"invisible" oppressions (part 1)

So, when I say "invisible," I don't mean oppression that is totally unobservable; instead, what I mean to highlight here is forms of oppression that people perpetuate inadvertently. I believe this happens it two main ways: 1) we may individually perpetuate a form of oppression because, as a result of our culture, we are blind to the harm that the practices cause & 2) we may be complicit in forms of oppression that are structural. And, as we will see, these two ways are not really that separate. For this post I will stick to describing the first type of invisible oppression (blindness due to culture), then I will post next week about the second type (structural).

In particular contexts around the world, girls often undergo a procedure that alters their genitalia. This procedure may be called Female Circumcision, Female Genital Mutilation, or Female Genital Cutting, depending on the perspective of the person speaking. Whatever you decide to call it, this procedure is generally performed on these girls by or at the request of their mothers. These mothers are convinced--by the form of religion they have been taught, by social pressure, or by the traditions they were raised with, etc.--that this procedure is necessary for their daughters to be successful and respected women in their society. It would therefore be a dramatic misunderstanding to assert that the mothers who have these procedures preformed on their daughters are purposefully harming/oppressing them. These mothers are simply doing what they believe is required for their daughters' success and happiness. Whatever harm these procedures cause their daughters, they believe that it is worth it. Furthermore, the identities and self-respect of the mothers themselves has been formed within this context. The mothers themselves probably underwent the procedure and understand themselves to be respectable in society because of that. In this way, the culture "forces" (I use quotes to suggest that this term requires negotiation) the women to have their daughters undergo the procedure at the same time that the women-forcing-their-daughters-to-undergo-the-procedure produce the culture which "forces" them to have their daughters undergo the procedures; it is a simultaneously co-productive cycle. (That sentence is purposeful, so it is seems confusing, please re-read it.) Standing at a distance from that practice, we might quickly say that this is oppression. It is fairly easy, and I think reasonable, for us to assert that no amount of improvement in social standing merits the intense pain and lifetime of medical complications that these procedures cause. The UN has even established a "International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation" which is to be observed on February 6 each year. So, while the term oppression itself remains in constant negotiation, I think we can agree that "forcing" girls to undergo this procedure is a type of oppression. But the mothers of these girls do not see the procedures in this way at all; if they did, I believe that they stop the practice. The way in which these procedures might be oppression is made invisible to them by their social/cultural context.

Within the American context, these types of invisible forms of oppression may be harder to identify because we are already ingrained in the culture that perpetuates the practices. However, one example might be the way that our society forces women to meet certain expectations of beauty. Our culture teaches us that women must be thin, wear high heels (In Sexism & God-Talk, Rosemary Ruether says you can tell the status of women in a society by their footwear.) and makeup, and dress and behave in feminine ways in order to be attractive, well liked, and successful. We learn these lessons from society in a thousand different ways. We learn those lessons when the media discusses what Hilary Clinton or Michelle Obama are wearing instead of what they are saying. We learn those lessons from Carl's Jr. commercials, America's Next Top Model, and fashion magazines. But we also learn those lessons from each other. When we tell a little girl that her dress is pretty instead of asking her about her favorite book, we perpetuate the oppression. When we compliment a woman (or man) for losing weight by saying that they "look thin" (instead of focusing on health), we perpetuate the oppression that continually defines women (and increasingly men) by their ability to conform to expectations of appearance. While these small actions don't feel like oppression when we do them (they may even feel like we are being nice), I contend that they are oppression, or at least that they might be oppression and therefore deserve further reflection. We individually perpetuate these harms on each other because the harms that these "compliments" cause is made invisible to us by our society/cultural context.

To give further examples:

  • In a context where women have never had leadership roles in government, the women may say that they are not oppressed because their fathers & husbands speak for them in politics, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't encourage those women to question those practices.
  • In a context where a certain group of people has never been taught to read, they may not articulate that as oppression because they may not know that they have the ability to read and are being denied access to the resources necessary to allow them to gain that skill. But, after being taught to read, these people would likely look back at their illiteracy and understand it as oppression.
  • In the context of extreme poverty, employing children in sweatshops may be experienced by the families as an opportunity, not oppression. But I am still against the practice.
  • In the context of a religious group that convinces LGBT individuals that they can, through therapy, become straight, these individuals may see this therapy as hope and freedom. But I would want to ask these people to consider finding hope and freedom through less painful alternatives (re: acceptance, etc.).

