The objectivity of oppression

In my post yesterday on intersectionality and identity politics, I tried to argue that the internal logic of identity politics is flawed, and though motivated by good intentions, can’t actually yield a practical vision of politics that makes people’s lives better. I now realize that there is an assumption in this argument that I didn’t elaborate on sufficiently, and yet is crucial to the point, namely: the fact that oppression is objective. This is a fact that many intersectionalists seem to want to deny. Yet they can’t, because the very fact that we can talk about oppression at all relies upon its being in some sense objective.

Suppose Joey claims that Chandler has broken his arm. Joey might be in the best position to know how his arm feels, and so the first thing we need to do is listen to Joey and find out how his arm feels. However, there’s no reason to assume that Joey is best placed to know whether his arm is broken. Just because he feels like it is broken, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is – Joey’s interpretation can be mistaken. A doctor will listen carefully to Joey’s testimony, but will ultimately appeal to independent criteria to determine whether Joey’s arm is broken, and it is to these independent criteria that we should appeal when determining whether or not Chandler is guilty of arm-breaking. We can all agree that Joey is not the final authority with respect to whether his arm is broken. Yet some proponents of intersectionality seem to want to suggest that he could be the final authority with respect to whether he has been the victim of oppression or not. But just because in practice, diagnosis of oppression is inevitably more controversial and appeals to less well established facts, does not mean that is in principle any less objective.

The idea that we should listen closely to people’s testimonies and try to learn as much as we can from their experiences often seems to lead people to the conclusion that this subjective form of knowledge – people’s particular narratives and experiences – is the only kind of knowledge we can have, and the only kind of knowledge that can inform political action. And if that’s true, then we shouldn’t try to generalize from those personal experiences to more abstract, seemingly objective principles, because these principles will never be objective – they will only be the particular, subjective beliefs of dominant people, and will serve the interests of the powerful. This conclusion is, I think, mistaken. Of course, we always need to engage in careful examination of our norms and principles, to try to ensure that they are objectively valid, and not just a reflection of the interests of powerful individuals or groups. But unless we acknowledge some objectivity in our definitions of what constitute oppression or injustice, there can be no foundations for eradicating these, or for making people’s lives go better.

The reason for this is that there is no way to make sense of concepts like oppression or injustice, unless we understand them as having some objective criteria – that is, criteria that determine whether an action oppressive, independently of how it is experienced by those subject to it. If it did not – if oppression was entirely a matter of whether or not a person feels they have been oppressed – then there would be no way to distinguish between action that is oppressive, and action that I just don’t like very much. And clearly, when people claim to have been oppressed, they think they are saying something different, and more compelling, than merely “I don’t like this”. There are lots of things people could do (or refuse to do) to me that I wouldn’t like very much. I might like to win the lottery, or to borrow your car. We can all agree that the fact I would like to get these things but don’t get them is not oppression, no matter how strongly I might feel about it. And when I say I am being oppressed by something you do, I believe I am saying more than just “I would have liked you to do this”; I believe I am saying, “I have a right to this, and you ought to do it”. And the fact that you ought to do it does not depend on how I feel about it, or on the fact that I would like you to do it; because if it did, there would be no difference between you oppressing me, and you not lending me your car. As soon as I claim to be oppressed, I am appealing to some objective criteria of oppression, criteria that are independent of my subjective feelings and interpretations.

