Recently, I published this guest post on my friend’s blog, detailing how desperate to avoid privilege and claim victim status an enormous group of socially privileged kinksters was, to the point that I literally watched in horror as they talked each other out of cooperating with police during multiple criminal investigations — Project E-Norther; in which one man was being investigated not only for links (that have been proven false as a result of the investigations) to a heinous serial murder spree that wiped 49 women off the face of the planet (most of whom were of Aboriginal descent), but also in relation to false accusations of pedophilia and serial rape. A second man was also being investigated as well, to rule out the possibility of a homicide involving yet another kinkster (and as a result of his injection into these investigations, I finally came forward with information about him I have no doubt he is desperate to keep private). To date, of all the privilege-avoiding, victim-envying kinksters who talked each other (in the scale of thousands of people) out of cooperating with investigators, virtually none of them have yet conceded that race/ethnicity has played a critical role in what happened (i.e., no one has apologized for the offense they caused to the families of the actual victims—some kinksters even get offended at the suggestion that there is a problem at work here).
And that’s about as concisely as I can possibly summarize the problem that got me thinking about how North American atheists often claim to be oppressed, and then compare themselves to LGBTQs (something these kinksters I’ve just described also do). My issue with this practice is that it is diluting the very concept of oppression. I maintain that atheists in North America are simply not oppressed (even though a lot of atheists in North America have had experiences with anti-atheist bigotry and even fighting against discriminatory practices and policies). That blog post has created a great deal of tension, frustration, and annoyance on my part; personal attacks have been made against me for even suggesting that atheists sit down and seriously think about changing the way they talk about their frustration, pain, and suffering; and the airing of privilege-avoidance, even in the face of mounting piles of evidence of what oppression actually is, has been going on for three days now. This is exactly why I wrote the blog entry in the first place — this knee-jerk clinging-to-my-personal-privilege reaction has got to stop. And for the sake of peat and all that is fossil fuel, the launching of knee-jerk self-defense campaigns by derailing into who is using what dictionary definition has to stop too (so I wrote this yesterday about systemic/systematic being used, erroneously, as interchangeable terms with fluid meanings).
My brain is an incredibly busy place of many intersections of social forces, often moving in opposite directions and against one another. Bear with me (or bare with me, if you prefer) while I find yet more ways of trying to communicate some of what I was getting at and why I said it the way I did.
Oppression Is Not Isolated
When I say “systemic inequality” in a conversation about what is oppression and what is not, I actually do expect to be understood that I am not talking about a bigoted individual privately entertaining prejudiced thoughts about a given personal attribute, spontaneously unleashing it upon another individual when they come forward as bearing that particular personal attribute. I am talking about multiple orders of magnitude larger in scale. I’m talking about the very structures and organization of all of society itself. Like distribution of wealth, I am not talking about that time someone borrowed some money you couldn’t really spare and then didn’t pay you back for it; rather, I’m talking about the entire fucking economy. I’ve borrowed money from people who couldn’t really spare it, and no matter how badly I want to repay them because I made a promise (and I just don’t make promises unless I intend to keep them no matter how long it takes), I’m fucking destitute. As soon as I started making a plan and could see my goal inching closer, my housing situation collapsed in on itself. Meanwhile, a bunch of people I know, knowing I was homeless, stood immediately adjacent to me comparing iPads and talking at length about when they’re upgrading to the latest edition. I also talked to someone that night who has spent more money on a single wristwatch than I’ve been able to rake in over the past three fiscal years (not counting government loans, personal loans, cash from selling everything I owned, lines of credit I no longer have, or government assistance — if I added all that up, I’d be staring at negative tens of thousands of dollars of imaginary money).
That last person I borrowed money from? He stands in a relative position of privilege, but that doesn’t mean he’s directly oppressing me. Those people talking about their iPads right next to me? Not directly oppressing me (no matter how annoying it was to sit there quietly waiting for them to stop intellectually circle-jerking over their circuit boards). The guy with his fancy watch? He’s not directly oppressing me either. They are all simply relatively privileged when they are standing next to me, and I assure you that they’d all know what I feel like next to them if they were standing next to Kevin O’Leary at Starbucks (who I can promise you, wouldn’t even be aware of my physical presence in the astronomically unlikely event of this encounter, made even less likely by virtue of the fact that I can’t afford anything from a Starbucks and avoid it like the bird flu). If any of these relatively privileged people sneered at me for saying something like “You guys remember I’m homeless, right?” or “Ten years ago, you wouldn’t be able to pick me out of the masses at the corner of Main and Hastings,” that is still not oppression. It would be a revolting reaction and I’d be offended, and might even resent the person or tell them that I’m offended. But that sneer isn’t what put me in the tent I pitched in the backyard of a house crawling with meth addicts ten years ago. Nor is money someone else I know has that I don’t, an iPad upgrade, a fancy watch, or anything on the menu at Starbucks.
