Friday, June 12, 2009

...is still an -ism

This has been on my mind for quite some time and today I think I finally have my thoughts straight to put down on paper...well electronic paper anyway.

When it comes to -isms, privilege, and power people seem to like to point out how their group is powerless and some other group is powerful. Once that line has been drawn people can then "call people out", tell them they are "blind to their privilege", and so on. Now this is not to say that there are no imbalances between different groups that exist on this planet that need to be addressed however some people use these terms as a beat stick to shut out anyone that does not agree with them or as a shield to protect themselves from criticism (and there's some really crafty ones out there that use it as both). One way of beating or blocking is insisting that when someone commits an -ist act their institutional power must be gauged in order to determine if it actually -ist or not.

That's some ole bullshit.

I see this alot from women's advocates so let's go there. A lot of people like to link to Feminism 101 for its definition of sexism. If you would read the first paragraph of that page:
Short definition: Sexism is both discrimination based on gender and the attitudes, stereotypes, and the cultural elements that promote this discrimination. Given the historical and continued imbalance of power, where men as a class are privileged over women as a class (see male privilege), an important, but often overlooked, part of the term is that sexism is prejudice plus power. Thus feminists reject the notion that women can be sexist towards men because women lack the institutional power that men have.

As you can see this definition of sexism hinges on institutional power.

Institutional power you ask?
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at why feminists make a distinction between sexism and gender-based prejudice when the dictionary does not. A running theme in a lot of feminist theory is that of institutional power: men as a class have it, women as a class don’t. Obviously the power dynamics do shift around depending on the culture and the time period (not to mention the individual, the other privileges that the person does/does not have, etc etc), but ultimately the scales remain tipped in favor of men in general (if you disagree with that statement, please go read the Why do we still need feminism? FAQ entry first before proceeding).

What this imbalance of power translates to on an individual level is a difference in the impact of a man being prejudiced towards a woman and a woman being prejudiced towards a man. While both parties are human, and therefore have the same capacity to be hurt by the prejudice, whether they like it or not, the men have a whole system of history, traditions, assumptions, and in some cases legal systems and “scientific” evidence giving their words a weight that the women don’t have access to.


I think the problem I have with this is that something that is as painful, offensive, and wrong as an individual -ist action is being weighed on the global scale (the scale being the balance of power between the groups involved in the action) to determine if its -ist or not. As we all know when it comes to -isms the very words themselves are charged/loaded as they should. Racism, ageism, sexism, and so on are powerful words that invoke a lot of emotion when used or when their corresponding actions occur. To me it seems a bit dismissive to tell the target of an -ist action that because the person that committed the said action against them belongs to a group that "for the most part" does not have any power said action was not -ist.

Now I bet you're thinking something along the lines of the disclaimer feminism101 used:
Now, before I say anything else, the obligatory disclaimer: When feminists say that women can’t be sexist towards men, they aren’t saying that women being prejudiced against men is a good thing, or something that should be accepted. Prejudice is bad and should not be accepted. (emphasis theirs)

If that is so then why the desperate need to claim that one is -ist and other is not?

Another reason I don't like or agree with this criteria to determine an -ism is because it gives a small shred of credibility to the notion of "reverse -ism". Let's get exact for a bit by filling in the "-" in -ism.

By their definition sexism can only occur in the instance of male vs. female due to men as a class having power over women as a class (which after the last year or so I'm not so sure about but that is another story for another day). As we know reverse is the opposite of the standard. This would imply that reverse sexism is indeed female against male. To imply that one form of sexual discrimination is the norm and other is the deviation serves to minimize the one that is portrayed as the deviation.

As a man if a woman commits an act of sexism against me the fact that I share gender with most of the people at the top has nothing to do with whether or not what that woman did was sexist and it doesn't mean that her sexist act is a deviation from the norm of sexism.

Firstly men as class are not a monolithic entity therefore judging an act based on the power a subset of our class has is unfair. Yes I share gender with most of people at the top but that does not change the fact that they do not think, speak, act, or anything for me. So why is their power the sole weight used to measure whether a sexist against me actually is sexist? When you do that you are selectively upgrading Average Joe to Elite Joe for the sake of your argument just to have him fall back down to Average status when it doesn't suit your argument anymore.

Secondly women as a class are not a monolithic entity therefore judging an act based on the power a subset of their class has is unfair. Yes a woman judge does not share gender with most of the people at the top but that does not change the fact that she does not think, speak, act, or anything else for all women. So why is the power of those women who are not at the top the sole weight used to measure whether a sexist against she commits against a man is actually sexist? When you do that you are selectively downgrading Elite Jane to Average Jane for the sake of your argument just to have her rise back to Elite status when it doesn't suit your argument anymore.

So I'm sorry but trying to measure your ________'s (gender, race, etc....) power in relation to who is at the top sounds like an attempt to create a loophole to excuse one's group from the emotional charge that is associated with the -ism in question.

An attempt to re-label an -ism by any other name...

(Disclaimer: Now this is not to say that this does not happen with other -isms as well but I've just seen it happen with sexism so much I chose to go with that one as my example. I don't like this happening in regards of race, religion, etc....whatever subject of discrimination you can think of.)

1 comment:

cacophonies said...

<blockquote>something that is as painful, offensive, and wrong as an individual -ist action is being weighed on the global scale </blockquote>

I think that nails it on the head. I have been thinking that there's just something off about racism/reverse racism, privileged/oppressed, but I couldn't put my finger on it... I think your scale analogy was the missing piece. Another part of that problem is that "prejudices" are hardly even mentioned, and "-ism" is seen as the trump card, regardless of the situation or circumstance. And I think we can all pretty safely agree that smaller social behaviors and beliefs will, ultimately, contribute to the larger picture.

<blockquote>To me it seems a bit dismissive to tell the target of an -ist action that because the person that committed the said action against them belongs to a group that "for the most part" does not have any power said action was not -ist.</blockquote>

I think, in this case, that when they would say that you belonging to that group makes you guilty by association, from benefitting in some way or another from the oppression of women/minorities/etc. Their oppression, even if you had no immediate or deliberate hand in it, creates your privilege.

...That said, I think that belongs on the "global" scale you were talking about, and is not necessarily appropriate to consider when dealing with what they are calling "prejudice."

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