I’ve been thinking about alternatives to privilege-based models of oppression.
For the unfamiliar: the privilege-based model essentially divides the world into the privileged and the oppressed. For instance, white people are privileged and people of color are marginalized; straight people are privileged and LGBA people are marginalized; thin people are privileged and fat people are marginalized. The privileged group has negative opinions about the oppressed group. In addition, various institutional things screw over the oppressed (for instance, redlining, the illegality of gay marriage, and too-small airline seats).
However, I think there are some serious problems with this sort of model.
First, there’s the problem I wrote about in this post. Privilege models fail when the intersection of a privileged identity and a marginalized identity ends up giving you worse outcomes than the intersection of two marginalized identities. For instance, men of color are far more likely than women of color to go to jail; gay men are more likely than any other sexual orientation subgroup to experience hate crimes.
Second, sometimes negative stereotypes about “privileged” groups are obviously powerful ideas in society. If someone makes a joke about how women are nice, ethical, and nonviolent, and men are stupid, ugly brutes, the joke is patriarchal. It is literally an example of a kind of sexism that has existed for two hundred years! It was used to argue against women having the right to vote! And while it’s possible to incorporate this into a privilege framework– indeed, feminists do every time we point out how pedestalization is one of the major ways white cis women were marginalized– a lot of feminists tend to think “well, that’s saying bad things about men, so it’s not sexist!” And a lot of nonfeminists or antifeminists tend to think “well, that’s saying bad things about men, so it is Feminism Gone Too Far.” It is neither of those things! It is Feminism Gone Not Far Enough And In Fact Using Anti-Suffragette Rhetoric What The Fuck Is Wrong With You People.
Third, there’s the point made in this Tumblr post:
i lose followers every time i say i Dont Hate Otherkin which is fuckin wild because like… i have a psychotic disorder! how do you expect me to muster hatred for people on the basis of them believing things other people think are delusional. people pull the “can’t they just stop being weird, everyone would treat them fine if they just stopped being weird” shit all the time and like, ok, clearly youve never been considered pathologically, involuntarily Weird
Are otherkin neurodivergent? Maybe some of them, and you might be able to make a case that believing you’re a wolf is a neurodivergence, but in general they’re not really people who would be diagnosed with anything if you sent them to a psychiatrist. A lot of them are just people who believe that they are, on a certain level, wolves. But it’s hard to read anti-otherkin stuff without thinking about how obviously they are being conceived of as mentally ill: “something wrong with them”, “delusional”, “sick”, “they should go to therapy”. The idea that someone is Weird and therefore you are justified mocking them is one that has hurt nearly every neurodivergent person. It seems weird to characterize otherkin as marginalized on the axis of neurodivergence, since they’re sometimes neurotypical, but it also seems weird to divide this into two problems when it is really obviously the same problem.
Similarly, fat people, neurodivergent people, and physically disabled people all experience people saying “you have Condition? Have you considered trying diet and exercise?” in tones that imply that diet and exercise is this exotic new recently developed technique that of course the person in question has never heard of. If they had heard of it certainly they wouldn’t be fat/neurodivergent/physically disabled anymore! In general, fat people experience the same thing that disabled people do: the idea that your body is public property for anyone to pass opinions on, that you must Fix It, and that it is totally and completely unacceptable to decide fixing it isn’t worth the effort and you instead want to live a decent life with the body you have. But, again, it doesn’t really make sense to understand fatphobia as a kind of ableism: most fat people are not disabled. It’s just… fat people and disabled people have the same sort of problem.
I’d like to consider replacing it with what you might call a “forces” model. This might be clearer with examples.
“Oppositional sexism”, a term invented by transfeminist Julia Serano, refers to ““the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories” (13). A man should not have any of the “attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires” commonly associated with women, and vice-versa.”” This harms people in two different ways. First, deviation from the behavior expected of your gender may lead to punishment ranging from slight social disapproval to murder. Second, the gender roles themselves include harmful behavior. For instance, among many subcultures, maleness is often linked with violence, and femaleness with unassertiveness and not taking your own ideas seriously. In subcultures where kindness and empathy are associated with women, and strength and courage are associated with men, both genders may not develop the other gender’s virtues– and wind up becoming less good people than they could have been.
Similarly, Gayle Rubin in Thinking Sex [cw: apologia for sex with minors, brutal description of torture of children’s genitals] created the idea of the charmed circle of sexuality, as depicted in this helpful diagram:
Rubin failed to notice sex-negativity’s twin, compulsory sexuality, but it’s easy enough to generate examples the other way: virgins; people who don’t want to have sex until marriage; celibate people both voluntary and involuntary; asexuals, gray-asexuals, and demisexuals; low-libido people; people in sexless marriages; people who don’t want to have socially required sex acts like PIV or oral sex; premature ejaculators; people with small penises; preorgasmic people and people who have a hard time orgasming; people with genital pain; et cetera et cetera.
