Tag Archives: oppression

Defining a woman

This never goes well. For too much of recent history in too many places, defining women has gone hand in hand with excluding anyone defined as a woman. It’s been about keeping women out of public spaces, out of most kinds of work, and often about keeping women in the domestic sphere. It has meant not getting to vote, and not being allowed to own property. Too often, women have been defined as daughters, wives and mothers, existing only in relation to the men who control them.

Defining women always functions to exclude people. If a woman is a person with a womb, where does that leave the many women who have had a hysterectomy? Definitions of femininity too often tend towards smallness, weakness, fragility, and being inferior to men. Tall women exist, so do muscular women, but like a lot of people I grew up absorbing the message that muscles aren’t feminine, and delicacy is. I have never wanted to be delicate.

Then there’s all the psychological stuff – that women are gentle, carers, nurturers, kind and soft and warm and loving… Which all sounds charming I suppose, but does not play out well. It de-persons the women who aren’t intrinsically maternal, and it pushes all women back into the domestic sphere and the caring occupations while reinforcing ideas that these things aren’t appropriate for men.

When women are supposed to be gentle, kindly, delicate little things, the women who don’t fit are treated as monsters. You don’t have to look far back in history to find that having ideas, ambition, a desire to be active in the world, a desire for physical activity, for education and opportunity would get a woman labelled as unnatural and monstrous.

I see far too many conversations – especially around British politics – where ‘defining a woman’ is a thing. I don’t see any conversations about ‘defining a man’ because there’s far less interest in controlling male bodies and limiting male opportunities. I don’t see any of the people engaged in this giving any thought at all to the women who they want to define as not-women. Those of us who are too tall and too muscular, those of us who were never pretty, and have strong bone structures. Those of us who are not docile and domesticated. Are we men now? What are we? 

Defining a woman is not the beginning of a process that empowers women. It’s a process that will cause many people who experience themselves as women to be excluded, and loaded down with body shame and humiliation. It is a process that leads to narrower options for women. 

Demand equal rights for all people. Demand the freedom to live comfortably in your own body. Resist body shaming and pressure to conform to narrow and oppressive gender stereotypes. Also check out the science, because the differences between people of the same gender and the differences between genders are not clear cut. Some cis women naturally have more testosterone in their bodies than some cis men. There’s a lot of diversity in humanity, and there is a lot to be gained from embracing that. Denying that it exists of course makes it easier to attack trans people (which is a gross thing to do) and also harms a lot of cis people too.

Tone Policing and Justice

Tone policing is the unpleasant habit of making the way the message is delivered more important than the content. It tends to be undertaken by the person with the most privilege in a situation as a way to ignore, diminish, take down or silence someone who is distressed. It also tends to go with treating someone who is distressed as invalid – too emotional, unreasonable, childish, out of control – so as to feel like there’s no need to take them seriously.

If the hurt feelings of the person with power and privilege are the most important thing, then of course nothing is going to change. And yes, it can be really uncomfortable looking at the ways in which you benefit from a system that hurts other people. It can be disturbing and upsetting to be told you’re perpetrating harm when you thought you were ok. These are hard lessons to learn, and tone policing is not the answer, not in this context.

There are however, times for tone policing. We should be policing ourselves, especially in situations where we have power and advantage. Are we speaking kindly and respectfully? Are we talking over other people? Are we increasing the anger in a situation? Are we punching down? Are we shouting someone else down? If you’re the person with the emotional control in a situation, are you using the fact that it isn’t hurting you to run power over someone who is being hurt?

Consider policing the tone of people who share your privileges. Call them out – gently and politely – when you catch them putting their own hurt feelings ahead of the actual oppression of other people. Call out the people who use anger and aggression to dominate spaces. Call out the micro-aggressions and be prepared to explain – calmly – why this kind of thing isn’t ok.

