Oppressing the Privileged

TRIGGER WARNING: RACIAL EPITHETS

July 29 and October 11 & 15-18, 2018

Having a mind and a conscience causes a member of a privileged class to realize her or his privilege and take action against a system of inequality.  This leadership is necessary if oppression is to end, as, by definition, oppressed classes are oppressed and, even aware of their oppression, are usually powerless or hindered in their ability to end it.  A hand up is needed. (1)  The privileged class must provide that hand and cannot do so unless it changes from within.  To change from within, the privileged with consciences who see the situation and possess morality must advance the cause of the oppressed class.

“I can speak when so many cannot,” Jamal Khashoggi said, exemplifying this need and this reality.  It is incumbent upon all who can speak to do so, for those who cannot, and being able to speak for those who cannot is the prerequisite condition for speaking.  To speak one must be able to speak, which means a certain amount of power is necessary before one can help bad situations and lift others up.

Ironically, one of the greatest obstacles to progress and the improvement of the lot of the oppressed comes not from the privileged but from the oppressed themselves.  The slave has the hardest time with freedom, and the effects of oppression lead to counterproductive decision-making in both the privileged and the oppressed.  Sometimes the two main (relevant) classes in a given interaction are hard to distinguish, and sometimes they overlap (“intersectionality”).  Women are the World’s largest oppressed group, yet in the United States of America in 2018 “white” women enjoy privileges “nonwhites” do not, for example.

My Privileged Background

My father hated everyone including himself.  Seeing and hearing his daily exclamations of sexism and racism generated more sympathy for the oppressed in me than he could ever have imagined.  He made me aware of sexist and racist injustice by practicing it before my eyes, and when he was on the verge of beating my mother one night, having already thrown and smashed dishes in the kitchen, I stood in his way.  He slapped me for defying him, which galvanized my mother and changed the dynamic.  She stood up for me and he backed down.  So don’t tell me I don’t stand up for women against the Patriarchy.  I did it at fourteen against a sixty-year-old man and I do now.

Every day I heard racial epithets from my father: “nigger”, “Guinea”, “WOP”, “‘Spic”.  Those were his favorites.  If he saw an African-American man jogging, he would joke, “What’d he steal?”  If he saw Jesse Jackson on television, he’d say, “Oh, that nigger again.”  He would refer to “Martin Luther Nigger”.  Both my mother and I expressed our disgust and disapproval, which must have penetrated eventually, because near the end of his life, he said, “I know you don’t like it when I use that word.”  But he grew up poor and uneducated in the Depression, and some people cannot change.  He is dead now.  Of course, in person he would treat people well enough, once lending our car to an African-American co-worker.  He was mainly a coward.  I suppose one could say he saved his racism for his family.  When I told him I had found my first serious girlfriend, his first words were, “Is she white?”

In 1990 I was taught that “white” and “black” were racist terms created to divide human beings on a continuum of brown, pink, and beige, and I haven’t used them since (except as shorthand when lacking time to explain my position).  I had already said I had never seen a white or black person.  I still haven’t.

Morality 101 is “The strong protect the weak.”  I have always known it was my duty to lift up the less powerful, the less privileged, because we are all human, and we all matter.  Evil abuses its power, good uses its power for good.  As a Rich White American Straight Man, I use my power, my status, and my natural talents to lift others up.  I do this every day as a teacher, I do it in my writing for social justice. 

I consider that merely the duty of every moral person, regardless of station in life.

The Counterproductive Viper Pit

Whenever someone tries to use his powers for good, to lift others up, in a way that is abstract, subtle, requiring the skills and abilities tending to be concentrated among the privileged, some members of both the oppressed and the privileged classes will misunderstand this effort and attack it as a part of the problem, not seeing it for what it is.  A recent illuminating example of this problem occurred in the magazine the Nation regarding a poem written by a man named Anders Carlson-Wee.

I have found at times, when writing myself or reading the writing of others doing the same, the very audience to be served and lifted up does not always understand the work or the intentions of the writer.  And of course among the privileged, the class that is object of the criticism, understanding is also in the minority.  To be sure, it is only a minority of the privileged class who understand the oppression, and, though the majority of the oppressed might understand the oppression, it is only a minority of the oppressed who understand the forms of expression required to reach the apathetic privileged.  When a caring member of the privileged class employs her or his full privileged powers to do good and lift everyone up in ways only the privileged can fully understand, that is when her or his efforts are misunderstood by a majority of the oppressed and even well-meaning members of the privileged classes.  To reach a group, one must speak their language.  Ironically, the more privileged one is, the more capable one is of understanding the privileged writer’s efforts.

To reach the privileged, one must speak the privileged’s language, but if one is too subtle or satiric, if one speaks the language of the wrongdoers too well—even if only to reach them—members of the privileged class who are good people will misunderstand it.