What these examples demonstrate is that oppression may exist even when people (both those in power & those without it) do not recognize it as such. Oppression can even exist when the oppressed people themselves do not articulate their experiences as oppression. We have to be suspicious of the way that people articulate their own experiences, because their experiences are experienced through their own cultural location. [See Ann Stoler's Race & the Education of Desire for more on this.] However, this also does NOT mean that we can go around telling anyone who doesn't live like an elite American that they are oppressed. That would be a whole other type of oppression. Instead, my point here is that oppression is a term that must be constantly negotiated. Oppression looks different in different contexts and to different people. It is slippery-- constantly changing, hard to grasp, and often nearly invisible. Therefore, we must be constantly questioning the ways that our own actions may be inadvertently oppressing others, and we must be alert for ways that others' actions may be subtly oppressing us. It is only by keeping the term oppression in flux that we have any hope of being able to address it.

Can you think of other examples of contexts where a group of people may not articulate their own experiences as oppression even though you believe they may be oppressed? How would you go about addressing that situation?

Do you participate in any behaviors that may deserve further interrogation regarding potentially being a form of invisible oppression?

What do you think about the possibility that all oppressions are at least partially "invisible"? If a form of oppression weren't at least partially invisible would people still perpetuate it?

How do you feel about leaving the definition of oppression in constant flux/negotiation?

I vote for a worldview.

I know that you are probably drowning in political ads, posts, and articles (but I hope you aren't drowning in Hurricane Sandy!). I'm sure you have a million voices telling you how to pick a certain candidate, but if you can stand it, I'd like to offer you one more possible way to evaluate the candidates. I'd like to tell you about how I evaluate political candidates....not that my way is the best way, but it is a way that you may not have considered, and I hope it might be somewhat helpful to you. Evaluating a Candidate's Worldview

It seems to me that campaign promises are never as easy to keep as we would like. Policies get watered down by opponents, and decisions must be made on the fly in response to sudden events. As a result, it seems to me that we cannot ever be certain about what politicians will accomplish during their terms (not necessarily because they are deceitful people, but mainly just because the circumstances of legislation are unpredictable). Because those campaign promises are so unreliable as predictors of policies to be passed during a term, it seems to me that a more reliable way to predict a candidate's future spur-of-the-moment policy decisions is to start from their worldview. A person's worldview will underscore all of their actions, so I assert that voting for a candidate with an agreeable worldview will more likely ensure that the candidate will enact policies and decisions that support your perspectives.

*What do you think about using a candidate's worldview as a more reliable way to predict their future policy decisions?

How to Determine a Candidate's Worldview

First, however, we need to consider how to determine a candidates worldview, especially given that so much of what a candidate says is carefully scripted to appeal to the greatest number of voters. My approach to this determination is two fold: first, I believe we can get to candidates' worldviews by looking for the underlying assumptions hidden in their scripted statements and second, I believe that we get a glimpse of candidates' worldviews in the unscripted, sometime unintentional, comments that they make to supporters (or bystanders with recording devices). Even these two methods are not fool-proof, but they give us small pieces of the candidates' underlying perspectives, and if we piece these together, I think we have a fairly solid understanding of the worldview that a candidate holds.

* What do you think about this method of determining a candidate's worldview?

The Worldviews of the Presidential Candidates

In this presidential election, (even though the two major candidates seem to articulate their positions using largely the same language) the worldviews of the two major candidates seem radically different. While they both agree that we need to balance the budget, improve education, keep Americans safe, and grow the economy, the way they approach those issues are telling of their worldviews.

Romney's Worldview

Romney has stated that he believes that economic liberalism and free market capitalism are fair and yield the best products. He has asserted his belief that only the private sector (re: economic competition) will be able to lower costs and improve products. His policies demonstrate that he believes that wealthy people have worked hard to earn their wealth, and that they therefore deserve to keep it. He believes that everyone should work hard pursuing their own interests and that people who do work hard will succeed.  His policies also suggest that he believes that each person only deserves what they have worked for (re: no entitlements). So if we piece together those policies, we can first conclude that in his worldview everyone has equal ability to and probability of succeeding in the world. Second, given Romney's policies and unscripted comments about other social issues, we can conclude that his worldview includes that the Christian God has commanded certain principals that should never be violated and furthermore that those divine commands should translated into civil law. From what I can piece together, that seems to be his worldview.

*Do you agree or disagree with this characterization of Romney's worldview?

So, let's analyze that worldview.

At first, a worldview based on the equality of all individuals and on legislating the morality of Christianity might seem like a good way to bring fairness and morality into our complicated world. With further analysis, however, I think we will be forced to conclude that this worldview is actually ethically problematic and in fact dangerous. Let me explain.

