Yvain wrote a very interesting blog post about structural power and social power and y’all should go read it, and I feel very sorry for yanking three paragraphs out of context in the middle to argue with.
Just to use race as an example, fifty years ago, there were explicit laws keeping black people down, and scientific racists in universities were blithely speculating on the cranial capacity of “Negroids” without a second thought. Today, an impressive amount of the Western world’s academic output by weight is now devoted to yelling about how much we hate racism and homophobia. We have successfully reached the point where a single ambiguously racist comment can bring down pretty much any politician in the country, and where people who use the word “fuck” like it’s going out of style are terrified even to quote, let alone use, ethnic slurs. In terms of progress in deploying social power against racism, we have come pretty darned far.
Yet the black/white income gap, which is probably the best objective measure we have of structural/unconscious power, worse today than forty years ago when good records first started being kept. Fifty years of feminists telling people to rape less has resulted in a trend line for rape that looks exactly like that for every other violent crime. The biggest success of the anti-inequality movement, higher incomes for women, seems to be an economic transition that had only a little to do with any kind of a social justice movement (citation admittedly needed, but that’d be a whole post in itself).
So what if social/conscious power just isn’t that good a lever? We know that in at least in a business environment, promoting diversity has zero positive impact and in fact may just make people more racist. If this is true on a social level, it would fit nicely with the stagnant/disimproving structural/unconscious power situation despite the vastly improved social/conscious power situation.
First, I have to point out that his source for the rape thing is the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, which are notoriously shit about rape. During most of the period when that data was being collected, the UCR defined rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will“, which excluded male rape survivors, female perpetrators, non-forcible rape, anal and oral rape, and rape with body parts other than a penis. (Also, marital rape was not illegal in most states during a substantial amount of the time period in question.) Furthermore, half of rapes are not reported to police, which makes it somewhat hard to include them in the UCR statistics.
All of that about the UCR is actually fairly irrelevant, because RAINN, which uses the actually pretty decent* National Crime Victimization Survey data, suggests that there’s been a 60% decrease in rape since 1993, which is actually basically in line with the chart in question. And the data is so muddy about the prevalence of rape anytime before about 1980 that it’s terribly hard to come up with a trend line. But I really hate seeing people citing the damn UCR data and it’s my blog so I’m allowed to rant.
I think the fundamental problem with Yvain’s conclusion that social/conscious power doesn’t work that well is that it makes the unwarranted assumption that social justice advocates have any idea what they’re doing.
Social/conscious power works really well for some kinds of marginalization. Historically, social justice movements have been amazingly effective at getting rid of structural** marginalization, perhaps because social power is really really good at convincing people to give you what you want so that you go away and stop being annoying. “Christ, fine, we’ll stop gender-segregating want ads and start drawing up a sexual harassment policy, just stop walking around outside waving signs and yelling.”
But direct use of social power falls down when it comes to the other kinds of marginalization.
It perhaps works best with conscious interpersonal marginalization. If people have factually mistaken ideas or ideas that hurt people, social power enables you to explain that those ideas are false or hurtful, and then at least some people will stop believing them. (I may be overestimating people.)
Furthermore, using social power against sexism makes being sexist unpleasant– “wow, every time I say something sexist I get in an argument with an offended feminist.” Of course, it also gives feminists a reputation as humorless man-haters, makes the sexists convinced that they are Nobly Saying The Truths The PC Police Don’t Want You To Hear, and leaves people afraid of asking me honest questions in case they accidentally say something sexist and I yell at them.*** So it’s not a perfect strategy.
And with internal marginalization and subconscious interpersonal marginalization? Shit.
There are some tactics– the consciousness-raising group and its descendant the feminist blog– to help people unlearn internal marginalization. But if that worked perfectly I wouldn’t be having conversations on Twitter about how we know the idea of What A Genderqueer Should Look Like is stupid and yet we hate ourselves for not living up to it. (I imagine that you could steal some concepts from cognitive behavioral therapy to use to work on internal marginalization. Has someone done that? Report to me in comments.)
And for subconscious stuff… shit, I have no idea what the optimal strategy is. There used to be huge hiring bias against women; now the bias is only marginal (although obviously still very real). The hiring bias against people of color, however, is still huge. Why did the hiring bias against women decrease and people of color stay mostly stagnant? Some studies suggest that people who are more aware of cultural racial stereotypes are more likely to see an unarmed black man as armed. If that generalizes to all kinds of subconscious interpersonal marginalization, then use of social power in social justice movements isn’t just useless, it’s actively harmful. (Everyone! There’s no racism in America! We live in a colorblind society!)
I think the “privilege” concept is part of the problem here, because it creates the unstated assumption that all social justice problems are, on a fundamental level, the same problem. Which is stupid. Racism is probably the result of our brains’ natural tendency to see people who don’t look like us as The Other; classism is probably a side effect of a capitalist economy; homophobia is basically a vast cultural squick with a religious patina. (Yes, these are vastly oversimplified.) Why would you assume that you can use the same tactics to get rid of things with different causes?
So basically I think that we need to put a lot more study into figuring out how to get rid of internal marginalization and subconscious interpersonal marginalization and not just assume that the answers are, respectively, “we won’t have that come the Revolution!” and “we will yell at you until you stop being racist! Be aware of your racism, horrible racist person!” Also we should stop assuming that, as a movement, social justice advocates have any idea what we’re doing.
*except for its classification of most rape of men by women as “forcible penetration” which incidentally is the worst thing
**Shit, I just realized that having both “structural marginalization” and “structural power” as completely unrelated concepts is going to make this blog post hella confusing. They’re completely unrelated concepts. Sorry about that.
***For the record, I am not going to take offense at honest questions. Ever. I promise.