Saturday, January 08, 2005

Fetishizing Our Own Oppression

This post requires me to tell a story for a little bit, so please bear with me as I set up my point.

Today, I attended a conference on multiculturalism, diversity, and race relations. We did many activities, including small group discussion of "who we are," and a "privilege walk" designed to show how people can possess advantages or disadvantages in society through factors they had no control over.

Another one of the activities we did was called "four corners." In it, a statement was made, such as "Bowling is the most boring sport on TV," and the group would move into one of four corners of the room depending on whether they strongly agreed, agreed, disagreed, or strongly disagreed. Undecideds went in the middle.

One of the statements was "race relations are no better today than the were in the 1960s." As the discussion commenced, a lot of people who agreed argued that the face of racism had changed, but not improved. They noted the covertly racist Rockefeller Drug laws, as well as the fact that a large portion of black men are incarcerated and disenfranchised. They claimed that politically, claims for racial equality were DOA, and that institutionalized racism remained intact.

I was in the "undecided" group, and argued thus: Yes, I agree with the majority of what the agreeds said. Institutionalized racism was still intact, and we aren't even close to the dream of ending racial subordination. But, I argued, its gutcheck time. I compared the argument we were having to an argument over whether George W. Bush was the world's GREATEST threat to world peace. In that argument, many speakers on the affirmative listed off a myriad of awful, horrible, evil things that could be attributed to Bush. In response, a negative speaker asked: "Imagine you could place either Kim Jong Il, or George W. Bush in prison tomorrow. Its gut check time. Would you really put Bush in the slammer and let Il go free?" And I argued the same applied to race relations. It may be bad today, but gutcheck time: Would you rather live as a black man in Mississippi in 1960 or today?

Now here's the part that stunned me: A large portion of the people present (I hesitate to say a majority) shouted that they'd put BUSH in prison. To them, he really WAS a comparatively worse threat than Il. What could cause such a position?

I think that there is a tendency amongst society to fetishize our own oppression. All of the awful things that happen to us, or, if we're the guilt-sensitive liberal types, happen to others in our name, are the epitome of oppression. Kim Jong Il may execute anyone who speaks an ill word about the "dear leader," but we have the PATRIOT Act. Il has places millions in death camps across the country; we have Guantanamo Bay. In the eyes of some, these are comparable (or reflect worse on the US) because WE'RE the ones doing it. We fetishize our actions and minimize the oppression brought on or brought upon by others.

Such a view is dangerous. In a world with limited resources, pretending that the US or other liberal states are comparatively worse than the worst oppressive regimes insures that those regimes will never change. It is a recipe for inaction. We can't act to end oppression because it would be hypocritical for we, the REAL oppressors, to do so. And even if we can get past that, it would make more sense to remedy the "worse" oppression in the US than to ameliorate the "mild" oppression of North Korea or Iraq.

The logical incoherence of such a position is astounding. Can anyone truly argue that (especially proportionally) more people are starved, more people are denied the right to vote, more people are held in prison on political charges, more people are murdered, or that more people are denied the basic human rights to freedom or equality by the US than China, or North Korea, or Iran, or Sudan, or Congo? With all do respect to my radical friends, what planet are you living on?

The radical left needs to remember that protesting foreign oppression and recognizing its relative evil compared to the West does not justify the things the West does wrong (and there are many). Perversely, the self-flagellation that passes for activism amongst the left wing dooms those most in need of radical change. We need to train the eyepiece beyond ourselves and look to how we can help the world, not just hurt ourselves.

No comments: