Girly Thoughts

May 5, 2008

All or Nothing

Filed under: American politics,Big picture,intersections,the blogosphere — judgesnineteen @ 2:21 pm

Sometimes when I read arguments among activist bloggers, I think I’m wishy-washy because I’m kind of hesitant to take sides. But I don’t think I have to define myself as pro-this group or that group to take a stand. I want my stand to be that I’m pro-people, and I want to find a way to promote respect for all people while acknowledging their wildly differing views. This is me trying.


There are a lot of different types of oppression out there. The different types have some things in common, but not everything, so we can learn things about the way oppression works by comparing them, but we can’t go too far with the comparison. For instance, you can’t say that because a white woman isn’t treated with unwarranted suspicion by the police, she isn’t oppressed, and you can’t say that because a black man isn’t sexually harassed on his way to work, he isn’t oppressed. Oppression looks different when applied to different people, but it’s still oppression.

Because it looks different in different cases, it would be hard to compare the severity of the different oppressions. Apples and oranges, you know. But even if we could, it wouldn’t accomplish much to have a rating of which type of oppression is the worst. Perhaps it would give us a list of priorities in our fight for justice; start with the worst, the more mild forms can wait. But these issues are tangled up in each other, so it’s not as simple as saying, we’ll eradicate cissexism first, and then when that’s all gone, we’ll tackle ableism. Their causes are related and their victims overlap. And, as I’ll get to in a moment, the activists against each could be critical in helping eradicate each.

It’s tempting, though, to pick priorities. We’re all afraid of the issue that affects us or speaks to us the most being left behind, so we seize opportunities to declare it the most pressing. The oppressors try to convince everyone that the oppression doesn’t really exist, so we all know that part of our job is to show that it does, but sometimes we want to go further and claim that it’s not only real and bad, but it’s the most real and the worst. But that’s really not necessary. Saying it’s real and bad will suffice.

Some people don’t stab other causes in the back for political gain, but just out of ignorance. They know their cause (let’s call it anti-x-ism) matters, but they haven’t stopped to realize that y-ism sucks too. So they keep making y-ist jokes and doing y-ist things and excusing y-ist policies while waxing self-righteous about their own (actually worthy) cause. They need to be called out (respectfully – it’s not smart or effective to hate people for ignorance) and taught better.

Some people try to get the oppressors on their side. We know we’re pushing our luck as it is, asking people to give up their privilege. We figure if we make our demands as limited as possible, helping one group but not others, we have more of a chance of squeezing them through, of persuading the people that it won’t rock their boat too much to change this one thing. It’s easier to get them to identify with a few more people than to get them to give up on privilege altogether, so people say, Look, you can keep thinking you’re better than all these other people, but let MY group join your privileged club. That’s hypocritical.

It’s probably also counterproductive. People who want to keep power over other people are already in power; they don’t need our help, they need to shut us up. If every group is willing to throw any others overboard, the chance of any of us making sustained progress is slim. People who believe in human rights will make better allies than people who want to protect their own privilege. Let’s be people who believe in human rights, and let’s make alliances. Let’s not make ridiculous compromises to appease ignorant people about things that just inexplicably make them queasy, and let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the people who really are just out to protect their own unfair share of power are going to treat us fairly even as we get ever more uppity. The only people who can win the Oppression Olympics are the oppressors.

I know this is idealistic and I know politics is a very different thing from ethics. I don’t refuse to vote for politicians who make compromises. But this idealism should at least be our goal. If you’re not a politician, I see no reason why you need to give up on idealism. In the US, the state of politics is just silly. I won’t even go into the stupidity of the war between Clinton and Obama supporters, but the fact that Republicans try to prove their conservatism while Democrats try to prove their moderateness even after 8 years of Bush is ridiculous. We need an alliance big enough to be able to say, “We’re demanding human rights and we’re not settling for less,” instead of having to tiptoe around people who think gay marriage will make their marriage certificate dissolve. We shouldn’t be having actual debates over whether it’s ok to torture people, for crying out loud. (Not that you shouldn’t keep arguing with people about that, but we shouldn’t have to.) We need to raise our standards.


No one can do everything. Each person should decide what they have the drive to work on, because this kind of work is not easy, you have to be motivated enough to stick with it in the face of depressing news and stinging insults, if not worse. Each person should decide what they have the capability to do, because we all have different skills. Each person should make their own priorities of actions to take, because there are only so many hours in a day. But no one should prioritize entire causes and tell all human rights activists to comply, like “First attack racism, then sexism, then…”.

Sometimes the different movements will conflict. We have to stick on the side of human rights, not just our own pet causes. We have to have open and respectful dialogue with people who work primarily on other causes, especially people who experience them firsthand, so that we can see other viewpoints before making judgment calls. We have to see them as our allies, we have to identify with them as fellow human-rights activists that are ON THE SAME SIDE.

