Okay, here is a disclaimer. In this entry, I am going to try and briefly canvass a serious chasm within feminism and social justice activism. I’m not sure that I’m going to do a very good job! Is what I am trying to get at. This topic has been dissected to within an inch of its life; to use a diametric metaphor, it isn’t even a dead horse any more. The dead horse disintegrated years ago, leaving a coterie of activists and academics whipping themselves into a hole in the ground. Like a lot of these insoluble bugbears, it concerns ‘essentially contested terms’. Terminology! You know, WORDS MEAN THINGS! NO, THEY DON’T MEAN THAT, THEY MEAN THIS! GET OUT OF MY HOUSE AND TAKE YOUR PC PRESCRIPTIVISM WITH YOU!
So I apologise in advance if this is boring or repetitive. To be honest it’s mostly for my own benefit, so that I have a physical Rolodex of these terms to call on rather than manically flipping through my mental differential dicitonary to make sure I’m using/understanding the right one.
Sexism. When most feminists use the word ‘sexism’, they don’t mean what most non-feminists mean by sexism. I myself have been caught in the endless loop of arguing with people on the internet about what the word should be used to refer to. Those arguments never go well. People whip out Dictionary.com, other people try to explain the concepts of privilege and instititional oppression by the seat of their pants, and everyone goes home to gently nurse their sense of thwarted indignation.
Generally those tiffs occur between social justice nerds and non-social justice nerds. The two definitions they advance are:
Definition #1, or what I will call Activist’s Choice: Sexism, Racism, etc. are words used to refer to the oppression experienced by classes of people based on their membership in that class. The definition, which is often written ‘prejudice + power = sexism [racism, homophobia, etc]’, actually encapsulates a lot of ideologies about power and oppression. Living in societies that construct supremacist hierarchies based on functionally inconsequential traits causes all of us to have ingrained unconscious biases in favour of the constructed ideal: this may be as simple as toilet doors using a skirt to differentiate ‘female’ from ‘male’, the figure of which is a neutral human. It may be as intense as overtly supremacist dogma, like ‘trans people are lying/trying to trick us’.
None of us are exempt from the effects of this socialisation, the thinking goes; HOWEVER, some of us, based on membership of a privileged class, have power to make things better or worse for people who are oppressed along the same axis. This is difficult for a lot of people, because we have a tendency to deny privilege. It causes offence, guilt, etc. to have someone tell you that you’re irrationally prejudiced, and that your irrational prejudice contributes to their oppression. Privilege, however, is not a personal indictment of character: most of us are privileged in some way. Being a member of a privileged class, ie being white or able-bodied, doesn’t make you inherently anything; it’s the hierarchies that are the problem. Unfortunately we are all soaking in them, and it takes active effort on the part of the privileged not to exercise this advantage.
Sexism is therefore defined as prejudice, plus the institutional power to oppress someone based on that prejudice. As a white person, for example, I can’t think of a single disadvantage I’ve ever suffered based on institutional prejudice against white people. I mean, what could possibly happen? I get called a cracker? The power of prejudice against white people is practically nil, because it has no support. Conversely, as a woman, men with irrational prejudices against women have the social capital to make parts of my life a pain in the arse.
So those -ism and -phobia words take on the role of describing experienced oppression, rather than the social prejudice that leads to that oppression. In this capacity, they are extremely useful as political tools. I mean, why do straight people need a word to describe the oppression they don’t experience? We don’t have words for ‘prejudiced against people who collect stamps’, or ‘hatred of those who shop at American Apparel’. We don’t need them. Irrational prejudice is always a negative thing to be discouraged, but who gives a flip if some homo decides she hates all straights? What can she possibly achieve with that prejudice? From a social justice standpoint, it’s a nonissue. Thus, the Activist’s Choice definitions, which are reserved specifically to refer to prejudices of serious consequence, or institutional oppression.
The one issue I have with the Activist’s Choice definition is based on its inability to account for horizontal oppression, or Sarah Palin Oppression. Sarah Palin, as a woman, does not have institutional advantage. Her other privileges, however, like wealth, whiteness, and whatever magic powers Fox News grants its pundits, give her the power to oppress other women. I mean, I don’t think it’s possible to deny that Sarah Palin is both irrationally prejudiced, and capable of making women’s lives worse based on that prejudice. The power she uses to oppress originates from another axis of privilege, but she’s sexist in word, deed, and effect.
Definition #2, The Dictionary Definiton: Look, I can quote it for you:
1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.
This is the classic definition. It doesn’t discriminate (hahaha). If you hate anyone for being any race, believe in racial supremacy, or do anything in accordance with it, you’re a racist. Apart from referring to any and all racial prejudice, this definition also requires ACTIVE, rather than passive, bigotry. It’s not enough to have absorbed negative racial messages; you have to actively believe those messages. It’s not enough to be personally repulsed by gay sex; you have to believe that gay sex is repulsive. This is partially why people get so offended when the words ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ are thrown around: most people associate them with a conscious belief in supremacy. Being called sexist, for most people, doesn’t mean ‘you’re throwing around your unconscious privilege in a damaging manner’. It means ‘you are an irrational and dangerous bigot’.
The immediate downside of this definition is that it serves as a means for privileged people to legitimise any persecution complexes they might have about their person. Nobody wants that.
By the time someone has whipped out the Dictionary Definition, the argument has probably already devolved into multiple substrands concerning instances of anti-[privileged majority] prejudice, prescriptivism vs. descriptivism in linguistics, and accusations of thought-policing, PC-policing, and various other egregious constraints on individual liberty. Both definitions’ flaws are painstakingly explicated. Someone’s feelings have been hurt. Someone has been sternly reminded of everyone’s right to free speech. Everyone is tired and cranky. And I really don’t think I have the tools to improve that situation, apart from maybe directing people to read this post.
If you’ve made it this far and have anything constructive to add, please do. I don’t usually anticipate stupid comments, but please, for the lovagod, don’t tell me about how white people/men/heterosexuals are oppressed. I am even less in the mood for that shit than usual.