Of course, we still need to determine what those criteria are. And listening to people’s narratives and experiences will be very useful here, for any plausible account of what oppression is presumably needs to fit reasonably well with our intuitions and considered judgements about what oppression is like. These criteria need not be set in stone – they can be open to constant revision. And (hopefully) obviously, the dialogue where we determine what these objective criteria should be needs to be open to as many different voices as possible, especially those who have typically been marginalized and oppressed.  But ultimately, we need to try to come to a set of objective criteria about what constitutes oppression. And once we do, then we can use these criteria in specific cases to judge whether a particular claim to be oppressed is correct or not. This leaves open the possibility that the person who feels oppressed may in fact be mistaken. While she may feel strongly and in good faith that she has been the victim of oppression, this is not sufficient for it to be true that she has. She may well have been; but this is determined objectively, independent of her experience, interpretations and feelings. So therefore, it is at least possible for people to be mistaken about their own oppression. Trying to ensure that our beliefs about oppression and injustice are as objective as possible is essential, and I do not mean to deny that less oppressed people frequently fail to recognize the ways in which their beliefs about oppression are clouded by their own unchecked and unacknowledged privilege. In real life politics, this is by far the bigger problem facing social justice activists – people in positions of power and privilege frequently fail to examine the ways in which their privilege has shaped their views abut what justice and oppression are. Without a doubt, people with privilege have much to learn from the voices and experiences of the oppressed. My point is simply that the knowledge they gain is only of use if it informs general and objective principles that guide future political action.

The problem with some versions of intersectional identity politics is that, in elevating subjective experience above objective knowledge, they dissolve the possibility of making coherent, meaningful claims of injustice or oppression at all. On this logic all complaints are reduced to an expression of one’s personal preference or feelings, with no way to distinguish genuine injustice from mere dislike. If we want to hold on to the concepts of injustice and oppression, and if we want them to have real political weight and to signify actions and practices that need to be altered, then we have to understand them as having objective criteria that are defined independently of how any individual experiences them. The intersectionalist demand to attend to people’s narratives and to learn from people’s experiences can, at its best, shed a great deal of light on difficult concepts like oppression and injustice, and help us to understand the forms they take and the remedies they require. But at its worst, it descends into solipsism and narcissism, where we mollify oppressed people with the consolation that they are being listened to, but where we and they ultimately lack any resources with which to end their oppression.

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For a more theoretical discussion of this line of argument, you might want to read this great post by Matt Bruenig: What does identitarian deference require?

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9 thoughts on “The objectivity of oppression

  1. Hi Becca, interesting post, thought I’d respond to some of your points in detail.

    First, I feel ridiculous having to type this, but its good to see that you’ve grasped the fundamentals of intersectionality actually means, because after months of watching white women retreat in defensive denial of its existence, I was starting to feel like I was banging my head against a brick wall.

    I’m not a fan of the phrase ‘intersectional identity politics’ as somehow different than white feminism, it imposes a hierarchy. White feminism is always seen as overarching and applicable to all- yet debates over the past few months have proved to us that this is not the case. Frankly, feminism’s shared oppression analysis is completely insufficient for a vigorous examination of power relations. As a black feminist my analysis *must* go beyond an analysis that starts and ends at gender, but a white feminism’s shared oppression analysis hinders, and often actively discourages me from doing so.

    I also think your comments about the intersectionalist’s emphasis personal experience can be applied to the ongoing battles in white feminism. Often a criticism of white feminists, in regards to a campaign like no more page 3, is that they don’t speak for all women. Beyond engaging in intellectual elitism and accusing all white page 3 girls as suffering from a false consciousness, I don’t really see how that be reconciled, either in white feminism or in intersectional feminism. Also, we’re allowed to debate and disagree about how we feel affected by a particular type of misogyny without that in itself being a sign of failure- because unlearning the status quo is complex.
    You highlight the problem with intersectionality’s emphasise on the personal narrative, but what of the Everyday sexism campaign- a campaign literally built on collecting narratives? I really don’t see any significant difference apart from the fact that white women with significant platforms are comfortable with a campaign that challenges wider misogyny, but less comfortable when black/trans/disabled women challenge *them*. Yet the Everyday sexism project isn’t accused of solipsism or narcissism apart from by those who seek to discredit them.

    So in terms of how to fix society, the problem of mollifying isn’t just one faced by faced by those of us with intersectional politics, its faced by white feminists too. We have a women and equalities minister, yet rape crisis centres are losing funding.
    White, UK based feminism’s political aims, goals and wins (e.g quotas on boards, ending page 3 etc) don’t help ALL women, and a lot of its advocates just need to be honest with themselves about that.