First, regarding Romney's assumptions about the equality of all people, as I demonstrated in my post about the two definitions of equality, while we (feminists, but also ethicists) must assert that all people have equality of worth, we must also assert that all people have not had and still do not have equal access to resources. In that post, I also claimed that to forget the second claim is tantamount to denying the first one. [To review: if we deny that poor people (or people with mental illness, etc.) have had limited access to resources, then we expect them to perform at the level of people with access to lots of resources, and when they can't, we assume that they are lazy and therefore deserve their plight of poverty....which amounts to denying that their lives are worth as much as the lives of the rich/successful.] In light of that, I believe that we must conclude that economic liberalism and free market capitalism (which are built on the assumption that each individual has equal resources and equal ability to succeed in society) are systems which deny that all people are equal in worth. Denying that all people are equal in worth seems extremely problematic to me, and for this reason, I must conclude that Romney's worldview is ethical problematic.

Second, Romney's worldview is that it is good to legislate Christian morality, and I believe we must conclude that such a view is dangerous. Romney takes from Christianity views about same-sex marriage, about abortion, and about a number of other social issues. Taking views on those issues from religion is just fine for any individual (even the president); however, taking views from religion and then trying to make them into civil law is nothing more than forcing one's religious tenants onto people who are outside that religion. For example, we would be appalled if someone suggested that Kosher laws be built into the American legal system. And outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage are the same thing. If an individual religious person believes those two issues are wrong, I believe that is unfortunate, but we must accept that a person has a right to those views (as long as those views do not take the form of hate speech or violence). However, if that person seeks to make his personal religious beliefs about those issues into law, that seems to me to be oppressive and dangerous....not to mention that it goes against the American commitment to the separation of church and state. Here is an article that pretty starkly explains this.

*What do you think about these critiques of Romney's worldview? Do you agree that these two aspects of his worldview are ethical problematic and dangerous? Why or why not?

Because Romney holds that worldview, even though I agree with a few of his policies, I can only conclude that his future decisions would be (or at least would probably be) ethical problematic and dangerous in the ways I have outlined above.

Obama's Worldview

Now let's look the other major candidate's policies and unscripted comments to see if we can determine his worldview.

First, he acknowledges that poor people are poor, not because they haven't worked hard, but because they have been denied access to the resources (whether educational, monetary, physical, or psychological) necessary for success. His policies also demonstrate that he believers that society should try to make amends for that unequal access to resources; his policies have supported the idea that help needs to be provided to people (because society has failed them in the past and owes them rectification for that failure). Furthermore, his policies demonstrate that this help needs to be provided to people even when we know that some people will abuse the system. Because of these policies, it seems to me that Obama's worldview is built on asserting that people are equal in worth AND that they have not and do not have equal access to resources.

Secondly, Obama's (and Biden's) perspective is that individuals may hold religious beliefs (and may believe that certain actions or behaviors are wrong) but that those religious beliefs should never be made into law. Biden's comments in the VP debate about abortion demonstrated exactly this distinction. While he personally believes that abortion is wrong, he understands that abortions cannot be outlawed. He understands that he cannot and should not use his power to make his religious beliefs into secular laws. He understands the danger in forcing those outside his religion to follow his religion's tenants. In this way, these men demonstrate that they understand that practicing Jews are perfectly able to follow Kosher laws, but that all Americans should not be required to follow those laws. Acknowledging and upholding this distinction between religious beliefs and secular laws is telling of a worldview that embraces and nurtures diversity, which I believe is a critically important approach to governing.

*What do you think of this characterization of Obama's worldview? Would you characterize his worldview differently? What critiques do you have of Obama's worldview?

It is not that I agree with every one of Obama's policies or decision, definitely not. However, given that his worldview seems t to be based on real equality and respect for diversity, I feel compelled to support him.

Two Conflicting Worldviews and the Future of American Politics

Seeing and analyzing these two different worldviews seems to me to very important, not only for this election but for the future of our country. It seems to me that people are building philosophical structures to explain every aspect of society based on these two worldviews. And, alarmingly, I believe these two worldviews are growing further away from each other.... which does not make me hopeful about the possibility for future political collaboration.

*Do you see two radically different worldviews undergriding the policies, decisions, and statements for the two major presidential candidates (or even the two major parties)? If so, do you feel that the gap between these two worldviews is widening? Are you alarmed by that? If not, how do you conceptualize the radically different approaches taken by the two candidates?

As always, thank you so much for reading, and please do join the conversation!

two definitions of equality

I've gotten lots of great feedback, comments, and questions from some of you (either here, in my email, via Skype, or in person) and that feedback is super valuable to me, so please keep it coming. If you have anything that you'd like to know my thoughts about, please let me know! So, today's topic: feminism's 2 definitions of equality!

I think this is an important post because it serves as a backdrop to many other posts that I'll write and to my worldview and ethical perspectives in general.... so, without further ado...