What put me there was being born into a working class family. My parents were children of immigrants who fled various parts of Europe and Asia during and shortly after WWII, and this meant that when they got here, they weren’t what you would call economically privileged. But they still would have had to pay the colonial government exorbitant amounts of money in order to purchase legal citizenship and all associated rights (fees that literally sky-rocket if you come from Middle Eastern, African, or South Asian countries, and which I have no doubt have been steadily increasing over time). We’re lucky we’re white too, because if we had been Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese, it would have been far worse. Then there’s the issue of access to healthcare, which is now at risk depending on which country you arrive from, until such a time as you can afford to hand over the entire contents of your bank account to become a citizen. But I digress. What also contributed to my life-long disadvantages was desperation on the part of my parents to climb out of working class status and earn a place in the middle class. They did this by spending as much fictitious money as they could sign up for, and by the time I was entering high school, we were all quietly starving. And who would help us? No one was motivated. Especially when they saw everything Mom ‘n Pop spent all that imaginary money on. They eventually took away my paternal grandparents’ life savings, blew it all, and are right back where they were when I entered high school.
The point is that I inherited this experience of oppression from multiple successions of oppressed generations before me, and I inherited my place in a capitalist economy (an economic model that literally depends on keeping as many people as possible systematically disadvantaged). The same mechanism (inheritance) is true for the whole of the working class in North America. Relative privilege operates precisely the same way. It’s inherited from multiple successions of privileged generations, all the way back to colonization. This is why colonization and the resulting genocide and slavery, are all still festering wounds in the history of this continent, despite being largely held in the dominant discourse to have happened “five hundred years ago” and “I didn’t do it, so I’m not going to apologize for it”. Who exactly the 1% are is no simple coincidence, and they didn’t get there just by pulling up their boot straps and working their way up the chain to the great Capitalist Paradise®. Colonization, genocide, and slavery are still happening. It’s simply been repeatedly re-packaged so that it’s still legal under our current system of (colonial) law, and so that the underclass won’t recognize it for what it is (which would cause a revolution). The 1% know this. That’s why Occupy Wall Street happened, why Michael Moore filmed Capitalism: A Love Story (which accomplishes the utterly astoundingly ironic feat of engaging with economic ruin and displacement without even acknowledging indigenous peoples on a single occasion), and why I began having a panic attack when GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s numbers started to take off during the latest election in the United States. I thank every single person who voted for Obama for averting that financial disaster (but I ask that you keep paying attention, because there’s a whole other disaster at work with Obama).
Oppression by virtue of one’s economic standing is a fight for life against an entire economy that is deliberately structured at your expense, at every level from the gross national product to the imported ramen noodles that have already been taxed multiple times and are being taxed again when you pick them up at the corner store at a grossly inflated price with what little is left over after rent with either your welfare cheque or your minimum-wage earnings. It is a fight to become visible among a majority of people who don’t see you (because they don’t want to); to bear your pain, frustration, and suffering to everyone to make them listen; and to win allies in the fight against the injustice that has been brought upon you and everyone else who shares your direct experience in the same scale and magnitude. It is a fight for a revolution that your future and future generations depend upon. It’s not just a pet cause, and it’s not at all an isolated event. And a lot of people (virtually everyone who is relatively privileged) are invested in preventing you from having a voice at all, because they stand to lose a lot if enough people hear you and become shaken into action. This is economic oppression, and this is just one of many interdependent forms of oppression. This is really at the heart of why women, people of colour, LGBTQs, and even people living with disabilities (both visible and invisible) are said to be oppressed. And it seems to me, despite the sheer rage evoked on both sides of the comments section on that blog post I wrote this past Wednesday, a majority of people in this conversation about that blog post get that atheism is not met with the same system of barriers.
