Sunday, June 19, 2022

The Two Halves of Linked Oppressions

Consider paired statements of the following form:

  • "Freeing Palestine is a queer issue"/"Queer liberation is a Palestinian issue."
  • "Fighting racism is a Jewish issue"/"Fighting antisemitism is a Black issue."
  • "Opposing colonialism is a woman's issue"/"Opposing misogyny is an anti-colonial issue."

One can imagine plenty of other pairings. My question is to what extent the two components of the pair should be read as a making identical or at least inextricable points, such that affirming one half of the pair necessarily means affirming the other.

At one level, when I see statements of this form being made, while typically only one half of the "pair" is presented, the defense of the statement sounds in logic that implies that the other half is necessary as well.

Consider the antisemitism/racism pair as our example. Pressed to defend the claim "fighting racism is a Jewish issue", one most often hears either an argument about intersectionality or an argument about linked oppression. The former notes the existence of Black Jews to observe that advocating for "Jews" necessarily requires fighting the anti-Black racism that some Jews experience. The latter makes a broader contention that various forms of structural injustice are linked together such that a campaign against antisemitism will never be successful unless it tackles racism as well -- these oppressions nourish each other, reinforce each other, and so must be attacked together. Both of these arguments imply that the position could be as easily expressed by its inverse: the existence of Black Jews means that advocating for Black people must mean fighting the antisemitism some Black people experience; the interconnectedness of anti-Black racism with antisemitism means that a campaign that is "solely" against the former will be doomed to fail.

Yet it doesn't seem that it is random or trivial which half of the "pair" is trotted out, suggesting that there are practical differences between the two even if they are nominally express the same analytical point.*

One difference could be exhortative: which group is being encouraged to act in a particular way. "Palestine is a queer issue" encourages members of the LGBT community to relate in a particular way to Palestine. "Queer liberation is a Palestinian issue" encourages members of the Palestinian community to relate in a particular way to the LGBT community. Partial overlap notwithstanding, those exhortations are being directed to largely different audiences. There may different reasons for appealing to one audience over another, and likewise the relative success of the appeal might be appraised differently for one audience over another.

Another difference between the claims is descriptive: does community X view issue Y as "their" issue? If I'm a member of X, I can make the assertion that yes, it is (even if it is perhaps aspirational); but I can't necessarily make that claim about a community not my own -- so as a Jew, I can proffer that anti-racism is a Jewish issue, but it's harder for me, not being Black, to say authoritatively that antisemitism is a Black issue. Even if we accept that a non-member is entitled to make such an assertion about a group-not-their-own, again, practically speaking such a claim is less likely to be viewed as authoritative. And for the same reason, the different half of the dyad suggests different people who can validly contest the claim. Even if they are analytically wrong, it obviously matters if descriptively members of X seem to quite loudly deny that Y is in fact "their" issue.

I'm a bit of skeptic about too-easy claims about linking up all oppressions, which I think can paper over legitimate tensions and conflicts both across and within groups. So I don't think claims of the above pairings being necessarily tied to one another are self-evident as analytical propositions (even if they may still be valid moral imperatives). But I really just wanted to flag some fuzziness in how these pairings are used and the sometimes submerged implication of which half of the pair is forwarded; consequences which are elided insofar as the underlying normative argument presents the two halves of the pair as analytical equivalents.

*  Perhaps the most striking iteration of this asymmetry -- and I know I've made this point sometime in the past, but I cannot find the post -- comes in the assertion "Jews will not be free/safe/liberated until Palestine is free." True or not, I have never once heard this argument paired with its flip: "Palestine will not be free until Jews are free/safe/liberated", even though the analytical logic suggests both have to be true. The implicit justification for the omission is usually that Jews are already free/secure/liberated -- which betrays an internal contradiction off the bat (the first half of the pair stipulates that Jews are not free yet). A slightly better apologia is the assertion that the latter goes without saying, but to my ears that is far too cavalier. The reality is that it is perfectly possible to imagine the existence of an entity broadly recognized as a free Palestine in a universe where antisemitism still exists; the assertion that the absence of the latter is necessary for the former to obtain isn't actually accepted as anything but a debater's point. The far harder work is fighting against antisemitism even when it has nothing to do with whether there is a free Palestine or not; just as the harder work is fighting for a free Palestine even when it has nothing to do with furthering Jewish freedom.

1 comment:

LWE said...

Yes; I agree that these statements imply a certain obligation on the group mentioned last - "fighting the oppression of Saturnians is a Martian issue" implies that it's the Martians who are obligated to fight for the Saturnians, with an implied criticism of Martians who don't care much about the Saturnians. It does not, in itself, imply any moral obligations or criticisms of the Saturnians.

The phrase, however, does imply that the Martians are also oppressed by a common enemy (why else would the issues be linked?), allowing the script to be flipped. Still, it's likely that someone who says this phrase thinks that Saturnians are oppressed far worse than Martians, hence it's the Martians who should help the Saturnians, rather than vice versa.

Hence, if someone non-black claims "Fighting antisemitism is a Black issue" that comes off as arrogant - who are you to tell Black people what their issues are, and even hint disapproval of Black people who don't care much about fighting antisemitism?

It's an interesting contradiction between formal logic and basic "standpoint theory" approach.