Friday, January 16, 2015

Definitions (& The Dictionary Defense)

Sexism & Misogyny

These are just a few of the most basic names for the systems I'd like to talk about on this blog. Take a moment to look at each word and think about how you personally define each one and how you learned that definition. Over the next few weeks I will be breaking each topic down further. Let's get started.

"But the dictionary says..." And Why That Doesn't Matter.

The dictionary definitions of most words we use to talk about these things are either wrong or extremely oversimplified to the point where they're not actually useful. All of the nuance and real-world applications of the terms are lost, either for the sake of brevity or because of social structures and political agendas.

We refer to these topics as systemic they are built into the very fabric of society. They're the default -- no matter how much you want to think of yourself as above them or unrelated to them, you're not. No one is. And the only way to address that is to know what it is you're supposed to be looking for and examine what role you play.

Everything has a political agenda.

There is nothing in any society that isn't in some way affected by these structures and politics, and that includes everything we "know" to be true or false. It's why we speak the way we do, why we dress the way we do, why we act the way we do. Why certain trends become popular.

You may have heard "History is always written by the winners." (I believe that particular phrasing is attributed to Dan Brown. The Napoleon Bonaparte version is "What is history, but a fable agreed upon?") Everything we know about the world, everything that gets written in textbooks and magazines, etc, is written by those who have social and political power. There are people who decide what goes into textbooks and what children should learn about the world. They are not neutral or infallible; they are human just like the rest of us. Everything we know is both created and carefully controlled. There is no neutrality in knowledge. (For example, scientifically speaking, a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable. Well, did you know in 1893 the Supreme Court decided it was a vegetable so that tomatoes could be taxed, as there was no tax on fruit? [Source, US Supreme Court Nix v. Hedden.] Guess which definition made it into the dictionary?)

I'm sure by now you catch my meaning - the dictionary is only a rudimentary source at best, especially for subjects as complex as race and oppression, and language changes with the times. Dictionaries get updated at an excruciatingly slow pace. Definitions invented in the 1800s are no longer relevant. The dictionary is not an authority on language but a resource.

So, with all of that in mind:

Let's get to the root of where we need to get going.

I don't always work or think within this framework (because sometimes it's a little too simple for intragroup issues), but almost all of these definitions can be addressed via the same basic formula -
Power + Privilege. 
Almost all of them have the same basic components - prejudice, discrimination, privilege. There is a class of people who are subjugated and left out of that privilege (oppressed/marginalized) and, in most cases, a class of people (generally everyone who does not belong to that group) who reinforce the oppression, whether intentionally or passively. While we may say people are equal, it's not exactly true.

Power - the ability to influence or control people's behavior. Society as a whole can grant power to groups of individuals as a means of elevating them above another group. We call that power (and the perks that come with being a part of that powerful group):

Privilege - unearned power and advantages one group has, generally at the expense of another.

Stereotype - a widely held and oversimplified generalization of a group.

Prejudice - a feeling of dislike towards a person or group of persons, typically based in stereotypes.

Discrimination - acting on prejudice, whether on an individual level, or a group level (which requires power)

A phrase you may see me say often is "generalization of the minority hurts the minority. Generalization of the majority protects the minority." Stereotypes are not equal. When a member of privileged group engages in stereotyping someone of a marginalized group, they are using their collective group power against that person. It is always hurtful and always contributing to the history of oppression. When a member of that marginalized group generalizes the group with power, it is a defensive reaction designed to protect themselves from the powerful group. They do not have the power to hurt more than feelings - they cannot contribute to a system of oppression that never existed. (This is why there is no such thing as a reverse oppression. Power doesn't go both ways.)

Marginalized people can definitely have prejudice against a privileged group, can definitely discriminate against that group, but again, often these are for their own protection and do not constitute oppression because the group lacks the institutional power to dominate.

For example, there is a stereotype that black people aren't smart or aren't as smart as white people. Aside from the obvious hurtful implications of such a comment, they're also based in a long history of anti-black oppression. Black people in America were not allowed to be educated, were systematically excluded from educational establishments, were punished for learning how to read and write, and continue to be further pushed aside because of it. (As a note, yes, this is why affirmative action was created. To attempt to correct this history by giving "minorities" a boost to bIt doesn't work the way

There is also a stereotype that white people like expensive coffee. Aside from hurt feelings.... There's not much else to it.

Take any other racial stereotypes (and various practices) and I guarantee you they can be broken down exactly like this.

Oppression - the patterns of prejudice and discrimination that are normalized throughout a society, socially and politically. An entire population using collective power to code discrimination into law and behavior in a way that makes it nearly impossible not to discriminate (often by punishing or ostracizing those who dissent)

Again, discrimination is not in and of itself oppression.

When we're talking about race, this is racism (the systematic marginalization and oppression of people of color), also known as white supremacy. There is no such thing as reverse racism or white oppression. Any negatives you face as a white person are a result of white supremacy.

When we're talking about gender, this is sexism, misogyny, cissexism (the idea that people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth are better than those who do not; the oppression of transgender and intersex people), transphobia (another name for cissexism and the fear/dislike of people who are transgender) and transmisogyny (transphobia, cissexism and misogyny directed at transgender women). There is no such thing as misandry or male oppression, or cis oppression. Any negatives you face as a man are a result of the systems sexism and misogyny. Any negatives you face as a cisgender person are typically also a result of sexism, misogyny, cissexism.

When we're talking about sexual orientation, this is heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia, etc. There is not such thing as heterophobia or straight oppression. Any negatives you face as a straight person are a result of heterosexism.

You can have privilege under one system and not others, and all of these systems overlap. There are hierarchies created under each one, even within marginalized groups.

This is the basis of everything. I'll leave it at this today. Over the next few days I'll share some links to more information. Next topic is likely to be privilege.

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