A lot of people in my comment sections tend to say things like “why does it matter if something is structural oppression or not? My pain still hurts, even if a thousand other people aren’t suffering it.”
But, properly understood, structural oppression isn’t about the validity of your suffering– it’s about what we do about your suffering.
First, let’s define structural oppression. The first result for me on Google says:
The ways in which history, culture, ideology, public policies, institutional practices, and personal behaviors and beliefs interact to maintain a hierarchy – based on race, class, gender, sexuality, and/or other group identities – that allows the privileges associated with the dominant group and the disadvantages associated with the oppressed, targeted, or marginalized group to endure and adapt over time (Aspen Institute).
So, structural oppression means that people with a particular trait get screwed over a lot. Many people do things– without even thinking!– that hurt them (such as making jokes about men in dresses). Many people have bad ideas that cause them pain (such as the idea that trans people are making it up for attention or have a sexual fetish). Systems might be deliberately set up to hurt them (like trans gatekeeping that isn’t based on any evidence about who doesn’t regret transition) or accidentally hurt them (like gender on IDs or MY ARCH-NEMESIS, FORMS THAT ONLY INCLUDE TWO GENDERS).
If you have blue eyes, and you believe you are hideous because of your blue eyes, then you are obviously in quite a lot of pain. Believing you are hideous hurts a lot! But assuming you aren’t a close friend of mine, my correct reaction is probably saying “dude, that sucks” and moving on with my life.
Now, let’s say that TV shows regularly use “I thought she was hot… but then she had BLUE EYES” as a punchline, that even people who are attracted to blue eyes tend not to date people with blue eyes because their friends would make fun of them for dating an uggo, and that it is routine for people who are not attracted to blue-eyed people to be loudly repulsed by people with blue eyes daring to leave the house and be blue-eyed in public because, let’s be real, no one wants to see that.
What does this mean?
Well, first, it means that I can assume that there are lots of other people who hate their blue eyes. It would be reasonable for me to assume that any blue-eyed person I met either thought their blue eyes were hideous or had done a lot of work to love their eyes in spite of the cultural messages about how hideous they were. That means I might want to put more effort into helping blue-eyed people. Each person’s pain is equally important, and that means you should target the kinds of pain that affect many, many people before you target the kinds of pain that affect only a few. Shut up and multiply.
(Smart guys in the comment section: yes, the conclusion of shut up and multiply is effective altruism. The argument isn’t about effective altruism vs. social justice.)
Second, it gives me a lot more options for helping people in pain. If I write a blog post in our universe about how you shouldn’t say people are ugly because they have blue eyes, everyone would probably go “well, I mean, I agree, but… why are you telling me this? Huh?” If I write a blog post in Hypothetical Blue-Eye-Hating Universe (HBEHU) about how you shouldn’t say people are ugly because they have blue eyes, I would probably let some non-blue-eyed people know how hurtful their behavior was, comfort some blue-eyed people and affirm that their pain was real, and get at least one person explaining that their sexual attractions were brought down on a tablet by Boner Moses, how dare those SJWs say they have to have sex with blue-eyed people.
Similarly, if I become a Blue-Eyed Rights Activist in our universe, I am going to find my office as busy as the Third Amendment Rights Group. If I become a Blue-Eyed Rights Activist in the HBEHU, there are a lot of TV shows to write angry letters to and “blue eyes are beautiful!” PSA campaigns to organize. It makes sense to concentrate on the problems where there is actually any meaningful course of action to solve them.