I’ve recently observed, both in various North American kink communities, and in various North American anti-theist, atheist, and even humanist communities (many of which are overlapping with one another — sometimes even overlapping with kink), an increasingly persistent and highly irritating privilege-avoidance behaviour that is very gradually becoming an accepted and normative habit. That privilege-avoidance behaviour is referred to as victim-envying. Put simply, it is self-attributing oppressed status without being able to actually demonstrate systemic oppression. This behaviour leads, in my experience, down one of two pathways (sometimes both simultaneously). Either it perplexes and invites challenging, or it is taken up as a social injustice against which to struggle. Challenging results, more often than not, in the registering of a visceral offence. This is especially true if the challenge to the validity of the oppression claim is also coupled with “OK. Why aren’t you applying this insight towards subverting and/or dismantling your social privileges?” When it is scooped up and promoted as a form of social justice activism, however, this often requires co-opting language and concepts from previous (sometimes still ongoing) social justice movements.
It is important to note that taking offence at the suggestion that atheists in North America are not a systemically oppressed group of people isn’t actually doing anything to help any social justice movement — including itself. It is also important to note that expending energy to organize, educate, and re-organize fellow kinksters to keep virtually all of their available time and energy occupied by promoting kink, either as something that can be fun and safe for everyone involved or as something for which all kinksters face systemic oppression, is not doing anything to help any social justice movement — again, including itself. For a social justice movement to have any effect at all, it needs to include the rest of society, not just the members of it’s self-referential in-group. If the movement is entirely self-referential, and fails to contribute horizontal solidarity with other (still ongoing) social justice movements (but takes no issue at all with co-opting their language and concepts to further its own goals of self-promotion), then it isn’t about social justice. It’s about running a (presumably rigged) popularity contest. One that will continue even if no one from various out-groups bothers to enter. The word for this is elitism. The exception is a fundraiser.
Intersections of Social Justice
The reason why social justice movements need to contribute horizontal solidarity with other social justice movements is to circumvent the process of turning itself into an elitist movement. Take the North American feminist movement as an example. It started out as social justice campaign for all women (women’s suffrage), evolved into a women’s rights movement (fighting for reproductive rights, compensation for domestic labour, equal pay for equal work, and a permanent place in the work force), and then had to answer for its fuck-ups in assuming that middle class white women could and would speak fairly for all women. Meanwhile, women of colour and working class women already were in the work force, and for a long time, for that matter (often as hired help for middle class white women!) And women living in Aboriginal communities across the continent were already long ago a part of the labour force within those communities, where their contributions did not go unnoticed by domestic partners who take it for granted. And until colonization began, those same communities respected the rights of women to control their own fertility. The words, “Hahaha… Uhhhhh… Whoops?” come to mind.
But multiple new branches of feminism emerged as a response to the shortcomings of feminist activism centered exclusively around the perceptions and needs of white middle class women. They continue to do so, as feminist communities continue to learn about new emerging needs to broaden the range of concerns they address and/or take into account. They continue to adapt, in other words. Some feminist communities adapt(ed) in ways that rub a lot of people the wrong way (*cough* radical cultural feminists *cough*), and some adapt(ed) in other ways — sometimes confusing, sometimes overwhelming, and sometimes in ways that help bring communities together to directly confront material challenges. The result of all these adaptations, more often than not, is intersectional social justice work. Rather than approaching the oppression of women as though all women in North America have the same stake in the battle over reproductive rights, for instance, an intersectional approach to the issue acknowledges that white women (especially those of the middle class) are in a place of relative privilege. Cisgendered women as a whole are also privileged relative to transwomen and other trans* people. Thus, white middle class cis women bear the onus to subvert the ways in which they possess social privilege, in order to work with relatively underprivileged women. The goal is to foster a more genuinely sustainable goal of gender equity that includes working to eradicate racial inequality and systemic gender-binarism, rather than exploiting women of colour and trans* people for the exclusive liberation of white women (hello, metaphor for existing structures of systemic oppression).
And Then There was the Absence of Intersectionality
Feminism as a whole doesn’t exist without flaws (as should be fairly apparent by now), and it’s entirely possible to repeat the same mistakes as were already made in the first wave. And significant parts of the second wave. And arguably, in increasingly weird (sometimes downright regressive) ways with irregular frequency currently. But really, the point to take home about feminism is that the movement itself is characterized by diversity as opposed to tunnel vision (even though some pretty serious cases of tunnel vision, too, are a part of the greater diversity). My experience floating around atheist, anti-theist, and kink communities (and even some humanist communities, which may really be composed entirely of misdirected people of some other stripe), has been disappointingly different from my exposure to feminism. And for the sake of perspective, I’ve been gravitating around kink (and stopping for years at a time to participate in it) for the past ten years, and drifting among atheists, anti-theists, and humanists (note that individual people may be classified as one or all of these) for about five years. I’m drawn to all of these communities for different reasons: feminism gives me a voice with which to speak to issues of social injustice, kink gives me a voice with which to express my non-normative relationship with pain (which also helps inform my feminism), and atheism/humanism gives me a voice with which to learn new ways of applying myself.