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment Reni!

      In response to your first point – I agree that many feminists have shown some resistance to the discourse around intersectionality. But for the most part, I really do think it’s for the reasons outlined in my previous post. I haven’t seen much evidence of feminists actually asserting that they do not care about the experiences of women of colour, gay women, trans women, etc. I am aware of the high profile cases but without wanting to drag them all up again, I think most of them are not genuine instances of mainstream feminists rejecting intersectionality. Sometimes I think they have been misinterpreted; sometimes I think they have responded badly to their errors pointed out. And some people don’t like the word, even if they have no issue with the concept, as I said in my last post. So without wishing to drag up long buried disputes, I disagree with the claim that white women want to deny the existence of intersectionality. As I said in my previous post, it’s often sold to us in an unattractive identity politics package that lots of us would like to reject. And then we’re told we must be denying the importance of intersecting oppressions. I fully accept the intersecting oppression story, but wholeheartedly reject the identity politics that is packaged along with it; and I think that’s what other feminists are possible doing too.

      I agree with you that if we’re interested in eliminating injustice, our analysis must go beyond gender. My point is only that if you’re calling yourself a feminist at all, presumably you believe that there is some shared experience of oppression or some shared features that means it makes sense to address these injustices together under the umbrella heading of feminism. The worry is that the logic of the identity politics discourse denies this, because we are all marked by irreducible difference, and no one can speak for any other. If the features we share are always further and further broken down by our individual differences, there is no room left for movements like feminism at all, for how can any other woman speak for me or understand my unique experiences? There is a danger that intersectional feminism becomes logically incoherent, as one half of the label emphasises irreducible difference, the other half emphasises similarity and shared oppression.

      I think the Everyday Sexism project is truly awesome and I have nothing but admiration and respect for it. Nowhere in this post do I deny the importance of listening and learning from people’s personal experiences and stories – indeed, I tried hard to make clear that I think listening to people’s narratives is essential. My point is that this is only the beginning of political action, not its end point. We need to listen to people’s stories and lived experiences, and then use those to inform our policies and political principles. Stories are valuable, but on their own have no potential to liberate anyone. You need to be able to draw general conclusions from them and apply them to political action – and there is no reason to think that the person whose testimony it is is best placed to do this.

      One very good reason to believe that we should ground our notions of injustice and oppression on objective, rather than subjective, criteria is that unless we do so, we can’t make sense of the idea that people can be oppressed without knowing it. But I think it’s pretty uncontroversial to say you can. If you’re a brainwashed victim of gaslighting and domestic abuse, or a contented slave, I think you are oppressed no matter how content you may be with your situation. Conversely, lots of racists and homophobes might feel very oppressed by the existence and equal status of people of colour and gay people. If we don’t have some general, objective criteria of what oppression is, we have no tools with which to tell them they are wrong.

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  2. Of course, we still need to determine what those criteria are.

    Hi Becca. This is the key point for me, The problem I have with this post is that it doesn’t get us any closer to understanding what the objective criteria for oppression actually are. You say, rightly I think, that subjective experience of having been oppressed is inadequate. People can be wrong about these things.

    You’re probably better placed to offer a technical answer than me, but I would say the definition would be something like this:

    “Oppression is the exercise of social, physical or economic power that serves to reinforce or extend the same power differential that enables it.” :

    (that’s off the top of my head, but broadly captures what I mean when I use the word)

    That is an objective definition, in terms I’m comfortable with, avoiding po-mo / post-structuralist jargon. it may not be quantifiable, but that is different to not being objective.

    By my definition, there are two questions to be asked about any accusation of oppressive behaviour:

    1/ Does it come from a position of greater social power?
    and
    2/ Does it serve to further disempower, diminish or weaken the social position of the alleged victim, and thereby strengthen the position of the alleged oppressor?