Prejudice, Discrimination, & Bigotry
I readily acknowledge that kinksters and atheists are two groups of people who are subjected to silencing, insensitive remarks, shaming, and generally shitty treatment by people who harbour a bigoted or prejudiced attitude towards them. I’ve certainly had my fair share of it heaped onto me from out-groups, because I’m both an atheist and a known kinky pervert (with absolutely zero shame about it because I simply don’t engage in it with people who aren’t like me in that respect). And I’ve watched as people from each group have vented slanderous opinions against the other — at times even in my presence, knowing full well that I have had at least a foot in each social circle for the majority of my adult life. I’ve also faced in-group silencing, insensitive remarks, shaming, and generally shitty treatment, in both groups, and quite frankly, in greater frequency than I’ve experienced with respect to out-groups. Most people who either aren’t atheist or aren’t kinky just don’t give a shit that I am. The few who do don’t tend to stick around very long (notable exceptions being intimate partners and biological family; all of whom are now long-gone anyway). But the point I’m getting at here is that while I insist that atheists in North America do not face an entire institutionalized network of interdependent systemic barriers designed to keep them all trampled down (see: oppression), I do acknowledge that they are at times faced with prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination.
When I was very young and in primary school, I was first taught that deliberately treating people differently is wrong. That was the end of the story until I was introduced to the word prejudice. It meant that individual people, sensing something different about someone, just don’t trust them even though they trust other people. And that was wrong! And I knew it was wrong, because I had been directly experiencing it for years already in public school. Then I was introduced to the term discrimination. It meant that groups of individual people share the same prejudices against other groups of individual people, like when a bunch of girls from really well-off families in my grade four class decided that myself and one other girl (whose family wasn’t well off but was certainly better off than mine) and two boys (whose families again were not particularly well off but definitely better off than mine) were all losers, and we needed to hear about it at every available opportunity. Then we all started getting excluded from what everyone else was doing — birthday parties, Valentine’s cards, and secret Santa exchanges, for instance. And then something happened that I didn’t have a word for. That other girl and those two boys joined in on pushing me down, making me feel like shit for being different, and excluding me (I’ve since come to understand this dynamic as bigotry). So the day the bunch of girls organized to set me up for something that was wrong that I didn’t even do, that one other girl they didn’t like helped them make it a million times worse by accusing me of something else that was wrong that I didn’t do. The teacher believed them without even giving me a chance to be heard, and that bunch of girls beat the shit out of me after school that day. I’d be lying if I tried to convince myself that my economic standing was the only reason this happened to me, but that’s beside the point.
It was horrible, and I’ll never forget it. I didn’t tell anyone because I was afraid of inviting more of it upon myself — from them, from my teacher and from my school, and from my own family. I couldn’t fight back because I didn’t know how. I had nowhere to turn, so I just didn’t go home until I had rehearsed a made-up narrative that would explain why I was bruised and swollen all over the place, if anyone asked me. But when no one did, I didn’t know what to do with myself. The exclusion, silencing, shaming, overtly shitty treatment, isolation, alienation, and all the resulting grief and anger just kept getting worse and worse over time, even following me into a new city, until I was finally homeless in that tent I’ve described above, more than ten years later. If anyone knows what it is to experience hostility brought about by prejudice, discrimination, and bigotry, it’s someone standing in my shoes. Believe me.
But please take my word for it when I say that this is still not enough to prove that oppression happened here. Prejudice, discrimination, and bigotry are all symptoms of oppression, but they can also all exist entirely separated from oppression — all on their own, as shitty an experience as that is. A person in a relatively privileged position in society can be subject to prejudice, discrimination, and/or bigotry, but not be experiencing oppression because of it. Can a straight person honestly and legitimately claim to be oppressed when they are being targeted for homophobia, by their family, their friends, their school mates, or a random antagonist fishing for a fist fight at a street demonstration? Can an ex-convict claim to be a victim of oppression when they are treated with automatic suspicion or revoked trust because someone found out about their criminal past? Or could it possibly be that there’s a time and a place for that language, and that not all forms of social inequality are systemic in nature? Because when we take the power out of the word oppression by comparing it to something astronomically more localized, we dilute the political impact of what we’re trying to say, and we minimize the experience of people who actually do face oppression. We do an incredible disservice to every member of every oppressed group in our society, when we co-opt the language that describes their struggle, and attribute it to our own frustrations and suffering from prejudice, discrimination, and bigotry.
I do not say that to be trivializing; rather, I say that to urge everyone reading this to turn towards their fellow human being, when they are in pain, instead of turning away until such a time as we’ve convinced ourselves that we’ve overcome our own and can no longer feel what it is to suffer. Empathize.