Unfortunately, my experience has shown me that not everyone is similarly motivated, and this difference in motivation is where tunnel vision, elitism, privilege-avoidance, and the extremely irritating phenomenon of victim-envying begin to emerge. Again in the name of perspective, I have found that the majority of kinksters, atheists, anti-theists, and humanists in North America are cisgendered straight white people (many of whom are from a middle class background). And while there’s nothing innately wrong with being cisgendered, heterosexual, white (I’m white), or middle class; there definitely is something wrong with either outright denying that your existence is relatively privileged if you are cisgendered, white, and/or middle class, or all-together avoiding the work of understanding what this all means and how you can contribute to being anti-oppressive. This is not to suggest that kinksters, atheists, anti-theists and humanists in North America do not understand that systemic oppression exists, or that they do not understand that they are often in a position of relative privilege, because they often do. On both counts.
But what they often don’t seem to understand is what privilege itself means — that being in a position of relative privilege grants these communities the freedom to identify themselves as a collective, by a common interest that has no real bearing at all on any out-group. Their group identity is not constructed for them by the (privileged) out-groups who collectively benefit from the process of assigning categorically negative properties to them, kicking back, and watching them squirm and struggle with being measured against an entire system of standards they will never be fully able or permitted to live up to (oppression). Individuals from a relatively privileged group of people, choosing their own collective identity rather than having one assigned to them, have the freedom to structure their entire lives around this chosen identity, at their whim and fancy. And in fact, many kinksters, atheists, and anti-theists (and even some humanists) do exactly that — their very identity is constructed from root to surface, as having a single facet. And it is the one of their choosing.
Oppression and Privilege are Codependent Systems
Most often, this single-faceted identity is constructed as if to completely negate all other facets of this same person’s identity: their whiteness, their middle class background, their gender-congruence, and even their heterosexuality. Well all I can really say to that is that it must feel terrific to have the freedom of not being constantly reminded of how different you are until you choose to differentiate yourself, but this is not how oppression works. That’s privilege, cleverly disguised as not-privilege (and sometimes even deliberately mistaken as oppression; i.e., victim-envying). Oppression, on the other hand, works very differently, as I’ve already stated above. When one is oppressed, one is constantly reminded, whether they want to be or not, of the immutable ways in which they fail to measure up to the privileged. But this doesn’t happen in isolation, and neither does the experience of privilege. Both are systemic in nature. And where one exists, so does the other. Thus, where one of the many facets of an individual’s identity reflects privilege, it is by virtue of this facet of their identity that they personally contribute (sometimes consciously, and sometimes unconsciously) to the oppression forced upon individuals who reflect some difference through the same facet of their own identities.
When a person in a position of relative privilege turns their gaze away from confronting these facts about their place in society, they are contributing to systemic oppression by virtue of doing nothing to challenge or subvert it. As a white person, I do this when I run out of the energy I need to keep struggling against my privilege. I do this when I go to sleep, when I privately watch a film, and when I just need to decompress and do some self-care. I’m even doing it when I visit my psychiatrist, write letters to members of parliament with the expectation that I might be making a difference, and when I vote. I’m doing it right now, watching an American-made film about Nazi-occupied France on my friend’s flat-screen television, in her condo on the unceded ancestral land of the Coast Salish people, typing away on a laptop I purchased new a couple months ago with part of a monthly living allowance issued by the (colonial) government (I presently don’t work because, psychologically, I’m in pretty rough shape, and have been for greater than ten years). Virtually everything in the room I’m sitting in (including the ink, silicone, and titanium in my skin and the clothes on my body) is a testament to a global economy that relies on entire systems of perpetual colonialism and exploitation (including of the land this condo is built on, and the people to whom that land rightfully belongs).
Of course, I wasn’t aware of all of this when I first arrived here, but that doesn’t change the fact that I have had a position of privilege in these respects since birth. Now that I’ve become aware, I have a responsibility to remain aware, and to do what I can to subvert these privileges. It’s okay to turn my gaze away just for long enough to sleep, to take care of myself, giggle at some videos on YouTube, crack a joke at my own expense to make someone else laugh, visit my shrink, watch a film, and so on. I’m immersed up to my neck in a colonial society on stolen land (we all are, here), and the very least I can do is acknowledge this every day. It’s not okay to keep my gaze permanently fixed away from the fact that I am in this position of privilege by virtue of certain facets of my identity, such as the fact that I am white (at least partly — but importantly, I also appear thoroughly white upon visual examination). So this is really getting back to the crux of the issue of constructing an identity that is hinged entirely upon a chosen attribute, as a negation of one’s social privilege(s). It isn’t helping anyone but the self, and in fact, is contributing to systemic oppression. It is a perfect example of privilege-avoidance.