This is also a bit of an oversimplification because different subcultures have different charmed circles: the charmed circle at a munch is not the same as the charmed circle at a Pentecostal church. But you get the idea.
Finally, there’s one I don’t have a good theorist to cite, because neurodivergence is depressingly undertheorized. You could tentatively call it “weirdphobia.” A lot of people really don’t like those who are Strange, people whose actions they can’t imagine themselves doing, especially those who are unapologetically and unashamedly Strange, especially those who are Strange in public. They bully us; they harass us; they don’t want to hire us for jobs. And this cuts across a lot of different stigmas. It’s big for neurodivergent people, obviously, in part because we usually can’t choose not to be strange, and in part because a large amount of the mental health system is devoted to making us normal [cw: descriptions of psychiatric abuse of a child]. It’s big for trans and LGBT people. But it also affects a lot of stuff that we don’t, and shouldn’t, think of as oppression: furries; obsessive fans; otherkin; even people with tattoos.
The important thing about all three of those forces is that, to a first approximation, they affect everyone. Everyone deviates from their gender role in some way. Everyone was socialized to do suboptimal things because That’s What Your Gender Does. Everyone has a sex life that doesn’t fit in the charmed circle at least sometimes. Everyone has some aspects of their personality that are Just Strange.
I think this has great potential for solidarity. All too often, the privilege model goes “you are Evil because you are an Oppressor and you need to work endlessly until you aren’t Evil anymore.” I think the forces model has the potential to be “you know how you feel really bad about yourself because you don’t want sex very often? That’s because of a culture that thinks that there are important criteria for people’s sex lives other than ‘is it fulfilling for everyone involved?’ This hurts a lot of other people too, some of them much much worse than you. Support Planned Parenthood to help fix this.”
At the same time, I think it’s more accurate. Most of the marginalization I’ve faced as a neurodivergent person is not because people don’t like borderlines. Most people don’t know what a borderline is. For most of my life I didn’t know what a borderline was. But people noticed I was strange and different, and they mocked me because that’s what they do to strange and different people. It happens that I was strange and different because my identity falls into an Officially Approved Social Justice Category ™, but that doesn’t actually affect what people did– or how I felt about it.
I also think it’s more psychologically accurate for what people with sexist, sex-negative, and ableist beliefs actually believe. “Ableism” can refer to a hodgepodge of different beliefs– everything from “it is bad when autistic people are weird in public” to “if someone uses a wheelchair when they can stand, they are a Faker”. On the other hand, many people genuinely do believe that it is Wrong for others to be weird. The privilege model talks more about the effects on people harmed; the forces model, on what it feels like for those who believe it.
There is one serious problem with this model, which is that I am afraid assholes will take it as an excuse to have conversations like this:
Cis man: I feel really alienated because a lot of my friends like football and I don’t! We are both negatively affected by oppositional sexism. Therefore I know exactly what you’re going through and am an expert on your experiences.
Trans woman: Um.
Cis man: I don’t understand what’s the big deal. I mean, it’s annoying when people have football conversations I don’t understand but it’s not that big a deal.
Trans woman: UM
Cis man: You should be less angry all the time. Hate breeds hate!
Of course, the privilege model doesn’t exactly fix the situation. Think about how often trans people assigned female at birth talk about “transphobia” as if their experiences are as bad as those of trans people assigned male at birth (they aren’t). Or think about how often discussions of forced medication and distrust of the psychiatric system get interrupted by people with depression and anxiety who feel that the only problem with the psychiatric system is that sometimes people stigmatize depression and anxiety.
But the forces problem almost certainly makes this problem worse, and I’m not sure how to fix it.
I have only tentatively outlined a handful of the forces that might exist. Sex, gender, and neurodivergence are three areas where I feel comfortable speculating about forces; I’m less comfortable talking about race, physical disability, and fatphobia. Tentatively, I would suggest Andrea Smith’s Heteropatriarchy and Three Pillars of White Supremacy as a starting point for theorizing from a racial perspective. I do think I’m onto something about fat and physically disabled people and “healthism” (and perhaps also “lookism”). I also think that Mel Baggs’s writing about how ableism is at the heart of every kind of oppression is important here. But, again, I’m not familiar enough with previous work to be confident that I’m not reinventing the wheel.