One of the biggest indicators of who has power can be seen around who is allowed to be upset. People with power and privilege are allowed to be upset when children’s cartoons aren’t made for them. People without power and privilege are not allowed to be upset when people in their community are murdered. If we want justice, then this is an area of human interaction that really needs some work. It is complicated territory and tends not to bring out the best in people, but small acts around checking your own tone, policing the people closest to you if they mess up, and defending the right of people to be upset by actual oppression will add up.

Systemic Oppression

Anyone from any demographic can be horrible to anyone from any demographic. However, it is easy to not realise that you are contributing to a problem that involves systematic oppression. What systematic oppression means is that there are social norms, legal structures, institutionalised ways of dealing with things that massively disadvantage a group of people. The most visible example of this at the moment is the Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter issue. Systemic oppression puts Black lives in danger.  It’s not about disinterest in white lives and safety, it’s about exposing and changing the norms, structures and behaviours that put Black lives at risk. Individual unpleasantness does not function in the same way as unpleasantness reinforced by wider society.

I’m going to hammer out some examples in the hopes that this will prove useful. If we can’t see how the system oppresses a specific group of people, we can end up adding to that. We should not be adding to existing oppression, we need to figure out how to dismantle it. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully catches an array of ways in which this all happens.

Fat shaming and skinny shaming are not the same. Yes, skinny shaming is horrible, but a thin person will not have a medical condition ignored while they are told to gain weight. A thin person will usually be able to find clothes that fit them, is unlikely to be removed from an aeroplane. Thin people will never find they can’t get into a toilet cubicle because it’s too big for them. There are lots of things that make life hazardous and hard if you are fat, and there are no real comparisons for thin people. Thus if you get into a size conversation and try to present skinny shaming as the same as fat shaming, you’re adding to the burden in fat people.

Sexism against women exists in a context where there is a real pay gap between genders. Your chances of having pain taken seriously are lower if you present as female. The odds of being raped, assaulted, harassed or suffering sexual abuse are much higher if you are female. Your odds of securing a job with real power are lower – just look at who sits in government.  So yes, while women can be massively prejudiced against men, sexism against women is backed up by society in all kinds of ways, including religion, and cultural gender-norms.

We treat straight sexual identities as normal and anything else as deviant. What this leads to is people suggesting that it is wrong to talk to children about queerness, as though being queer is something you get into by choice, and not intrinsic to who you are. The failure to recognise difference and the equal validity of different experiences is one of the ways on which systemic oppression manifests, and not just for LGBTQ people. We treat neuro-divergent folk in much the same way, trying to ‘normalise’ them towards what the rest of us do rather than creating more supportive environments.

One of the places to start doing the work on this, is to look at our own responses. If you want to say ‘but white people experience racism too’ or ‘but men can also be abuse victims’ or ‘being a pretty girl is just as hard as growing up ugly’ or whatever else you have, take some time to sit with it. Think about why you need to respond to someone else’s distress by demonstrating that you, as the person who seems to have the easier deal, are a victim too. Does is reduce your feelings of responsibility? Do you feel you need more attention? Have you thought about how much equivalence there is between these experiences? Have you thought about your relationship with your culture and how other people’s experiences of it may be very different?

We are products of our cultures. Systemic oppression exists because people are taught to think of it as normal, natural and inevitable. Challenging that is hard. Scrutinising it is uncomfortable. We can however dismantle oppressive systems. First we have to see them, then we have to deal with our own involvement, then we have to stop participating, then we have to actively challenge those systems. It’s good work and well worth whatever time you can give it.

I’ve experienced oppression and that means…

One of the reliable mistakes well meaning people make is to assume that knowledge of one thing means understanding of another: I have endured sexism so I understand racism. I have endured workplace bullying so I understand domestic abuse. I’m a lesbian so I understand the problems of gay men. And so on and so forth. Less well meaning people take it a step further: I have experienced sexual oppression and therefore I cannot be racist. I have been a victim of abuse so I cannot be a bully. It’s easy to see how we get there, and the consequences are unhelpful through to harmful.

