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Listening To The Oppressed

Three things I've seen in the blogosphere recently have touched on the issue of listening to the oppressed. First there's the dust-up among UU bloggers ostensibly* over whether one seminary was right to change the title of a seminar from "brown bag lunch" to "lunchtime conversation" over concerns that it would be offensive to black people due to associations with the "brown bag test" once used to distinguish between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks. I haven't read every post and comment written on the issue, but I did notice a conspicuous absence of anyone saying "hi, I'm black, and I (am/am not) bothered when a talk bills itself as a 'brown bag lunch'." It seems like that would be essential input -- or else it's just white people (and at least one person who's neither white nor black) speculating on what "those other people" do or do not find hurtful. And it contrasts unfavorably with the race debates in the feminist blogosphere, where you get lots of women of color offering their experiences (though the white women often fail to fully grapple with them).

The second thing that I've recently read on this topic is a good post by David Schraub on the complexities of listening to the oppressed. He raises two important issues that complicate the simple (albeit rhetorically very useful) demand to shut up and believe the oppressed. On the one hand, the members of a given oppressed group do not all tell consistent stories (nor can all but one of those stories be dismissed as obvious false consciousness). On the other hand, it's not always self-evident who the oppressed are (even straight white men sometimes tell sincere stories of feeling oppressed), meaning we need a way of listening that's critical without unfairly invalidating people.

The third thing that inspired this post was a post by tekanji that quoted the following comment by Yonmei about gay men objecting to how women write slash:

If you find it comfortable to play in the slash sandbox, as is, I don’t think you’ll find any female slash fans telling you you can’t. If what you want to read is slash, no one can stop you. If what you want to write is slash, slash fans will want to read it. If you want to join in metadiscussions about slash, this is also possible - so long as you do so as a slash fan, and not as a gay man arguing that you know how gay men experience the world, and this or that in a slash story isn’t it. Because then you are not trying to join in metadiscussions as just another slash fan: you are trying to distort metadiscussions about slash with male privilege.

If I actually knew what I was talking about with respect to anti-oppression issues, I'd know the term for this phenomenon, but as it is I think of it as "non-Pareto oppression." The classic examples of oppression dynamics are "Pareto** oppression" -- cases in which one person is indisputably the oppressed because they suffer from every form of oppression suffered by the oppressor plus at least one more. Non-Pareto oppression is when each party suffers from a type of oppression that the other does not. Black men versus white women is the classic example, of course. (I should acknowledge that it's a bit tricky for me to pontifficate about how to deal with non-Pareto oppression since, as a person who falls on the privileged side of any concievable non-trivial line, I can only be a party to Pareto oppression.)

My discussion here is not about who is right in the example of gay men versus slash-writing straight women. I know next to nothing about slash*** and even less about what's apparently an ongoing debate. My point is about how tricky non-Pareto oppression is and how it disturbs our easy paradigms based on Pareto examples.

The temptation with non-Pareto oppression is to reduce it to Pareto oppression. The presentation of Yonmei's quote in tekanji's post seems to do that -- since the parties are respectively men and women, the issue is treated as a man trying to use his male privilege to take control of a women-dominated space. But what struck me is how easily it could be reframed in a way that reverses the lines of privilege, since the parties are just as obviously homosexual and heterosexual, respectively. So it's easy for me to imagine seeing this from the gay man's perspective, from where it appears to be a case of some straight people exercising their privilege to define what gay sexuality is all about and appropriate it for their own entertainment.

The trick in dealing with non-Pareto oppression, then, is to ensure that you're not using your privilege on one axis to defend yourself against oppression on another. Even trickier is to ensure that your feeling of oppression on a legitimate axis of oppression is not inflated as an excuse to excercise your privilege against your ostensible oppressors. Tekanji and Yonmei clearly believe that gay slash-critics are doing that, using resistance to homophobia as an excuse to wield their male privilege against women. And perhaps the women have done just the kind of honest privilege-checking that I've described in order to come to that conclusion, rather than letting their straight privilege blind them to the harmful ways their stories deal with gay sexuality. My point is just that the way they confidently asserted that gender, not sexuality, is the important axis in what is clearly a case of non-Pareto oppression stimulated a clarification of my thoughts on the issue.

* I say "ostensibly" because the debate is also about the larger principle of when something is over-PC hypersensitivity to motes in people's eyes, and when it's genuine anti-oppression work that challenges comfortable assumptions. And there's also preexisting views of the seminary in question, which is widely viewed as representing one side or the other of that larger principle.

** The term comes from the Pareto principle, which says that a course of action is undeniably better than another if it makes at least one person better off and nobody worse off.

***Not because of any hostility to it -- it's just not my thing, as I enjoy worldbuilding from scratch.


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