The Origin of Victim-Envying
Now, when something becomes so important to an individual person and one or more of the communities they circulate in, that their entire identity hinges upon it, it’s easy to see why that person might get defensive if someone was excessively rude in a disapproving gesture. I know that when people have directly compared all kinksters to pedophiles in conversations with me, in which they knew I’m not only a pervert but a survivor of childhood sexual trauma as well, I’ve gotten mad (that is a ridiculous under-exaggeration of how I actually felt). And it hurt my feelings, not only as an atheist, but as an assigned-female-at-birth trans* person who has also survived multiple rapes, when a recent study began circulating that suggests that many people in North America would sooner trust a known rapist than a known atheist. But because I really enjoy perspective, here’s a quote about it that very rapidly reduces this very complex and politically loaded suggestion, right down to complete fucking nonsense:
The study, conducted among 350 Americans adults and 420 Canadian college students, asked participants to decide if a fictional driver damaged a parked car and left the scene, then found a wallet and took the money, was the driver more likely to be a teacher, an atheist teacher, or a rapist teacher?
The participants, who were from religious and nonreligious backgrounds, most often chose the atheist teacher. […]
“If you manage to offer credible counteroffers of these stereotypes, this can do a lot to undermine people’s existing prejudice,” [Azim Shariff] said. “If you realize there are all these atheists you’ve been interacting with all your life and they haven’t raped your children that is going to do a lot do dispel these stereotypes.”
Indeed, Azim Shariff. Damaging a parked car, then walking up to it and taking money from a stranger’s wallet (which for some reason, is unattended in this parked car?) is totally exactly the same as raping children. Just as having some hidden prejudice against atheists — believing that they are either amoral or just have shitty ethics that make them unworthy of trust at the scene of a parked car — is totally exactly the same as being terrified of them. And what’s the deal with the options for answering this poll question? Teacher, atheist teacher, or rapist teacher? Until I read that quote, I simply didn’t know atheists and rapists had their own teachers, from which they obviously learn exclusively to break into parked cars and steal money from unattended wallets when they aren’t raping children and terrorizing people. No wonder this study is given a different spin in virtually every website that cites the results — of polling 800 people for the collective opinions of more than 500 fucking million. And let’s just hyper-simplify rape culture without giving that a moment’s further thought, shall we?
But criticisms aside. Many other people who live in North America and are atheist, anti-theist, and/or humanist, whose feelings are hurt by what this study suggests (not to mention what Shariff directly states about it), actually cite this study in an attempt to convince me that atheists in North America are an oppressed group. And when I don’t buy it, they get mad at me and offended at the same time (this has actually happened a number of times now, and yet, here I am writing about it). Many of the same people also stand by statements directly comparing the distrust or dislike of atheists (more or less severe, depending on how religiously saturated a given community is) to the collective oppressions faced by LGBTQs (one prominent atheist even claims that 9/11 was “atheist Stonewall” — I just don’t have enough face to facepalm with over that one). Kinksters have also made the same comparison between themselves and LGBTQs (for instance, claiming that vetting personal contact information for individual kinksters to the legal authorities during a murder investigation involving one or more of their own is the exact same as outing someone as gay, lesbian, or trans*). Kinksters, atheists, and anti-theists also have something else in common: they all claim occasional workplace harassment, discrimination, and termination of employment, especially in the case of teachers, and exclusively on the basis of their chosen group identity, as evidence of how oppressed they are as an entire class.
Combine all these grievances, which are legitimately unfortunate in that no one deserves to be harassed, discriminated against, or fired for the content of their private thoughts — but also remarkably isolated and relatively easy to overcome, in that these are neither systemic issues nor directly threatening to the basic human rights of anyone concerned (such as the right to life — something gays, lesbians, and trans* people still continue to struggle for, even in North America). Stir into pre-existing privilege-avoidance and a self-attributed identity that deliberately hinges entirely upon membership in a community that has no bearing on anyone but the in-group (all of whom voluntarily subscribe to be a part of it), and you’ve just whipped together a batch of guaranteed victim-envying. Then just sit back and wait for unsubstantiated claims of oppression to roll out. It’ll likely only take a couple of minutes to evolve. Now if you challenge it, you’ll cause an offence and make someone mad at you at the same time. And if you don’t, you’ll have to look your privilege- and oppression-conscious self in the mirror later. Well done, my friend. Try not to cry yourself to sleep tonight.