We have to flesh out what it looks like to be an anti-x-ist without being y-ist. First, it means basing our anti-x-ism on the grounds of human rights, or an even larger circle of rights. This needs to inform all of our theory on our own cause. If your personal oppression brought you to the fight for justice, that’s great, but you need to use that to empathize with all oppressed people rather than seeing your type as the only important one. If your religion brought you to the fight for justice, that’s fine by me, but “God says so” is not a grounds for activism that we can all unite under. You can believe it, but our theory needs to come from human rights. And anyone who is in a cause because they think their group is better than everyone else need not apply for the alliance I’m talking about. We need to stop demanding and claiming allegiance to certain movements above others and instead stand for all human rights first. People talk about what’s required to make you a progressive. My answer is everything. We have to be for ALL human rights for ALL people. Being one of the above does not make you a progressive, it makes you biased (or as Melissa says, a fauxgressive). We can specialize, we can take a more specific label and join a more specific group; these things are politically strategic and personally healing. But we need to watch where our loyalty lies.

We need to watch ourselves: don’t say or do y-ist things. Create political opinions with human rights in mind, vote with human rights in mind, talk to friends about politics with human rights in mind. (Remember that when I say y-ist I mean every kind of oppression besides the one you work on the most – it’s not a code for one specific thing.)

And our activism: make sure our anti-x-ist policies don’t have y-ist effects. Make sure our coverage of x-ism doesn’t have a y-ist bias.

And our movements: make them more meritocratic. Help the voices of anti-x-ist people oppressed by y-ism get heard. Keep opportunities within the movement open to them.

In order to accomplish the first two, we need to educate ourselves on y-ism. We have to know the news, the arguments, the key issues, the offensive words, the common kinds of privilege related to it. Otherwise, we’ll do y-ist things, and we’ll be guilty the state though not guilty the emotion. Gotta avoid that. It’ll happen anyway, because education is a slow and continual process and we’ll never know it all, so we’ll also have to be good at apologizing and moving on. Blogs are a good way to learn, as are ____ Studies classes, books by anti-y-ists, and of course, people affected by y-ism. Here’s a list of reading material, via Feministing. I know you don’t have much time, but if you’re in the human rights alliance, this is part of your activism as much as being anti-x-ist is. At least learn the basics, and keep updating yourself from time to time. (I’m working on this, not even done with the basics. Hopefully the results will make a nice list of Excellent Blogs.)

To accomplish the second two things, we’ll have to listen to people in our movements who are affected by y-ism. Let them show the relationships between x-ism and y-ism. Let them define what x-ism means to them and what policies they need the movement to advocate, because x-ism may affect them differently from how it affects us or from what we usually see. When we want to help people who are affected by x-ism in a way that we’re not (eg, I experience sexism but not from the point of view of a sex worker), we have to listen to those people as much as possible before making decisions and not try to save people who don’t want saving. We should give those who are usually silenced, those who are in our blind spots, a voice: link to them, publish them, let them speak in meetings, make sure that leadership positions are open to them.

In short, let each person speak for themselves. Oppression thrives when a few people either ignore or define everyone else.

We should actively support anti-y-ism when we can. An alliance isn’t much good if it’s just symbolic. Voting responsibly is the baseline, and then we can move up from there as time and finances permit. (I keep telling myself I’m going to replace the time I used to spend in church by writing Amnesty International Urgent Action letters…I need to get on that.)

I don’t think an anti-x-ist blog is obligated to write about issues that are unrelated to x-ism. But we do need to have a “First, do no harm” mindset. An allied mindset.

Finally, a note about when you’re on the other side. Humans have a tendency to take advantage of others when they have the opportunity to, even if they’re taken advantage of themselves. We can see this in all kinds of movements. It’s not evidence of the inherent evilness of certain types of people. It’s evidence of humanness + opportunity. Fortunately, we can add awareness and effort to the mix and counteract this tendency, however imperfectly. But we have to remember: human rights can’t be canceled out; a person can be an oppressor and legitimately oppressed at the same time, and their oppression matters even if they’re an asshole. If we’re for human rights and not just for our pet cause, we’ll keep opposing their oppression even when they’re oppressing us. Doesn’t mean we have to give those people money or join their club, and I’m all for calling them out. But we can’t excuse their oppression, we can’t revoke their rights.



  1. It seems so easy: just relate to everyone else how you wish you could be treated yourself. You’d think people who deal most personally with issues of, as you put it, x-ism would closely empathize with those suffering related denegration–and maybe they do generally treat other oppressed groups with more respect–but I guess, ultimately, human nature is abhorrently self-centered like that.

    Oh well, good points, as always, and I apologize for the cynicism. At least the current issues in the public eye these days force more reflection on this tendency?

    Comment by Blinutne — May 6, 2008 @ 11:01 pm | Reply

  2. I like to think of it as, the more the oppression the harder the struggle and the stronger the people become. I could say it’s survival of the fittest but it isn’t, really, it’s having what it takes to survive the injustice and knowing there will always be injustice.

    Comment by thenightblog — August 2, 2008 @ 10:48 pm | Reply

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