Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Is Oppression Fun?

I recently had a conversation with a man who explained gender studies to me thusly: “It’s a bunch of white, middle class women who have it really good, they’ve got nothing but privilege, but they want to feel like they’re oppressed too. They don’t want to be left out of that game!” Of course this sentiment has been applied, in one form or another, to pretty much every form of oppression. The basic premise is that there is something exciting or rewarding about being oppressed – so much so that everyone wants to be oppressed! It’s treated as a badge of honor. What ultimately lies behind this attitude, I believe, is discomfort with any challenge to white, male privilege.

Now, one must allow for the fact that white, middle-class feminists have all too often been blind to their own privilege. That is true. And they have often defended their race and class privilege at the direct expense of working class white women, immigrants, and women of color. However, oppression is complex, particularly in its intersectionalities. Historically, white, middle class women have enjoyed many things – especially wealth and better working (or non-working) conditions; yet during the first waves of feminism they still were not able to vote, express their opinions publicly, receive professional designations, choose when to have sex, or make high-level household decisions. Women of any race or class have been viewed as less intelligent, rational, and strong. Even today, one cannot deny the existence of pay disparities, rape and other forms of assault, rampant eating disorders, unequal treatment in the health care system, disproportionate responsibility for childcare, sexualization/objectification, false beliefs about women’s analytical capabilities, the “big strong man” motif, etc. etc.

There is, however, another variation on the “everyone wants to oppressed” routine that I frequently encounter. This one does find white hetero men trying to inhabit the role of the oppressed. Not, though, because real oppression is actually desirable to them. To the contrary, this attitude is a response to perceived challenges to their privilege – privilege that they are terrified of losing. This claim of oppression is rather a strategic means of trying to defend their privilege – without looking too overtly like they are defending their privilege. Too bad for them, though, it is very clear what they are doing.

The reason why the “while male oppression” claim should not be taken seriously - if one has any doubt that it is a sham – is the inability of these men to articulate any social/political/economic foundation for their oppression. This claim is not embedded within any structural analysis that examines the way in which “being male” inherently places one at the wrong end of relations of exploitation and domination. It is impossible to find any structural basis for male oppression. In the U.S., for example, white, middle/upper-class men are over-represented in government, in business, and in science and engineering. They make more money than anyone else (even when one removes the class dimension) and have greater educational advantages. They are not hit as hard by unemployment, wage stagnation, urban decay, and cuts in social spending. White men are grossly under-represented in prison, and less likely to have to resort to low-wage service jobs.

It is true that white men are afraid that college and employers only look for women and people of color. However, the facts prove otherwise. This unfounded fear is born, in part, out of the general competitiveness of capitalist society and the instability of current times (college admissions are more competitive as more people pursue higher education; and having a degree does not guarantee anyone a job). Despite the fact that they are often spared the full force of this competition and instability, white men feel the need to place blame on others who are far more helpless (rather than the system itself).

And then there is oppression at the micro-level. Even white, middle class women have to deal with daily impediments to their agency: when, for example, they are never able to decide who opens the door or who goes in first; when assumptions are made about their rationality; when “emotional” dimensions of their behavior are highlighted; when they are presumed to be weak and helpless in all situations (unable to open doors and lift boxes, e.g.); when their assertiveness is construed as “bitchyness” and their silence as ignorance. This may not seem significant enough to some people to qualify as real oppression (remember that this micro level is in addition to everything else addressed above); yet, one should realize the full effects: everyday women are subtly made to feel weak and helpless; they struggle to present themselves as rational decision-makers who are not at the mercy of their emotions; and they are constantly marked as “special” human beings whose fragile existence must be carefully protected. A woman can never be “just” a professional or “just” a manager or “just” an athlete or “just” a politician or “just” a scientist.

White men, on the other hand, feel that they own public space. They never hesitate to make their voices heard and to assert their agency. The other day I was on a bus, and a couple of the passengers started to rudely (and loudly) command the bus driver how to make a difficult turn. “Frat boys,” I thought. Sure enough, when I turned around I saw college aged (ish) white guys. From my own experience, when someone is being a bit too loud or a bit too pushy, more often than not it is a young, white, straight, middle/upper class male. And is it any coincidence that the people who take out their emotional frustrations via mass public shootings - the prime example of claiming ownership over public space - are almost entirely all white men? All too often, though, white men do not perceive (or perhaps, more accurately, will not admit?) that they have this freedom and sense of entitlement. Instead, they nurse their resentment over the fact that they can’t continue to behave in ways that subtly make other people feel inferior or helpless, without potentially (though I would challenge far too infrequently) being called out on it. They are horrified – horrified! – at the suggestion that they give some thought to their speech and actions, and perhaps even listen to the perspectives of others.

