Specters Of Oppression: Human Dignity & The Meaning of Difference
December 1, 2014 § 9 Comments
“Race is there & it is a constant. You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine how fucking exhausting it is living it.” ~ Jon Stuart
“I don’t know why people are so reluctant to say they’re feminists. Could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?” ~ Ellen Page
“We will never have true civilization until we have learned to recognize the rights of others.” ~ Will Rogers
The disputed circumstances of the shooting of Michael Brown, a young unarmed black teenager, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer—and the resultant civil unrest—have received considerable attention in the U.S. & abroad over the past few months. The death has sparked emotional debate about law enforcement’s relationship with African-Americans & police use of force doctrine.
Jesse Williams, best known for his role on the Grey’s Anatomy TV series, asserted the importance of talking about the narrative—i.e., the context of race-relations in America—surrounding this story, to make sure we’re starting at what he calls “the beginning.” The biracial actor continues:
“You will find the people who are doing the oppressing often want to start the narrative at a convenient point, they always want to start the story in the middle [of what comprises a longer narrative.] There’s a lot of bizarre behavior going on & that is the story.”
He laments the idea that because Brown stole a five dollar packet of cigarillos before the shooting, in the eyes of much of the world he “automatically becomes a thug worthy of his own death.”
The dialogue on both sides—those who believe racial context is relevant & those who believe it’s being unfairly projected onto the case—has continued to rise in emotional pitch, including reactions like the ones Williams described.
While a lot of people have voiced compassion for the situation in Ferguson, there has been a lot of insensitive commentary as well:
If you can’t read the caption on the main image above, it says: “Looting: because nothing says you care about a dead kid and the community more than stealing 50 pair of Air Jordans and then burning the store to the ground.”
While the point itself is undeniably logical, comments like this deflect the significance of the larger story by focusing on one small aspect of the situation & creating a false dichotomy:
“Because people looted in the riots, the riots are obviously absurd.” If A, then B. In classic false dichotomy style, this doesn’t give room for a simultaneous option: that the riots are a noteworthy expression of cultural pain triggered by a symbolic tragedy which has destabilized a community; and throughout that destabilization looting has occurred.
“I’m seeing a lot of …’Well, he punched a cop,'” writes Chuck Windeg. “Or it attempts some kind of equivalency (‘Both sides are really to blame, here,’ as if one side doesn’t have a whole lot of power compared to the other side).
“Where is the empathy?
“I want you to think about it. I want you to imagine being a family who lost their unarmed son in a police shooting. I want you to imagine being in a town full of such families — families who know that they are without power, that at any time one of their own could get shot by a cop a half-a-dozen times and nobody will even send that to trial.” (On The Subject of Cultivating Empathy.)
Journalist David Brooks notes: “We all have to have a new social compact on this.
“Whites especially have to acknowledge the legacy of racism and have to go the extra yard to show respect and understand how differently whites and blacks see police issues. So whites can’t just say ‘Does this look right to me,’ but ‘Does this look trustworthy to the black community.’ That has to be the standard.”
The New York Times columnist adds:
“Racial inequality has become entangled in all sorts of domestic problems of disappearing jobs, family structure. This is mostly a question of good intentioned people trying to do the best they can with very knotty social problems, which now overlap with racial problems.”
Clearly, the reaction is so strong because the implications of the Brown case hits a profoundly charged collective nerve. As Jesse Williams says: “We’re not making this up.”
I’d like to take the conversation out of the case-specific back-and-forth (which is un-constructive, since none of us were on the jury) into a wider examination of difference, social power & rankism.
The specters of oppression have been rising, as of late.
In August, UC Santa Barbara student Elliot Rodger went on a college town killing spree after posting an anti-woman rant on youtube. Before driving to the sorority house where he would kill two women, he uploaded a video entitled “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution.”
The manifesto specifically mentions a “War on Women” for “starving him of sex,” in which he states:
“I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me. But I will punish you for it. I am going to enter the hottest sorority house of UCSB & I will slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut I see inside there. All those girls that I’ve desired so much, you will finally see that I am in truth the superior one. The true alpha male.”
As with the Michael Brown case, many argued the killings were politicized; in this case, mental illness recast, rather than, as Arthur Chu poetically phrased it: “The fruits of our culture’s ingrained misogyny laid bare for all to see.”
But again, there’s a false dichotomy: just because Rodgers may have had mental health issues, doesn’t mean the culture that fed his hate & gave it a language—the larger narrative—isn’t meaningful for us to examine.
As with Brown, the story became a symbol of what is broken in our country & the world.
“Yes All Women started as a response to the deeply ingrained misogyny that fueled Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage at Santa Barbara University. It is also, in rhetorical structure, a response to “Not all men,” a [deflective] response by certain men to stories of violence men commit against women (“not all men rape” – typical #notallmen reply). #Yesallwomen overflowed with female voices sharing personal stories of the rampant harassment and objectification they face in daily life.” (Think Progress.) Examples include:
“Because women have to avoid eye-contact with men in public in order not to ‘lead them on…'” (Sophia Bush.)
“Because every single woman I know has a story about a man feeling entitled to access to her body. Every. Single. One.” (Kaylee Anna.)
“I shouldn’t have to hold my car keys in hand like a weapon & check over my shoulder every few seconds when I walk at night.” (Cara Parish.)
