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June 20, 2014

The Difference Between An Insult And Systemic Oppression

There is a big, big difference between someone simply treating you unpleasantly, and being the victim of a systemic oppression.

Last night I was having an immensely frustrating conversation with a very white, very straight, very cis, very male friend of mine. He chose to make a comparison between the oppression I experience for being trans, and his experience of being teased in school for having ginger hair.

Let me say this firmly and clearly: there can be no such comparison.

Being teased for having ginger hair was an act of arbitrary cruelty. It’s rather like being teased for having glasses or having braces or for having a mole on your face.

The important word here is “arbitrary”. Simply, that person could have left that environment, and have found himself completely unaffected by being a ginger person. It wouldn’t affect the jobs he could get; it wouldn’t affect how he absorbed messages from society about himself; it wouldn’t get him into trouble in any other setting but in high school (to be exact, a specific high school).

On the other hand, I, as a trans woman, cannot simply change my high school and find everything to be better again. As the victim of a systemic oppression, I cannot simply walk away. This is because there will be more people ready to victimise me wherever I go. Laws are written in ways that codify my victimisation. My victimisation is built into our very language and culture. The media systematically stereotypes, erases, mocks and others me. I can’t easily find good information about my own condition, and must fight to educate myself rather than taking my self-understanding for granted like most of the world’s population.

I’m not even safe when I’m alone; my own culturally-inherited thinking patterns will damage my self esteem and cause self doubt, and encourage me to participate in acts of self harm.

When you are a victim of systematic oppression, there is nowhere you can go to avoid it.

The Tip Of The Iceberg

I think my straight, white, cis friend was so used to his privilege – a privilege which includes the ability to ignore other realities – that he was completely unable to empathise with my situation. In his eyes, being teased for being ginger and being teased for being trans were the same thing.

But in my eyes, being teased for being trans is just the tip of the iceberg. The words are more than just words; they are a symptom of an all-encompassing condition. Behind each insult is the voice of millions of people who hate me just as much. Each verbal attack is a reminder of the fact that the WHOLE OF SOCIETY is against me. Each jibe reinforces the self-loathing that society has inculcated in me, makes it that bit harder to reach a level of self-esteem and self-acceptance which is just a given for non-oppressed people. Each insult reminds me that I am not welcome here – not welcome anywhere.

So there is a HUGE difference between an arbitrary insult and Hate Speech.

Reverse Sexism And Reverse Racism

This is why I don’t believe in talk about “reverse sexism” or “reverse racism”. Misandry is a thing, but it is not a structural oppression, and because of that it can never be as damaging as misogyny. In fact, this is somewhat a matter of definitions, but I would argue that you can’t even call it sexism.

In the same way, black people can hate white people, but it is not the same, seeing as they are not participating in a structural oppression with that.

I recently heard about a case in which a black person attacked a white person while shouting slurs, including a reference to the white person’s race. He was prosecuted as having participated in racial violence. While I don’t condone these actions, I think it’s a gross misunderstanding of why we have these laws in place in the first place if you think you can prosecute a black person for having participated in racial violence. There doesn’t need to be harsher sentences so that black people will not oppress white people. Put like that, doesn’t it sound completely perverse? I would call the sentence a racist one.

Why Hate Speech Is A Big Deal

The other consequence of the difference between an arbitrary insult and hate speech is this:

When oppressed people complain about hate speech, other people tend not to understand. Oppressed people are regularly called “oversensitive” and told to not make a big deal about how people talk about them.

Part of this is just people wanting to avoid having to own up to having made mistakes. Part of it is just people wanting to get oppressed people to shut up, and knowing that they can because of their privilege (even if they are not consciously aware that it is their privilege that gives them such power).

But I guess it’s also because they don’t realise that when we fight against insulting representation by others, we are not just having problems with everyday unkindness. They see us hurt by the tip of the iceberg, while we are actually being hurt by the whole iceberg.

So hate speech is a big deal, and it is a much bigger deal then everyday, non-systemic unkindness.

Avoiding Hate Speech Alone Is Not Enough

In something of a contrast to what I just said, I’d say that the difference between an arbitrary insult and hate speech also shows us that avoiding hate speech alone is not enough.

Those who are hoping to not be oppressive (and you have to make an effort, as you are oppressive in our society by default) can’t just stop at changing how we speak. We have to deeply challenge the culture that society has inculcated us with; that mass below the tip of the iceberg.

We have to challenge our stereotypes, our automatic reactions to things, our beliefs.

To be not racist, you don’t only have to not use racist slurs. You also have to challenge your understanding of immigration policy, for example; become critical of stereotypes in movies; listen to stories of discrimination and come to empathise with those who suffer under racial discrimination. You have to learn to give people of colour a voice where you would be socially expected and encouraged to impose your own. (I invite people of colour to correct and expand on this, as their voice is worth a thousand times more than mine on this topic).

To not be sexist, you don’t only have to avoid telling women that they shouldn’t vote or should be passive to men. You also need to profoundly challenge your understanding of how things work, critique society and (if you are a man) actively LISTEN to the female perspectives which society makes it easy for you to ignore.

To not be cissexist, you don’t only need to avoid using transphobic slurs. You also need to challenge how you see trans people, give them space to talk where you’d be socially expected and encouraged to impose your own interpretations of their lives. You need to listen to them, empathise with them, and let that break down and reform how you understand these topics. You need to learn to see them as the gender they say they are – even if that means letting yourself be (gasp!) attracted to them (and being proud and unapologetic about that fact). In fact, you need to come to understand that they REALLY ARE the gender they say they are, and that your socially inculcated view of gender was created by systematic oppression and was simply wrong.

In Short

In short, please do challenge your privileged views. Please do let oppressed people take the lead in the conversation, and listen to them rather than automatically imposing your socially inculcated, unconsciously oppressive views. And remember that hate speech is a lot more than just an insult. It’s symptom and weapon of an all-encompassing oppression which the oppressed person just can’t escape from. With this in mind, fight hate speech, and fight the larger structures which it is a part of. Thankyou.

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1 Comment

  1. Tina says:

    I hope to answer in a blog post about your post, for now just a few remarks:

    Bullying of gingers is not a single incident, it is systematic, so your friend might not have improved his situation by changing high schools. But the oppression of gingers is not comparable to oppressions of minority groups. See here: http://cranechronicles.org/762/features/ginger-oppression-really/ for example.

    I have the same feeling of the whole society being against me. But I am not sure if this is actually the case. There are people who are against me, as evidenced by street harassment and other obvious troubles, but I think the bigger problem is that society doesn’t accept trans genders as real which creates a lot of problems – starting with not being able to pee in peace. That is not so much a form of hate as it is one of ignorance or a societal concept of gender that is not in line with reality. I think what I am getting at is that is not so much active as it is non welcoming/accommodating.

    And that feeling is very strong with me, that I am not welcome, that society doesn’t have a place for me, that I am considered weird and often a nuisance because I disrupt things by not fitting in. But then again, there are other reasons for that as well, even as a cis woman I would be considered weird and would confuse people, but I would have a societal position from which to fight for my acceptance and one people could relate to and put what I say in perspective.

    So, yeah, it is frustrating, but for me it feels like a fight against windmills, at least my troubles are mostly so deeply ingrained in how society is structured that it doesn’t feel I can do much about it. Sure I can convince one person of my gender and maybe make sure that they treat me respectfully, but I will meet the next person in minutes and they have no idea.

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