The usual resort to “preserving traditions” is a clumsy way of defending white, male privilege. The misguided fears about women and people of color dominating academia and employment are an expression of white, male feelings of entitlement to the upper tiers of society. And the frustration with “politically correct” language and non-traditional theories (feminism, post-colonialism, critical race theory, etc.) is born out of the desire to preserve the patriarchal/bourgeois/racist ideology that places white men at the apex of civilization and progress.

Being oppressed is in no way enjoyable, and white men know it. That’s why they’re doing everything they can to maintain their dominance.

*Disclaimer: obviously, when I say “white men” or any variation thereof, I am not stereotyping or condemning ALL white men. I am referring specifically to those people who make the types of arguments that I am addressing here – those that try to embody the archetype of the White Man as a means of dominating or placing themselves above others. The people who are too concerned with preserving traditions to actually listen to the things other people have to say.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sexual Violence and the Military

Recently there has been a lot of reporting on the high prevalence of sexual assault in the U.S. military. My favorite is the guy who was in charge of the Sexual Assault Prevention Program, accused of sexual assault himself. I have heard people speculate that this is a result of the transition to allowing more gays and women into the military. Yeah, it is always integration itself that is the problem, not the people who refuse to be integrated.

However, this is just another case in which people are resistant to (or completely incapable of) scrutinizing the military. Not certain things that it does here and there, but the logic of its operation – in fact, its very existence. The natural response to the current scandal is to think of more ways the military can be regulated, or more effective policy that can be put in place. I say, have fun with that.

The truth is, the predisposition toward violence against women lies in the very fabric of the military itself – and not just the U.S. military, but any military. For all of human history, from what I can tell, pillage and plunder has always been associated with rape. You can’t have one without the ooooothers. To understand why, we have to revisit the inherent nature of violence.

Violence is not a universal aspect of human nature, but rather a feature of structures of inequality. There are, of course, plenty of ways to sustain inequality without resorting to violence, and some have argued that power must defined in terms of the ability of both parties to act (thus precluding violence). Therefore, the relationship between violence and inequality/power is not merely a matter of direct practical necessity. Violence is, rather, one component of a particular kind of authority - an authority that is established upon the differential valuation of human life and dignity. Just as the distinction between man and animal, which entailed the exalted status of man, was traditionally justified by man’s dominion over animals (and this was always expressed through the act of hunting), the imposed hierarchical distinctions among different types of human beings are ideologically sustained by the “naturalness” (in some cases even virtue) of violence committed by white men, as the vanguards of human progress, and the complementary insignificance or invisibility of acts of violence carried out against Others (women, people of color, etc.).

In other words, while hierarchical structures do not always require violence to sustain their general existence, individuals employ violence to maintain the day-to-day, lived experience of hierarchy. Wherever the particularity of social life lies in the interstices of structures of inequality, violence works to reproduce the larger structures within the gaps that escape the hierarchy, and in so doing extend the hierarchy into its own margins.

So, with the notion of “legitimate violence” comes the white man as the legitimate purveyor of legitimate violence. There are two ways in which this is ideologically reinforced. First, violence is construed as a masculine characteristic. Science does its part by lending pseudo legitimacy to nonexistent data. Testosterone provides the link between gender and violence, despite a serious lack of knowledge about the effects of testosterone (for a number of reasons, testosterone is very difficult to study). Then families, schools, and entertainment media join the effort by subtly (or not so subtly) implying that “boys will be boys” and promoting violence as a valued expression of masculinity. Real men punch back. If men feel that their masculinity (i.e. superiority) is being threatened, they reliably resort to violence. This is why rape, or any violence against women, is essentially a means for men to assert their hierarchical domination over women.

Second, violence becomes part of the “white man’s burden” when it is encapsulated within the narrative of Progress. This has been true since the colonial era (as colonialism was ostensibly designed to bring civilization to the savages), and it is just as true today when military interventions are supposedly undertaken to support human rights and democracy, by fighting the forces of darkness, as represented by Muslims...err, terrorists... well, really, Muslims.

So yes, the military is inherently racist too. (Since race and religion are co-constructed and intricately entwined, Islamophobia does indeed count as a form of racism.) I have seen photo evidence that basic training primes recruits to view “the enemy” as someone existentially unlike them. Make them look like a cartoon version of the Evil Arab, and suddenly it’s not so hard to envision killing them. That is not to say, of course, that in the end many people in the military don't find it psychologically impossible to cope with the things they are doing. The military doesn’t seem to care too much about anyone’s psychological health once they’ve done their duty, but they do need to make it just a little easier for people to actually accomplish something before they develop PTSD.

