter?', The New York Times (Jan 12, 2015).
5. Melissa A. Fabello, 4 Reasons Why We Need to Stop Thinking of Skinny-Shaming as 'Reverse Discrimination', Everyday Feminism (Oct 21, 2014).
6. Zack Ford, The Kim Davis Saga May Last Until At Least January, If Not Longer, Think Progress (Sept 11, 2015).