Sunday, January 09, 2005

Blinded by Mirrors: Fetishizing Our Own Oppression, Part Two

My first post on how people fetishize their own oppression got perhaps the biggest response of any blog post I've ever written (oddly enough, it was all via IM and not at all through commenting. Oh well). Strangely enough, I wasn't really happy with the post; I liked the topic but I thought it was poorly written. So here's a second go at it.

The first thing about self-fetishization (SF for short) is that pretty much everybody does it to an extent, but it gets more apparent the farther from the political middle one goes. Also, one can, depending on one's political leanings, SF either their own oppression (IE, how you are oppressed) or their own oppressing (IE, how you oppress others). Generally, Conservatives and Liberal minorities do the former, while Liberal majorities do the latter. Obviously, the second form of SF is a relatively new development; it is relatively unique to this era for a group to say, in essence, "we're not as good as we think we are." And I think that this is overall a good thing: It's beneficial for groups, especially empowered ones, to look in the mirror every once in awhile and recognize that they aren't the embodiment of justice, morality, and virtue.

Liberal SF was originally a response to the "my country right or wrong" jingoism that has been so pervasive across human history. Looking critically at the disconnect between stated social values and actual social action, liberals realized that we weren't actually what we said we were. Much, if not most, of the "American creed" was a myth; or at the very least, only accessible to certain people of privilege. Liberals thus became skeptical of actions justified on the basis of "American values," since so often these justifications were figleafs for the naked pursuit of national interest and were utterly separate (if not radically opposed) to the "values" they purported to uphold. Vietnam may have been the epitome of this dynamic. In a war that was fought for "democracy" and "freedom," the U.S. actively opposed democratic elections, installed oppressive dictatorships, "destroyed villages in order to save" them, and launched a brutal chemical warfare program that has had a serious longterm impact on the environment of Vietnam. None of these actions were in line with "American values," but they were all justified on that basis.

So far, so good. But what happened next was truly tragic. Amongst some elements of the radical left, a game of "oneupsmanship" commenced. Essentially, the object of the game was to prove liberal bona fides by opposing the exercise of US power. Basically, it consisted of a bunch of liberal academics saying "I'm so committed to progressive values that I'll oppose the U.S. even when its doing X!," where X is some US action justified on "American values." When X is an action like Vietnam, this makes sense, and is even laudable. When X is intervention to stop a genocide in Kosovo, it becomes incoherent. Eventually, with all the academics seeing just how far they would go, Vietnam, Kosovo, and Iraq all melded together into one grand narrative of US oppression, morally indistinguishable from one another. But in doing so, we are staring so intently into the mirror, so enraptured by our own gaze, that we forget that their are those in the world who are far worse off than ourselves. The Vietnamese people may have been far worse off in the wake of US intervention, but the Kosovar Albanians certainly weren't. Blinded by self-loathing, the SFers cannot see the ways that we--meaning the powerful--can aid the world instead of destroying it.

This type of masochism is the intellectual equivalent of "cutting," we inflict hurt upon ourselves (in the form of attacking our oppressive ways) in order to relieve the pain of being part of the oppression. By speaking out so vociferously even against ourselves, we hope to absolve ourselves of the guilt we feel, since we KNOW that we, too, benefit from the very structures we criticize. However, like cutting, SF hurts its cause more than it helps. Nobody looks at someone with razor slashes and thinks to themselves: "I want to be just like her!" similarly, the majority of Americans understandably don't want to live the remainder of their lives in perpetual self-flagellation; if that's what it takes to oppose oppression, then they'll pick the status quo, thanks. (Conservative minorities, briefly, work in the mirror image of liberal majorities. Guilty about perceived injustices perpetuated in their name, they elevate the "oppressions" caused by the quest for racial justice to prove that they are bona fide Conservatives).