One of the things this does is let us not consider where we may be going wrong. A lifetime of dealing with sexual discrimination gives you pretty much no insight into the mechanics of race. If you are a white woman, a lifetime of sexual discrimination does not actually mean you are incapable of racism. The uncomfortable truth is that to be white is to be part of a system that upholds racial discrimination. If you want to change that, you have to find ways to be active about it. Imagining reasons it does not apply to you doesn’t help anyone.

Granted, experiences of oppression can give one group the scope to empathise with the sufferings of another group. That can be a productive base for mutual support. But it can also be a way of erasing the differences in power that exist. It can be a way of minimising your role in the other group’s problems. Sometimes it can leave people feeling entitled to speak for, and speak over those they claim to be helping. Speaking for other people is something to do with caution, because so often it turns out to be speaking over. Believing that you are qualified to speak for someone else is an impulse that needs scrutiny.

Suffering does not make you incapable of being an ass-hat. Experience of discrimination does not make you incapable of discriminating against others. Experiencing challenges does not mean that in some situations you don’t also have privilege. Thinking about this may be uncomfortable. You may feel a knee-jerk defensive reaction that wants to say ‘no, because I…’ and it’s ok to feel that if it’s what you’ve got. Feel it, sit with it, unpick it, understand it. Look at where those protective feelings come from. Do it privately where no one else can see. Own what you find there. It’s not an easy process, but if you do this quietly and alone, everyone benefits.

Against tyrannical clothing

Let me start by saying that I have no problem with gear needed for health and safety reasons, because health, and also safety. I have no problem with anything a person chooses to wear, or with people not wearing clothes – your body, your business. I am willing to accept that uniforms are helpful in some circumstances, both for practical reasons and for ease of being able to see at a glance who is doing the things. These are not tyrannical clothing issues.

Tyrannical clothing is about imposing unreasonable clothing on people so as to emphasise the power difference. There’s no practical aspect to it – in fact it is often profoundly impractical and designed to make the wearer uncomfortable so as to keep them constantly aware that they have no power. Using the power imbalance to force clothes onto people that are unsuitable, uncomfortable, humiliating, is all about disempowering the victim, and it has to stop.

I’m thinking primarily of two items here in conventional western use – the neck tie and the high heeled shoe. I was obliged to wear a neck tie as part of a school uniform, and many people – especially men – are required to wear them at work. In hot weather, they are a source of misery and discomfort. They serve no purpose. We perceive them as smart because we’re told that’s what they are, but they are just a dangly bit of fabric. Woolly neck scarves, and tying lace around your neck is not considered smart, because there is no inherent ‘smartness’ in the bit of fabric. It’s just a tool of social conditioning.

The high heel is far worse because they can and do cause harm to the feet, the hip joints and in women who are still growing, you can get bone deformity. In old age you can have bunions. Most of us can’t walk any distance in a high heel, we certainly can’t run apart from some very talented exceptions. High heels make you feel precarious and vulnerable if they aren’t your thing, and yet some ‘uniforms’ require them of female workers.

We could also afford to look at double standards – work and educational spaces that allow women to wear cool, lightweight clothes in the summer while the men have to sweat it out in shirt, trousers and tie. Workspaces and educational places that let men be warm in the winter but require women to freeze in short skirts, tights and impractical shoes. There is no practical gain here, only those in power ignoring the needs of the people who have less power.

If a uniform item serves no practical purpose, and instead causes discomfort, it should not be legal to enforce the wearing of it.

No more fighting

We fight oppression and we fight for rights, we fight the system and we fight ecocide, and we fight unethical corporations and we fight the journalists who won’t report what’s happening and then we get cross with each other on social media and fight each other over matters of privilege. We’re so in the habit of fighting that we hardly know when to stop. Places that should be collaborative become combative. But we keep fighting the good fight against all comers.