If one wants to do anything about the scourge of sexual assault in the military, one has to accept the role of the military in sustaining gendered and racial hierarchies both ideologically and materially. The military itself is the problem. Or, rather, the military functions primarily to enforce the ideological and material regimes of domination that make sexual assault possible in the first place. Only with the dissolution of the military and radical systemic change can anything really be done about sexual assault.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Inertia of the Status Quo

It is often difficult to explain the existence of complex institutional structures, constituted by the collected (not collective) action of “average” people with varying beliefs and goals, when one rules out the implausible case of a small group of elites secretly controlling everything. When one gets to the heart of any organization or industry, one can always find relations of exploitation that support an overarching structure of domination. If this overarching structure is not being coordinated from above, how can it possibly exist?

The cornerstone of effective social analysis, particularly if one truly follows along historical materialist lines, is the understanding that people employ already-existing realities – relationships, ideologies, material structures – to achieve their goals. We are always constrained in the present by the arrangements that have emerged through prior human activity. Thus, current social realities can always be explained to some extent by historical accident. The key is in understanding how historical accident articulates with particular interests and strategies of domination. Several different types of articulation seem plausible – the last one being the most insidious:

Occasionally, authentically new social-material networks are created (with existing material and social resources) in an effort to address certain problems. Say, for example, members of a community want to keep their youth out of trouble and notice that children do not get any kind of after-school support or supervision. So they pull together some resources and start an after-school youth program, operating out of a local library (already-existing resource). The people who are involved may have varying degrees of self-interest (in our example, a woman agrees to direct the program on a volunteer basis because it looks great on her resume), but are all ultimately supporting the original goal. Eventually, someone spots an opportunity for profit, or a business discovers a way to use the network to shift burdens onto the community or to create a new market or to otherwise serve its own interests. Someone comes along and tells the youth program organizers that they know how to raise a lot of money to get them their own building and supplies. Now businesses are donating items with their company logo strategically displayed. All the youth programs needs to do in return is promote messages about personal responsibility and the merits of competition. Then the businesses, who are looking for some way to reduce their tax burderns, realize that, even if all the money they contribute is not spent, they still receive tax exemptions for their donations; so they quietly place their friends in leadership positions and ensure that only a small percentage of their generous contributions are actually spent on anything. Finally, other people realize that the program can be replicated in other locations, and politicians decide to reduce funding for schools on the premise that some of the resources previously provided by the school system can now be provisioned through these private youth programs (and it’s a win for these politicians who are trying to capitalize on the anti-public school sentiments of their base).

Eventually, the after-school youth program becomes an enduring social institution that occupies its own niche, but nevertheless serves other political and economic purposes. The idea was not formulated in some smokey room by a secret ruling class cabal, yet in the end, powerful interests found a way to use it to their own advantage.

Ideological Conformity
Many people’s social awareness is so clouded by hegemonic assumptions that they may inadvertently draw upon and enhance existing power relationships as a direct consequence of the ideologies that they employ. For example, going back to the youth center: say that they haven’t yet sought corporate sponsorship, and they are trying to delineate an educational vision for their program. It may be in the best interest of the youth to receive political/historical education that will allow them to challenge structures of inequality that oppress them. Yet, the directors of the program have bought into the idea that people can raise themselves out of poverty if they just work hard enough. They might decide, totally on their own, without any outside pressure, to use their program to instill values of self-discipline, goal-setting, and financial responsibility. This program now reinforces one of the most powerful ideologies that justifies an inequitable social order – but not through any manipulation by corporate or political elites, simply through the work of ordinary people.

The discourses and ideologies that, through the speed and extent of their circulation, are always close at hand, are the very the very ones that get taken up and reproduced most easily - thus intensifying their circulation (vicious cycle).

This, perhaps, may be one of the most powerful, yet frequently overlooked, forces that creates stability in an unjust system. People may have good intentions, but they do not want to think critically about how their own lifestyles and self interests contribute to the global and domestic suffering of which they are dimly aware. People who have built careers in particular industries – like health care or retirement, for example – like to take pride in the benefits they are providing to vulnerable populations, and so they view their role in society, and the inner mechanics of their industries, in simplistic terms (e.g. “I’m helping sick people get healthy again” or “I’m helping middle class America save for retirement”). Furthermore, because their careers sustain them both financially and socially (status), any potential changes to the institutional environment that might, possibly, threaten their careers are resisted. So they band together in industry associations to lobby and oppose regulations that seek to reform their industries. They will not acknowledge the reality that they are really exploiting already vulnerable people, and participating in the profiteering of hospital, insurance, and pharmaceutical executives (health care) or the financial services industry (retirement).