Conservatives, too, SF, but in a very different way. The civil rights movement of the 1960s painfully demonstrated to many Americans that their privileged status was not a result of "merit" or "hard work," but a consequence of centuries of violent suppression and legal, social, and political inequities that made racial, sexual, and other ethnic minorities into a permanent political underclass. As America progressed, it became increasingly unacceptable for the dominant class to overtly express racism, sexism, or other forms of "isms" in order to justify the maintenance of their privileged position. The game had changed, and now the prevailing political discourse centered around "equality" and "rights." And the dominant class reacted accordingly. Whenever the government took express actions to rectify the fruits of discrimination, the majority, now put on the defensive, complained of "reverse discrimination." Giving preference to Black applicants to college is no different than giving preference to White applicants, they argued. Whereas many Whites might have admitted that Blacks were oppressed in the 1950s, in the 1980s they thought it was Whites who were faced with systematic inequality, barriers to achievement, and oppressive double standards.

Probably if you asked most Whites whether or not the discrimination they faced was worse than that faced by Blacks throughout most of their history, they'd admit that Blacks had seen worse. Even if one opposes Affirmative Action, it is apparent that it is a comparatively lesser harm than Jim Crow or Slavery. However, by elevating the "oppression" Whites faced so that it was now the equal to the horrors Whites had perpetuated on minority Americans, Whites could lay claim to the moral highground--while defending the very system of privilege they admitted was unjust! All the benefits of being racist, without the social disgrace of actually joining the KKK.

Conservative SF also serves another purpose: it allows the groups that reached the middle class via New Deal programs to avoid extending the same programs to the new underclass which needs them as much to succeed. Again, deep down, most of these people know that they had help in reaching their relative levels of prosperity, they didn't just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. However, by simultaneously elevating the nature of their struggle (by emphasizing their own hard work and deemphasizing the government aid that got them their) and degrading the status of the current underclass (tagging them as "welfare queens" who "don't even want to work"), the new middle class created a culture of victimization in itself that justified cutting back on the very programs which had granted their privilege in the first place. The middle class was being "robbed" of its hard earned middle class status in order to aid a set of people who were "too lazy to get a job" because they couldn't pull themselves up without some sort of aid. Of course, there is a very good reason why they couldn't just pull themselves up like their now-middle class predecessors: the story was a myth. None of the groups, past or present, had succeeded alone. However, the middle class was encouraged by conservatives to SF their own hardships to provide a contrast to the current poor, justifying inequitable treatment on the basis of "equality."

Finally, we get to the SF by liberal minority groups. These groups have a valid, current claim to oppression. However, what often gets lost in the mirror is that there are many forms of oppression, and most people are both the oppressors and the oppressed in different forms. A Black, Christian, Male, for example, gets the benefits of Christian and Male hegemony at the same time as he is suffering from the effects of White Racial hegemony. The population of black, African, disabled, pagan, lesbian women being rather small, it is fair to say that the majority of persons in the world today both reap benefits and pay tribute to the hierarchy system. However, rather than recognize this, many minority groups elevate their own oppression so they can dodge responsibility for fixing the oppression they participate in. Hence, one sees a African-American church loudly preaching for racial justice on one day, then engaging in the most vulgar forms of homophobia the next. When pressed, the community becomes defensive: How can you accuse ME of oppression? Can't you see that WE'RE the ones being oppressed here?

The real tragedy of the self-fetishization trend is that it causes people to talk past each other. When everyone sees oppression only in themselves, the ability to actually solve oppression (which, after all, is an evil that requires both an oppressor and an oppressee) becomes impossible. Blinded by mirrors, communication is reduced to cross-claims of who are the real oppressors, who are the real oppressed, and what obligations, if any, we all have to end it. The answer, of course, is that we are all the oppressors, all the oppressed, and we all have to work to end it to the best of our abilities. The liberal majorities must realize that ending oppression requires them to take action, the conservative majorities must realize that ending oppression requires them to make sacrifices, and the liberal minorities must realize that ending oppression requires them to look beyond the mirror of their own situation. Only then can the world truly end oppression.


Eben Flood said...

Great article, and dead on.

jack said...

Dave, I just came back to this article. It really does kick ass and I know I'll find a topic to suggest it for a Kritik next year. But something occured to me. How do you think the concept of SF might apply to you position on Israel-Palestine. (I'll agree that a lot of the anti-Israel movement comes out of a guilt fetish)