I start to wonder if the fighting, at least some of the time, isn’t part of the problem rather than a route to improving things. And yes, I know there’s more than a dash of white western privilege in that statement because fighting is a choice for me, not something I cannot avoid. This is also part of my point thought – fighting is an option, so why have I been choosing it?

Well, the obvious answer is because there are so many wrong things that need sorting out so I have to fight all that injustice and intolerance and all the rest of it. The theory makes sense, but in practice I do not see the results I’m looking for. If I fight someone, the odds are really good they will dig in and fight me back. The very act of fighting them becomes part of their story about why people like me should be silenced, shot, not allowed to vote etc etc. By fighting I am feeding the fight.

I’m really tired. This has led me to conclude that I just can’t afford to pour any more energy into fighting. I’ve been thinking about this one for a while. I’ve been thinking about it since I heard Seize the Day at Rainbow Druid Camp last year singing something along the lines of “I will not rest until all oppression is ended.” Not being allowed to rest is in and of itself a form of oppression, and it will break your body and your mind far sooner than it will destroy oppression.

I’m changing my approach. I’m focusing on things I can usefully do – in my life, for the people around me. Comedy and kindness are becoming my revolutionary strategies of preference. Giving things away, buying from small producers, where I can. Helping. Living the way I want the world to be, in order to contribute to that being more feasible. I don’t want to live in a world where we spend much of our time shouting at each other and fighting each other, so I’m going to stop putting energy into that.

The Good Guys

Helen Wood left some powerful words in the comments yesterday, so I wanted to follow on and reflect more on this idea. ‘Good guys’ is of course rather general vague shorthand, but blogging does not really lend itself to picking over every term in every post. That’s just the nature of the beast and I often find I’ve skimmed over one idea for the sake of another and need to come back to it. I am always grateful to those people who flag up where I’ve missed a thing.

Good Guys.

I’m no kind of feminist man basher. I feel very strongly that if your ‘feminism’ is about bashing and blaming men, you’re doing it wrong. Cultures are made up of both genders, and cultures that oppress women are usually able to do so because enough women are wholly complicit in the process. My son is a bloke. My husband is a bloke. A lot of my friends are blokes. I like blokes. I also like women, as broad generalizations, and there are plenty of people of both genders who test my patience and empathy rather a lot.

Then there are the other ones. The people who actively delight in inflicting pain, suffering and humiliation upon others. That’s not specifically a gender issue, it’s just that a lot of cultures are set up such that men have more economic power to back up often being physically stronger and less pregnant/impregnatable in a way that skews things.

Actually few things drive me more mad than the women who wilfully uphold the myth that women are irrational, unknowable creatures full of whim and unruly emotion that a man can never hope to understand. Sure, some of us may be that way, but it’s not universal. People who surrender to the stereotypes generally do not help. The men who are so busy being sure that women are incomprehensible and irrational, and who therefore never stop to listen, are just as much an issue.

When we draw lines, and say ‘us’ over here ‘them’ over there it can so often be harmful. Lines drawn to hold, enable, define and support can be really good things. I once ran an all female singing group, that was a good thing. When we draw lines to exclude and alienate… everyone loses. When we assume there are only two sides, we reduce and limit. Another comment mentioned hermaphrodites, and of course many people are not at all defined by their biological gender. Those people are also more vulnerable to violence, more likely to be picked on.

So, dropping the gender language… there are people who seek to dominate and control other people for their own gain and amusement. There are people who take that so far that they kill. I’m out of date on exact figures, between every 3-5 days, in the UK and the USA, a woman dies at the hands of a violent partner. About one in three women gets raped. There are men who are killed by female partners, it’s a much smaller figure and sometimes connects to domestic abuse, and a victim snapping and retaliating. Now, I think that all needs talking about. I also don’t think a person needs to self identify as a feminist to find rape and murder stats troubling. This is not the world I want to live in. This is not the attitude between genders that I want. And of course it is not simply a men versus women issue. There are men for whom such acts would be unthinkable, and there are women who encourage their sons to denigrate their wives. I’ve heard too many stories.

