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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

So who owns oppression, really?

So who owns oppression, really?

"One of the chapters in Bertrand Russell’s Unpopular Essays (1950) is The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed. In the essay, Russell criticises the tendency of those who marched with him in support of various social justice issues to not simply stand against oppression, but also to insist that the oppressed are somehow epistemically privileged. They were wiser, more experienced, perhaps even more objective than those who were not oppressed. An uncharitable reading (Russell’s) would be that it’s actually good for you to be oppressed...

The same mistake can manifest in the opposite sort of way. It manifests when we dismiss somebody else’s opinion because of their perceived privilege – because they haven’t been there, or experienced that (namely, the places and things you have, or those you presume to speak for have). Mostly, we make this mistake when we talk about racism and sexism...

Why trust the view from the oppressed perspective to be more reliable than the non-oppressed view? Perhaps oppression brings with it such epistemic distortion that you’re less able to understand even your own situation, never mind that of others...

A phrase such as “check your privilege”... is meant to simultaneously destabilise your interlocutors epistemic foundations, as well as to shame them. Either or both of these effects result in a rhetorical victory for you, while making it less likely that she will ever again dare to express the heresy in question.

In arguments which pivot on oppression via sexual identity, this trick is accomplished through using a word like “mansplaining” in place of “explaining”. If the man then accuses you of being blinded by your rage, you could then deploy the word “ableism”, which accuses him of thinking blindness to be something negative. If you’re really lucky, the man in question would be both white and wealthy, in which case his “neoliberal whiteliness” will hopefully shut him up for good...

There is nevertheless a vast difference between being blind to privilege of various forms on the one hand, and thinking that privilege makes you wrong (or rather, that absence of privilege makes you right) on the other. Yes, people have different viewpoints, and those viewpoints are always a factor of their class, race, gender and so forth. But if we think it offensive that negative traits are attributed to people because of these secondary characteristics (insert your preferred gender/race stereotype here), why is it not also wrong to attribute positive traits on the grounds of those characteristics?

You can’t be guaranteed to understand a situation better than someone else simply because you think you inhabit that situation. Yes, it is a factor, and it’s a factor which might even contribute to understanding, on average. But it might sometimes blind you to reality through confirmation bias, or through an overly emotive and maybe irrational interpretation. Meanwhile, someone speaking from a different position might have done sufficient homework, or be sufficiently sensitive, to have a better understanding than you do – even if she’s not a “representative” of the group in question...

It’s also a legitimate problem, and an evasion of your epistemic responsibilities, to refuse to question your own opinions simply because the questions are being raised by a rich, white, heterosexual man. To do so is to take a few external (and often arbitrary) signs as representing the totality of a person and the justification they have for their opinions. It’s a bold claim to make that “whiteness” or “maleness” overrides everything else about a person. In fact, in another world we might call these claims racist or sexist."
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