Posted by Sally Outen
"Well - I don't know about you, but all this talk of oppression is making me feel rather bellicose right now. I'd like to show those nasty oppressors a thing or two... just as soon as I've worked out who they are, obviously. Say - who is the real enemy here...?"
Actually, no. This is not a real quote from anybody, ever - as far as I'm aware. To be honest, I'm not even convinced that anybody has ever actually said the word "bellicose" - not properly, anyway, not out loud. Bellicose. It's a book-only word, I'm sure. I read it and think: "Huh, bellicose - I should try using that word somewhere". But then, having never actually heard it spoken, I'm afraid even to attempt to utter it in case I get it wrong. Maybe it's supposed to be pronounced [bih-lish-uhs] - which would, come to think of it, make it incredibly useful from a rhyming perspective, except for the unfortunate issue that nobody would have a clue what it was referring to. No, far better to play it safe, to slip it subtly into one of my blog posts and then, quite nonchalantly, to carry on writing, as though I use words like "bellicose" all the time so it really isn't a big deal.
Anyway. This post is about the tendency to want to blame whole systems of oppression on an identifiable enemy, and the problems this can cause.
It's so easy to do. Oppression and social inequality are awful, and they hurt. So we try to fight oppression, to make things slightly better. And, hey, where there's oppression, there must be an oppressor, surely - someone culpable, someone to fight. Which makes a lot of sense from an appealingly simple high-fantasy-good-vs-evil point of view, but less sense in the real world. If we recognise that there's no deliberate conspiracy behind the whole complex system of inequality we inhabit, then the place previously reserved for shady figures steepling their fingers around a well-polished table, that place is now mainly filled with... much-loved relatives who maybe grew up in a less equality-conscious environment; old friends who aren't always entirely aware of their own privilege; celebrity role-models who haven't learnt to apologise when they'e called out on something problematic; and ourselves, with all the internalised prejudices that we've never quite managed to shake off.
Of course there are hate groups, and it is important that we speak out against them and make it clear that the views they endorse should not be considered acceptable. But such groups arise as a product of systemic attitudinal problems - they are unlikely to be the origin of bigoted attitudes in society as a whole, although they may reinforce such attitudes. If we could cause all such groups to dissolve, or entirely remove their power through legal sanctions, we would still not have solved the wider societal problems that created the conditions under which they came about in the first place. We are right to challenge groups that use bigotry as a tool, but we cannot afford to lose sight of the underlying problems posed by the kyriarchal nature of our society.
It is also important not to assume that the problematic views of individuals claiming to represent particular groups necessarily render those groups entirely or inherently problematic. Following pressure from certain self-identified faith groups, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has recently suggested that the courts could allow more room for workers to avoid having to provide services to LGBT people, on the grounds of religion. I find this somewhat alarming, but I am also worried by the tendency among some LGBT activists to react with suggestions that queer rights and the Christian faith naturally stand in direct opposition. As Jenni points out, it is absolutely possible to be a Christian and committed to social equality; and within each of the major world religions that seem to have gained reputations for entrenched intolerance, there are campaigners suggesting enlightened approaches to doctrine.
By attacking whole groups for the faults of bigoted representatives from them, we are failing in our support for those people who are actively campaigning for tolerance and equality within those groups. These may well be the people who are most likely to experience intolerance from unenlightened members of their own groups, and who are probably best aware of how to appeal to what we might describe as the groups' floating voters. We would be wrong to leave these campaigners feeling isolated and conflicted, and to undermine their work with such floating voters. Because the thing is, on seeing outsiders drawing up battle-lines against them and attacking their group as a whole, some group members may well be inclined to agree that, yes, the outsider activists (and, by extension, the underprivileged groups they represent) are clearly in opposition to them - the label of "enemy" therefore becomes self-enforcing. By contrast, these floating voters might respond more positively to fellow group members reminding them that hatred and bigotry are not integral to their group identity.
What I find most appalling are the instances in which the blame for the oppression suffered by one group is placed with another underprivileged group. Others have documented how a certain portion of the backlash that followed the passing of Proposition 8 in California in 2008 was tainted with racist undertones. Such reactions, sadly, seem to be an easy default option. Underprivileged groups make excellent scapegoats - with a limited voice in society, it's more difficult to speak out against such accusations, and any repercussions suffered are unlikely to do much to upset the power structure of society as a whole. If, rather than acknowledging the kyriarchy as being an abstract power structure that we all inhabit, I take a moment to re-imagine it as a secret society of suave villains sitting around a table, I can easily envisage them doing that laugh at this point, relishing how convenient it can be to play underprivileged groups off against one another, and to make things even more difficult than it already is for those who already suffer intersecting oppressions along multiple axes.
It may be true that knowing your enemy, giving it substance, a name and a shape, is the first step on the way to defeating it. But concentrating our efforts on a figurehead, or, all too often, a scapegoat, may only serve to obscure the complex, systemic ways in which oppression affects us all. If we are to bring down the kyriarchy, we really need to be working on radical reform of our society as a whole, rather than simply focussing all our, um, bellicose anger on isolated groups. We may be right to identify such groups as complicit in systemic oppression, or we may be doing more harm than good in suggesting such connections; but either way... the real enemy? That would be kyriarchy itself, surely.