We are all in this together. We will not fix attitudes and societies without first admitting there are problems to tackle. Some men are fab. Some men are bastards. Some women are extremely dangerous to the freedom of the women around them. Every day I thank the powers that be for the people who are here to do what work they can, for the ones who want to make better, make right, challenge the shoddy thinking and the places cruelty thrives.

I live in hope that one day we won’t need to make special time to raise awareness of oppression, because there won’t be any left to talk about, but until that day comes, I shall keep banging on about it, and praising the people who make positive change. The good guys. Regardless of gender.

Downtrodden: The new look for this season

He knows we are the scum of the earth. Every last one of us is committing benefit fraud, taking drugs and leeching off hard working tax payers like himself. Therefore, he is morally justified in doing whatever it takes to get rid of us. He knows that anything we say will be a lie. If we break down and weep, it is just an attempt to manipulate him. If we wind up homeless, that’s no more than we deserve. We should get proper jobs.

There are so many situations I could be describing here. The underlying theme is how we perceive people who appear to be living in poverty. It’s very easy to assume that people are only poor because they aren’t trying hard enough. Too lazy to work, selfish, sponging off the state. These are the people who wouldn’t work at school and have no qualifications, and are a waste of space. It doesn’t take much to get from here to the idea that maybe we should just line them all up and shoot them.

Oppression begins with dehumanisation. Once the intended victim is established, in the perpetrators mind, as being subhuman, it is much easier to proceed. Propaganda in war has often existed to explicitly demonise the enemy. Political rivals may do the same in poster campaigns. Nothing brings people together like having an opponent to fight. We’re standing up for the hard working people here, the good people, the people like you, and over there are the bad guys…. Go get em! It’s cynical, and manipulative, it keeps us fighting amongst ourselves and encourages us not to challenge the people who set the agenda.

Poor people are the easiest target. The odds are, they can’t afford to fight back. Threaten to make them homeless, to take away the money that buys food, or to undermine their human rights, and they can’t even afford to get the law involved. The harder it is to get legal funding for the poorest people, the more vulnerable they become.

I do not doubt that there are some people who are just not inclined to work, and who cheat the system. However, there are a lot of physically and mentally disabled people living in poverty. Victims of crime, people forced to run and leave everything they owned, single mums abandoned by feckless men, people shattered by bereavement, people who have been too sick to work and couldn’t pay the mortgage. There are so many people who come out of the armed forces and get into difficulty in civilian life. There are kids who grew up addicted to drugs, tobacco, alcohol, maybe from the womb – how much choice have they had, exactly? Poverty exists in cycles. It is still the case that your best guarantee of material success in life, is to start out with rich parents.

And what of the others? The people who work part time and care for someone else, unpaid and unsupported. The people who have such a strong calling that they work voluntarily and live in poverty because there is an injustice, a wrong in the world that they cannot ignore. How about the key workers who are not paid enough to be able to afford proper housing in our cities? Almost everyone making the leap to self employment, or seeking further qualification, will have to spend some time with very little income. It’s a gamble that may not pay off. And finally, there are people who chose to live in relative poverty because they reject the modern world and its priorities. But from the outside, to the prejudiced eye, we all look the same.

A bank balance is not the measure of someone’s humanity. There are many reasons why a person can find themselves in abject poverty, against their will. There are also a number of highly honourable choices that would require a person to accept living in poverty. While the wealthy elite have everyone else convinced that if poor isn’t criminal, it’s probably evidence of being criminal, we continue to equate material possessions with human worth.

I wonder what would happen if more people deliberately chose to live in relative poverty? The move towards greener living often means downsizing, owning less, re-using rather than replacing. You might stop buying all the new fashions and following every wasteful trend. Once people give up ostentatious consumption, the appearance of poverty isn’t far behind. Currently, our economy depends on reckless and unnecessary use of resources. If conspicuous rejection of affluence became the height of fashion, everything would change. It really is that ridiculous.