Feminism asserts two claims that at first glance appear to be contradictory. On the one hand, feminists firmly assert that all people are fundamentally and irrevocably equal. And, on the other hand, feminists assert that people are profoundly and shockingly un-equal. Let me explain.

In the first claim, we are making a claim that people are ontologically equal in value. All people (no matter the race, gender, sex, class, nationality, sexuality orientation, etc.) are precisely equal in their worth as living beings. They can all contribute to society; they all deserve to be treated with respect, and none of them deserve to suffer under oppression. So, yes, I claim that all people are equal.

In the second claim, we are talking about something different. The second claim makes an observation about the world and the way that society functions. This is to say that feminists observe and want to call attention to the fact that different populations/people have vastly un-equal access to resources. The term 'resources' here is very broadly construed and can include access to wealth, education, clean water, support systems, medical care, mental health care, technologies, transportation, etc. By highlighting that some people can easily access all of these resources and that some people struggle to access even one of these resources, feminists (including myself) assert that people are profoundly un-equal. Basically, the claim here is that people have had drastically different levels of access to the things necessary for health and success.

This second claim and its implications require further explanation.

What I mean when I claim that people are un-equal in this way is that social structures function to continue to disadvantage those populations who have been historically disadvantaged. This can be observed on both an individual level and on a societal level.

Imagine a 16 year old Black girl, let's call her Tasha, who is being raised by a single mother who works 4 jobs. They live in an urban neighborhood in a high crime area in LA. Then imagine someone like Mark Zuckerberg, a white male who comes from a wealthy, educated, professional, and tech-savy family. Do Tasha and Mark have equal opportunity to succeed in the world? We have been taught to say yes. We have been taught to say that all people are equal so all people (with hard work) can achieve the American Dream and can be economically successful. But, I believe that this line we've been fed about the American Dream is at best a dreamer's fantasy and at worst a vicious and manipulative lie. Tasha will struggle to make it through high school, will not be able to use new computers or lab equipment because her school can't afford them, will not be able to afford to participate in SAT tutoring classes or other enrichment programs, and will spend her time avoiding trouble and trying to stay safe. If she makes it into college at all, it will likely be a community college, and definitely not an Ivy League school. And because of her poor education, even if she does make it into college, she will struggle to graduate and likely get less than stellar grades. Afterward, she will have to work hard to find any job at all (because all the other applicants will have better credentials from better schools). She will have to work very hard to overcome her situation, and even then her hard work will only get her so far. On the other hand, Mark will have grown up with the wealth, the tutors, the computers, and the safe free time necessary to become a hacker before graduating high school. He will then get into Harvard, and be able to attend because his family can afford it. Then, because he has a safety net to fall back on if he loses everything and because he has enough money to pay for startup, he has the ability to drop out of Harvard, move to Palo Alto, and spend every moment working on Facebook. He will then gain millions in investments, and become a billionaire.  So, did Tasha and Mark have equal probably of becoming successful? Hell no. Both of them worked hard, but what they were able to work hard doing was very different because of their different histories.

This pattern is also observable on a larger scale. After the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, we saw (some) factories commit to becoming explicitly anti-racism. They changed their hiring practices and their promotion policies. They strictly hired and promoted based on merit. However, if their new policy says, "We will promote to manger the people who are most qualified, as demonstrated through the success of previous managerial duties," and if no Black people have ever been given managerial duties, then it is still only white men who get the promotions. Merit based anti-racist practices often still perpetuate racism.... because people have not historically had equal access to resources.

This means that people's wealth/success or failure/poverty is much more a reflection of their access to resources than it is a reflection of their commitment to hard work. Hard work does not equal success. Access to resources equals success.

A syllogism to summarize my perspective:

  • I believe the claim that all people are equal in worth includes within it the claim that all people should have equal access to the resources necessary to be healthy and successful. (It should be noted that success does not have to be defined economically, but let's be honest, in our society, success is defined economically, so I'll just stay within that definition for now. Perhaps I will post an opposition to our current economic system later.)
  • I also think that observations of society can easily demonstrate that people have historically not had equal access to the resources necessary for health and success. Furthermore, I think we can easily conclude that a person's current access to resources is very related to (if not wholly determined by) their access to resources in the past.
  • Therefore, if we assert that all people are equal in worth, then we must also support practices that (at least start to) correct the history of un-equal access to resources.

I could be more blunt about what this means for me in terms of practices and politics, but perhaps I should leave that for another day. I also could relate this post to terms like 'structural racism' and 'privilege' but again, I think that might need to be saved for another day.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree with my observations about the history of un-equal access to resources? Do you agree that previous un-equal access to resources greatly impacts current access to resources? Do you agree that a claim of equality of worth for all people includes within it the claim that all people should have equal access to resources?