Lifestyle is just as important as career. The middle and upper classes of industrialized societies have so thoroughly absorbed the Ideology of Progress (which assures them that material comforts are a natural outcomes of human progress, not products of exploitative relationships) and so enjoy their luxuries (which they cannot even see as luxuries) that they are utterly resistant to lifestyle changes. At most, they may shop at Whole Foods (corporation) or buy energy-efficient light bulbs – maybe even a hybrid vehicle. The few people who go so far as to grow their own food, forego the latest technology, or live somewhat “off the grid” are perceived as crazy fringe radicals (the type of people who might have Marxist blogs...?). Yet, it is these lifestyles that sustain the global capitalist system – the market is crucial. An equitable social order would preclude any such extravagance. As long as the relatively well-off are unwilling to change their consumption patterns, social change will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

In sum, then, it is obvious that powerful economic and political interests are able to co-opt existing structures and exacerbate inequality. Yet ordinary people also contribute in a very powerful way: through their inability to challenge hegemonic ideas, jeopardize their careers, or change their lifestyles.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Conspiracy Theories, Media Control and Reality TV

I’m not ashamed of the fact that I love conspiracy theories. To me, a reality that is tidy and closed-ended is intolerably boring. So what I like about conspiracy theories, in fact, is not the theories in and of themselves, but the uncertainty and mystery that they entail. (A good conspiracy theory must at least be plausible, but still deniable.) This is all well and good when it comes to decades-old assassinations and CIA experiments and celebrity deaths. However, uncertainty can be outright frustrating when it comes to figuring out what ruling elites are or aren’t doing right now. How do we access accurate information?

Conspiracy theories grow as quickly and easily as internet memes. We barely had time to turn on our computers after Sandy Hook and the Boston Bombings, before gun advocates (and others) were flooding the internet with Youtube videos and suspicious photo evidence. The abundance of eyewitness testimonies to 9/11 and Boston were discarded without batting an eye. The problem, though, isn’t simply that people are too credulous; it’s that no one really knows who to trust anymore. We all know, for example, that government officials create fictional versions of reality to generate public support for/acquiescence to inhumane projects (John Brennan, I’m looking at you), that intelligence officials leak false information, and that the corporate-owned media suppresses information on the direct orders of the state, or affiliated agencies, or corporations. (Saudi Arabian drone base... what?) For that matter, most media outlets are used to promote particular political agendas and shape public consciousness through strategic use of images, talking points, and topical foci.

So, when we are told, for example, that the Boston Bombings were undertaken by two Muslim immigrants, working alone, motivated by Islamic radicalism and opposition to wars in the Middle East... essentially that two fairly normal American immigrant kids just suddenly became “radicalized”... do we believe it? It at least seems plausible, and the assertions that the whole thing was staged (actors, fake blood, etc.) are outrageously insane. On the other hand, how many times has the initial official interpretation of events subsequently proven false, or even evidence of some sort of cover-up? The initial explanation of the Benghazi attack, after all, did fit very well with the “irrational, angry Muslim” narrative, but it just turned out that our existing narratives are useful in selling us erroneous interpretations of events. We are told that Assad used chemical weapons against the opposition – and he may have – but a similar argument was used to remove Saddam, and it was totally fabricated then. Why wouldn’t we believe it was fabricated this time, too?

Actually, the way I feel about evaluating the claims of mainstream media and state officials is very similar to how I feel about judging the “reality” of reality tv. Everyone (or most everyone, I hope) knows that reality tv is far from what it claims to be. Writers come up with storylines, producers manipulate situations, and editors distort what actually happens on camera. In some cases everything is very obviously fake. Other times it is harder to tell what is contrived and what is real. Is everything fake? Was that person hired to play the role of a villain? Do those people really have feelings for each other? Were the outcomes determined in advance? We know that participants (/actors?) in reality programs are bound by stringent contracts. Is that all that prevents contestants from revealing the true nature of these shows? Yes, some people have come forward and “pulled back the curtain” to a certain extent. But so many other people insist it is mostly real. If the contract were the only force cowing them into secrecy... wouldn’t more people be coming forward (or at least spilling things to close friends, thus initiating the spread of information into the public domain)? Breaches of contract and aren’t all that uncommon.

The only remedy for the reality tv dilemma is to tell yourself that it’s all entertainment anyway. Who cares if it’s real, as long as it’s interesting? But that doesn’t work for terrorist plots and military interventions. Nothing is more important than determining what is real. Unfortunately, if even second-rate writers and producers (the type who will settle for working on reality tv shows) are able to effectively create so much secrecy and confusion... what hope do we have figuring out current events?