In 2011, some Occupy Wall Street [note: as we discussed previously, actually Slutwalk] protestors embarrassed themselves by citing John Lennon's problematic comparison of gender oppression with racial injustice. That comparison is part of a long tradition in which people try to point out that one kind of oppression is being overlooked by citing a more familiar outrage. But is disability really "like race"? Is Islamophobia a "New McCarthyism"? Are gays the new Jews? Are such analogies ever useful, or are they always unacceptable appropriations, erasing one kind of suffering by reducing it to a metaphor for another? What about attempts to make a statement about oppression or colonialism using fictional peoples — can they escape all the problems inherent in the real-world comparisons? How can we avoid creating hierarchies of oppression?
M: Ian K. Hagemann; Jesse the K, Josh Lukin, Kate Nepveu
At the beginning, Jesse gave the example of using blind/deaf to make someone who refuses to comprehend/engage (deaf to protests, blind to harm causing): it's a metaphor of choice, which creates idea that disability is choice, which is harmful to actual blind, deaf people (kids told just try harder).
We talked about efforts to change our own language. I said that "lame" was easy for me to get rid of but "crazy" and "insane" have been much harder (linguistics things where terms lose their intensity so being accurate ("I am excessively busy") doesn't sound as dramatic. People in the room used "blind" and "crazy" at least once in pejorative ways in the rest of the panel, only catching it after the fact, which just goes to show how hard it is. (I have reasonably good success these days, personally, but it still requires conscious thought.)
I talked a fair bit about US constitutional law, which in the area of government discrimination based on status literally operates on a hierarchy of oppressions, that is, certain grounds for different treatment have to pass "strict scrutiny," basically that there is a super-good reason for it, while others have to pass "intermediate scrutiny" and everything else "rational basis review." So for example, a good deal of anti-discrimination litigation about sexual orientation has been either trying to fit it into the "gender" box (which gets intermediate scrutiny) or say that it's sufficiently comparable to get the same treatment. (This is a live issue in the same-sex marriage cases before the Supreme Court right now.) There are a bunch of different characteristics that are relevant to which level of scrutiny is assigned, and no one factor is determinative--immutability and visibility are two of the reasons that racial classifications get strict scrutiny, but those don't apply (necessarily) to religion, which also gets strict scrutiny.
(This only applies to constitutionally-required protections. For instance, classifications based on disability must base only rational basis review under the Constitution, but the Americans with Disabilities Act has created a lot of protections that go beyond the constitutional minimum. Discrimination based on pregnancy was held to be, in a really remarkable Supreme Court decision, to not be gender discrimination, so Congress immediately passed an act.)
So we talked about characteristics that are relevant either legally or intuitively to people, which include immutability/choice, visibility, historical/current severity. There was also the purpose of comparisons. Allison came up with four possibilities for why people compare oppressions:
1) false empathy (what I think of as the conversational reflex, "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that you broke your leg in six places. [reflexively: I should show empathy!] Someone once stepped on my foot and it really hurt, so I know how you feel.")
2) Oppression Olympics (kind of the flip side of above)
3) conversion tactic, trying to use any grain of insight
4) genuine empathy, ex. was Loving v Virginia (which struck down prohibitions on interracial marriage) & same-sex marriage
This last seems to work because it is a very close analogy
An audience member said that per linguists, English requires you to rank when making comparisons, which is one reason why it's very hard to use comparisons between oppressions without being offensive.
Various people pointed out that comparisons often implicitly claim that one struggle has concluded, which is not true.
An audience member said that they consider whether an analogy had the intent OR the effect of setting groups against each other. We talked a bit about how oppressors have taught marginalized people to do that, trying to get ahead by putting others down.
A number of people said that they found that the most effective persuasive techniques relied on personal anecdotes/connections, not logical or broader structural arguments.
Ian said this raised the problem of pandering to the mainstream, where marginalized groups present themselves as "really just like you but." This requires asking what your goals are and questioning how far you want to go. Allison said she was pragmatic and had no problem with, e.g., fundraising while presenting a particular outward appearance. I sort of blithered about choosing whether to pass and how behavior outside the mainstream can make space for less dramatically different behavior and it was a hard question.
At the very end, I said that for me, intersectionality was slow to come to my own understanding of myself, and so that might be part of why comparing oppressions is so tricky: I was coming to a personal rule of thumb that I should be very suspicious of such comparisons unless they are made by someone who experiences both things being compared, but intersectionality is hard.
I will doubtless remember six other really great things people said when I hit post or, more likely, start writing up another panel, but I've already spent more time than I honestly can afford on this. Feel free to ask questions, though!
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