    Both of those questions are objective – or at least appear to be. We need some kind of agreement about what social power actually is, which can be less simple than it appears. It becomes more complicated when we remember that individuals have more or less social power in different contexts and on different axes (gender, ethnicity, class, sexuality etc) But within reasonable limits, I think we’ve at least got the sort of objective equation that you are looking for.

    When people say “check your privilege” or some variation, what they are usually saying is “please remember you are speaking from a position of greater social power in this context.” That’s an objective (though of course sometimes debatable) claim.

    When people say “please don’t use discriminatory language” or whatever, they are suggesting that one is doing something that is further disempowering, diminishing or weakening their social position. Again, that is an objective (though often debatable) claim.

    In recent debates and firestorms, I don’t think there are any examples where you can’t apply the two questions above and at least have a rational debate within agreed terms. Often when it comes to debating the second question, it will come down to a discussion of whether the supposed victim has been disempowered etc by what has happened. Social power is intricately tied up with human psychology, so the subjective experience is absolutely essential to the debate. If someone constantly feels subjectively belittled or pathologised, they will become objectively disempowered. If someone really is made to feel like that by a person in a socially dominant position, then objectively there has been an act of oppression.

    Will be interested in your thoughts

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    1. Hi Ally, thanks for the great comment.

      You’re right that I don’t say anything about what the objective criteria are – but I wasn’t trying to. I wanted first to make the case that there must be some, as this is something that lots of people want to deny, however incoherent the claim may be! So now that we’ve agreed that there are, we can start to think about what these might be. With respect to oppression, I’m not sure what I think. I don’t have a well worked out theory of oppression, though lots of other political and social theorists do. I suppose I think oppression is the the specific name for one particular form of injustice, and then the question is, what are the features of that form of injustice.

      I like your definition that oppression is about exploiting one’s power over others in order to maintain it. It’s attractive because it allows that you can be oppressing someone without realizing it – I think you can be exercising your power over others in a way that serves to reinforce that power, without either party necessarily being aware that this is what is happening. One issue with this definition is that it seems plausible to think that not all exercise of power over another person is necessarily illegitimate, and not all power differentials are necessarily illegitimate. So we need some additional theory of what makes the exercise of power over others legitimate before we can determine whether something is oppressive or not. It could be though that I’m operating with a very individualistic, agency-emphasising approach here, and that oppression is better understood as a structural phenomenon. I need to think about this a lot more before I would feel confident enough to offer a definition of oppression, and how this related to other forms of injustice.

      The political theorist Iris Marion Young argues that there are five faces to oppression:
      1. Exploitation – using people’s labour without fair compensation,
      2. Marginalization – excluding some people from full participation in society
      3. Powerlessness – lack of authority, status, autonomy
      4. Cultural imperialism – having one’s culture, history, experiences diminished and viewed as inferior to that of the dominant group
      5. Violence

      I’m not sure whether you would agree with all of these, and I’m not sure I do. But it seems to identify a lot of the structural injustices members of minority groups often face.

      Incidentally, I think discrimination is something different from oppression, but that’s another story

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      1. “One issue with this definition is that it seems plausible to think that not all exercise of power over another person is necessarily illegitimate, and not all power differentials are necessarily illegitimate. So we need some additional theory of what makes the exercise of power over others legitimate before we can determine whether something is oppressive or not.”

        That’s a fair point. If my four year old is told to shut up and sit down by his teacher, I don’t think I’d class that as oppression. If my boss tells me to do a particular bit of work, that’s not oppression.

        I think the only exercise of power that is really legitimate is that which has been willingly assented to. If I sign an employment contract, I’m agreeing to surrender a degree of autonomy to my employer in return for a wage. By participating in democratic processes I empower politicians to make laws that I must abide by. If I assent to some kind of social contract, Rousseau-style, then I agree to abide by the laws of the state in return for the protection of the state. (I have doubts about how the social contract and democracy operate in practice under capitalism, but that’s beside the point for now

        But to bring it back to the point in recent debates around intersectionality. Nobody in the media has been invested with legitimate authority over others. I don’t think even the most arrogant newspaper columnists would argue that they have legitimate power to tell others what they must think, say or do, even if they sometimes act like it!