Yet at the same time, this month TIME magazine published its annual poll of “cringe-worthy memes,” asking readers which word they would “ban” in an ideal world from 2015: alongside popular/over-used words like “literally” & “obvi” appeared the word “feminist.”
Of course the article received an outcry of objection for reducing one of the most significant social movements in history to an “annoying” social meme. The article now appears with a note from the editor, apologizing for inclusion of the word.
But the message remains: people are tired of hearing the word feminist. Mostly, it would seem, people not affected by sexism, and women who are confused about the word’s meaning because of negative stereotype.
“I am not a feminist,” actress Selma Hayeck recently asserted as she received her (instantly a little ironic) award from Equality Now.
“If men were going through the things women are going through today, I would be fighting for them with just as much passion. I believe in equality.”
Just a quick review:
“fem·i·nism; the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” ~ Merrium-Webster Dictionary
It’s important to note, there have been three distinct waves of feminist thought.
The first, in the late 18th & early 19th century, was the suffragette movement, which focused on removing basic legal obstacles to equality: the right of women to vote & to own property. (American women did not receive the right to vote until the 1920s; Saudi Arabian women, as recently as 2011.) (Check out this interesting timeline.)
The second wave, which took place primarily from the 1960s to the 1990s, focused on further breaking down the limits placed on women, based on society’s construct of gender roles. This included reproductive rights, sexuality, workplace & family issues.
Because women were breaking new ground, the feminism of this era had a more extreme face—just as a rocket leaving the atmosphere must use the maximum amount of energy during the moment it pushes through the atmosphere, known as “escape velocity.”
But in pushing social comfort zones in order to forge new ground, 60s era feminism also made a lot of enemies; women were told they “could be so much more” than mothers & wives; a sentiment liberating for those who had not dared imagine it, insulting to those who authentically desired it.
Still evolving, second wave feminism was spending so much energy on the “escape velocity” needed to push equality into its next phase, it lost sight of its original motivation: supporting female agency.
This outdated impression—of feminism excluding significant spheres to the detriment of its intention—is unfortunately one still held by most people today.
Modern feminism, known as third wave feminism, is a course corrected entity. The whole third wave of writers & activists—from the 90s to present day—saw the problem exactly: it wasn’t for feminist leaders to tell women who they should be or what constituted an “empowered woman.” Feminism was, is, and always has been about choice. Which included the choice to be a full-time mom, stripper or. However. They wanted. That was the point.
Are there lone extremists who say stupid things in the name of feminism? Of course. Just like every other movement. But if we throw out the feminism with the bathwater, we’re throwing out an important emblem of human liberation.
Feminism is what moved women from a position of being legally powerless, sub-human commodities to legally autonomous persons with a right to human dignity.
And that’s what I’m building up to: the idea of human dignity.
Imbalance of social status based on intrinsic unchangeable characteristics is not only the definition of oppression, it is the hallmark of a broken collective; humanity divided. Which is how we fall & have fallen.
A simple look at the composition of Congress serves as a snapshot for the state of the nation: in the House of Representatives, there are currently 362 men & 76 women. In the Senate, 17 women compared with 83 men. 361 whites representing in the House, compared with a meager 44 African-American; 96 whites, with zero blacks currently in the Senate. 25 Hispanic in the House & 2 in the senate.
That is not equality.
I’d love for feminism to be embraced for the equality signifier it is, for more men to join the movement & proclaim that they are feminists, like actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt in this awesome video….
Because in supporting one another’s social justice causes, we acknowledge both that we all have the same cause—a better world—and the fact that incidents of oppression are interwoven with the same social fabric.
At the same time, I acknowledge that compartmentalized movements are, sadly, part of what is keeping us divided.
In this spirit, I think the conversation might benefit from being steered towards what writer & physicist Robert W. Fuller has identified as “rankism”:
“Rankism occurs when those with authority use the power of their position to secure unwarranted advantages or benefits for themselves at the expense of others. It is the illegitimate use of rank and, equally, the use of rank illegitimately acquired or held. The familiar isms are all examples of this latter form.” (Breaking Rank, The Dignitarian Manifesto.)
“In addition to its universality,” continues Fuller, “rankism differs from the familiar trait-based abuses because rank is not fixed. Rather, it changes depending on context. Someone holds high rank at home and is lowest on the totem pole at work.
“Likewise, we feel powerful at one time and powerless at another, as when we move from childhood to adulthood and from our ‘prime’ into old age, or when we experience the loss of a job, a partner, or our health. As a result, most of us have been both victims and perpetrators of discrimination based on rank.”
He adds that the trouble is not with rank itself—there are many functions of society, such as student & teacher, where rank makes sense—but rather when abuse of power accompanies it.
This means focusing on human dignity.
One way we can do this is by staying aware of the subjecthood of others. Remembering that everyone is the protagonists of their own personal story; with a narrative, of which we may be unable to conceive…until we ask.
One of the key traits of narcissistic personality disorder is treating others as objects, rather than subjects—and it has been said more than once that the Western world lives in an intensely, and increasingly, narcissistic age. We think of “objectifying” as relating to the body & sexism, but, psychologically speaking, it relates any time we don’t consider the human experience of The Other—seeing them only so much as they relate to our experience of them.