The Wrongful Dismissal of Social Issues

So I was on the Internet the other day and ended up in a discussion about privilege. Someone brought up an issue that isn’t normally considered a case of discrimination or oppression: heightism, or discrimination according to height. The response was generally not super positive. It was taken as frivolous, inconsequential and not worth the effort. They should just deal with it, because it’s diverting energy away from real issues. After all, we must work one step at a time, starting with the more important issues. And so on.

It is striking that the arguments used to dismiss height as a form of discrimination are the same as those used to dismiss other oppressions — even by the people who treated these other issues as serious, like sexism or racism. These arguments can be used against anything. I will first discuss how the logic behind all of them is flawed, which is also an opportunity to discuss privilege. This will be very rambly.

1) “It’s inconsequential, not worth the effort”

Who is to judge what is or isn’t of enough consequence? or worth the effort? All privileged people tend to assume the oppression of others is not significant or not important or not worth dealing with. If the group is very small (e.g. trans* people), people with privilege say it affects few people, so it’s not really worth it. If the group is very large (e.g. women), they often assume that it’s not a real problem, or that the problem is already solved, or that it’s just a question of time before it is.

2) “Deal with it”

This is very easy to say for privileged people. When you don’t have to “deal with it” yourself, it’s easy to say that others should.

Privilege is something that defines a position within a system. Privilege is experienced with regard to something, to a given attribute or experience. It is not an absolute (“Only Siths deal in absolute”). Lesbian trans women of colour with disabilities can experience privilege in other respects — passing privilege for instance, or being from a middle-class background. More importantly, even within a category, privilege can be a complex issue. For example, let us take the case of sexual orientation (and we’ll imagine it matches romantic orientation for the purpose of discussion). Homosexual people experience discrimination in general, but also some privilege with regards to bi/pansexual people, whose identity is not always recognized even by lesbians and gays. Bi/pan people, in turn, can experience conditional privilege while they are in a heterosexual relationship. Finally, asexuality is even less recognized than bi/pansexuality and asexual people are often completely excluded from basics discourses on sexuality, but asexual people are not generally target of violence and hatred, which is a privilege. So while heterosexual people are always in a situation of privilege, non-heterosexual people live both in oppression and in privilege with reference to other groups, but on different aspects.

The first obligation a given privilege carries is to listen to the people who don’t experience it and to accept their experiences as such. The second is to accept to correct the situation of oppression which grants one privilege, even if it means one has to lose this privilege.

By the way, the experiences of people from otherwise privileged groups need also to be recognized and acknowledged, once they understand their privilege. The most obvious example is men, but it applies to many other groups. Even though men as a category are privileged in a patriarchy, individual men and MAAB people can — and do — suffer from the system itself. Disadvantages suffered (and advantages enjoyed) by men are generally the consequence of the oppression of women or of gender as a system, so it contributes to the full picture of gender. Even advantages and how they are enjoyed can be instructive, to see how certain behaviours can be valorized by other people. Getting all points of view help to get a clearer picture on the system itself — not only to understand gender, but also how it interacts (or intersects) with other categories. This was visible in the case of height, because the experience of height in this discussion was differentiated between men and women. One might add the case of trans women, who are often much taller than other women.

3) “It’s diverting energy away from other issues”

Recognizing new oppressions takes nothing away from women or people of colour or any other group. It’s not Oppression Olympics. Identifying a new source of injustice doesn’t mean that it’s as intense or that it works in the same way. It just means it’s there. After all, there isn’t a supply limit on social awareness. Yes, it can be exhausting, but that’s because we live in a messed up society. All you have to do when you learn of a new issue is to remember that it’s there. All discriminations and oppressions benefit from being fought together — that’s the point of intersectionality.

Personally, I’m actively involved in trans* issues. It’s my number 1 priority, I go to meetings and stuff about trans* issues. But I’m also actively feminist, I care strongly about atypical neurologies, mental health and sexual/romantic orientation, and I do my best to be anti-racist (including postcolonialist concerns). As a historian, I’m interested in youth, so I’m conscious about age categories in the present as well because it’s often an issue. And when I perceived issues for people with disabilities in my other involvement, I tried to address them (e.g. when we’re fighting for gender-neutral bathroom, I make sure people in wheelchair can access them; when I’m discussing consent, I try to raise the issue of people with mental disabilities). Oh, and beyond the issue of money (I don’t have any), I try to fight my own classist tendencies as urban upper-middle class, which is hard sometimes. Acknowledging and taking into account all of these issues, or even adding new issues to the mix, doesn’t take me any more energy than taking care of the two or three I feel most strongly about. It deepens my understanding of them and ensures I won’t reinforce other oppressions accidentally. Sure, I’m not as active about what is less important to me (I leave that to other people, whom I support), but it doesn’t cost me anything to take care of other things at the same time, within other issues.

4) “One step at a time”

In a way, this is true, but only when discussing a single problematic. For example, before reaching the utopian society without gender, we have to think of ways to make sure women and trans* people live normal lives. On a smaller scale, going one step at a time can be a good tactical decision. At my college, I’m asking that we have the right to use the right name on unofficial documents, because it’s already like that at two nearby universities. Although it is one of our objectives, I’m not pushing as strongly for the right to have the right gender in our files, because it’s less of an issue — it rarely appears anywhere. I’m not at all talking about name on official documents (which could have the right name, because all the government needs is the right education code), because it would be more controversial.

However, this does not work when you mix different issues. Doing things in a given order does not mean that less problematic oppressions should be put on the side — in any case, who decides which oppressions are less important? We can’t create a hierarchy of social issues to do away with less important ones — we have to deal with each of them together, because fighting one oppression while reinforcing another is not really a victory. That’s the point of intersectionality.

The idea that we should go “one step at a time” is one I’ve seen very frequently about feminism. Generally, the argument goes something like “Women are very oppressed in this or that country, they don’t even have the right to vote, we must take care of that first before dealing with our petty Western issues.” Once again, this doesn’t work. Sure, as privileged Western feminists, we should support autochtonous feminist movements everywhere. However, we can do very little about people living halfway accross the globe, and whatever we would “do” would almost certainly be meddling in other people’s affair with an air of superiority, which is problematic from a postcolonialist perspective. This support does not prevent us from dealing with our local issues — those about which we can actually do something.

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