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  3. Hi Becca,
    sorry for the really late response. You are of course right that Joey, assuming a lack of first aid training on his part let alone any more advance medical qualification, may not be best placed to know if his arm is actually broken as opposed to merely twisted, wrenched or bruised. On the other hand (no pun intended), if his arm is injured/useless to the point where he might suspect a breakage (assuming we apply the principle of charity and assume he does genuinely suspect a breakage rather than stirring up anti-Chandler sentiments for the fun of it), we should probably take that seriously as an injury. In particular, Joey will be well-placed to know whether Chandler grabbed/pushed/etc him in a way that risked a broken arm, and if Phoebe and Ross also witnessed the event and back him up then maybe there is truth in the allegation. But let’s say Chandler, Monica and Rachel are the group of people society generally gives more credence to (hey, if we’re actually talking about the Friends characters that is probably the case), and that Monica’s testimony is that Chandler merely brushed against Joey while walking past him. Each statement to this effect by Chandler or Monica – and Rachel, who joins in later with an attack on Joey’s character for daring to say such terrible things about her friend – is automatically taken more seriously, leading to Joey being dismissed as overwrought, hysterical or just a liar. I agree that identity politics sometimes goes outside the realm of credibility, I’ve personally been on the receiving end of comments that one can’t be both a vegan and a feminist, but the above scenario is what those who engage in it often have to contend with and why it can’t be dismissed.

    PS you asked about my fiction writing a while back, so I linked my name to the (very much under construction) website I set up for it.

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  4. Thank you so much for posting this. You’ve clarified a lot of what I’ve been thinking while watching debates unfold between feminists on Twitter. Some of the arguments I’ve witnessed are circular, where one person claims (rightly or wrongly) that they’ve been oppressed yet the person accused of being the ‘oppressor’ denies this. Arguments go back and forth and nothing is resolved because both sides have their own subjective experience of the situation. Reading back through these kinds of arguments I can usually see the perspective of both sides.

    The ‘oppressor’ is often unaware of how their comments might be interpreted by somebody with less privilege than them and they also be unaware of how their own privileges (and unconscious stereotyping or prejudiced beliefs) affect their own behaviour and attitudes towards less privileged individuals or marginalised groups.

    However, it is also possible that the ‘oppressed’ person (as a result of many negative and oppressive experiences) is sensitive to any behaviour that could be interpreted as oppressive towards them. I suppose it could be seen as similar to a depressed person’s negative view of the self, world and future. Someone is depressed and therefore interprets a friend not returning their phone call as evidence that the friend doesn’t like them. By contrast, a non-depressed person might interpret the behaviour in a more neutral way (e.g., ‘perhaps the friend is just busy’). It doesn’t mean that either explanation is necessarily right or wrong, but we all view the world through our own subjective lens.

    I believe that it is dangerous to dismiss a person’s claims that they have been oppressed, but at the same time I thoroughly agree that we need a definition and a means of examining and defining oppressive behaviour. I like the definition that ‘oppression is about exploiting one’s power over others in order to maintain it’. So, in this sense, we would be examining the (unconscious or conscious) motivation behind the ‘oppressors’ behaviour in order to categorise it as oppressive or non-oppressive. One way of assisting us in this definition might be to consider whether the ‘oppressor’ is treating one group of person/group differently to the ways in which they treat more privileged individuals or groups. If we can find evidence of this, then it seems likely that there has been injustice and that oppression is evident. This perhaps would help us to distinguish between mere disagreements between individuals that have been classed as oppressive when in fact they aren’t and actual oppressive behaviour. I’m aware that the issue of subjectivity is likely to be problematic using this approach too, though.

    Anyway, I’m a newbie to all of this but thank you again for posting this. I’m really glad that people are discussing these issues. I hope my ramblings made some sense!

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