The political work, written to help the oppressed by causing oppressors to think and change their ways, is seen not as help but as evil by those who misunderstand it—among both the oppressed and privileged classes.  I have seen and studied this phenomenon myself over and over, as I myself have been accused of sexism (including “toxic masculinity”); racism; homophobia; animal cruelty; abusive parenting; you name it—by people who know nothing of my character or history, people who seem not to be at all interested in learning the truth so much as silencing persons who disagree with them.  They misinterpret, misunderstand, and will not tolerate correction.  Self-righteousness is the real enemy.

In the fall of 1990 at SUNY Stony Brook, my friend Alan Hofmanis returned from a three- or four-day jaunt up to Boston, sneaking on Greyhound buses and riding there and back free.

“Are you P. C.?” he asked me.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

He said, “Politically Correct,” and explained to me that all the liberals in Harvard and Boston were competing to be the most politically correct and asking everyone they met that question as a litmus test.  Whether or not they would accept another person depended on the answer—and an affirmative answer was the only acceptable one. 

“Are you P. C.?”

“Yeah!  Are you P. C.?”

The more P. C., the better.  Alan and I had a good laugh over the narrow-minded dogmatism of this “P. C.” nonsense, and I forgot about it.

A few years later, I began to hear the term again, this time from the Right.  I saw my fellow liberals correcting hateful speech, and I saw the Right faulting the Left for its political correctness—but no one on the Left objected to the phrase.  It seemed to me to have taken over both ends of the spectrum.  Then, later, the only times I heard it were from the Right and liberals complaining about it, even associating it with the Right to the point that when I used it, I was assumed to be a right-winger interested in speaking sexist and racist comments.  I have even had liberal friends I knew in person stop speaking with me forever because I used the phrase pejoratively one time–seemingly concluding I had been deceiving them all along into thinking I was not sexist, racist, what have you.  Use the phrase, be abandoned by friends!

Ironically, the abandonment of the phrase by the Left has been correlated with an increase in its actual practice by the Left.  In 2018, the following poem by Anders Carlson-Wee was published in the magazine the Nation, which rightly considered the poem to be “a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization”.  To aid comprehension, I have capitalized his initials (HIV, AIDS) and added an apostrophe to “em”.

“How-To”
by Anders Carlson-Wee

If you got HIV, say AIDS. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops ’em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let ’em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.

This poem is a criticism of the apathetic privileged and their need to be coddled even by those whom their apathy harms  (people who are HIV-positive, girls, homeless, young, old, and/or crippled).  It is a complex portrayal of double injustice: “You oppress me, and you won’t even listen to me unless I debase myself further.”  There is nothing wrong with this poem.

And yet, in 2018, Mr. Carlson-Wee is accused of being against everything he is for, to the point that the magazine the Nation, a magazine published for more than 150 years, feels compelled to apologize for “disparaging and ableist language that has given offense and caused harm to members of several communities” and Mr. Carlson-Wee feels compelled to apologize on Facebook.  I won’t quote his apology here, I find it so depressing. 

The editors had already identified the correct reading of the poem: “a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization”.  They apologized nonetheless.  They say they no longer read it that way, they apologize for the offense and harm . . . but they do not say how they see the poem now.  Do they think Anders or the poem is evil?  How so?  If so, why leave the poem up?

This is a case in which the privileged “allies” (I say that guardedly, as they only hurt their own cause), wishing to champion the oppressed or marginalized, wish to champion the oppressed or marginalized so strongly that their passion overwhelms their ability to understand a poem.  They see offense where there is none.  They do not see the forest for the trees.  They completely miss the point.

There is such a fear of being perceived as evil that one cannot critically examine text.  The knee-jerk reaction of anyone who sees certain words or hears certain literary “voices”, such as the one in “How-To” or Jay Sizemore’s poetry, results in both misunderstanding and mistreatment of the poem and the poet.  And yet those who attack these works and their creators seem to feel no need to recognize their errors and harmful actions based on those errors, let alone make amends for them.

Instead of apologizing, Mr. Carlson-Wee would be better advised to say, “Look, assholes.  I’m sorry your reading comprehension is so poor, but if you have a question about my poetry, ask it.  Don’t go jumping to erroneous conclusions that only aid the forces of oppression in the long run.”  Did he?  No, and I was perhaps more disappointed by his “apology” than by the ignorance and malice of the haters, because he knew what his poem meant and that there was no reason to apologize for it except to mollify the Internet lynch mob, and that is the only reason he did.  He knew that if he did not, he might face violence.

My friend Jay Sizemore thinks Anders and the Nation conspired to trap our P. C. fellow liberals into revealing their totalitarian impulses, but I do not agree with him on that.  I think it is as simple as it appears: a poet and a magazine were bullied into coddling a bunch of assholes bent on stifling speech.  I do agree with Jay strongly, however, when he says of this episode:

No one has the authority to police others as to what content their art can contain.  No one has the authority to demand art be removed from the public because it happens to encroach upon their own sensitivities.  No one has the authority to demand apologies from other artists, and artists should never have to apologize for their work.  Art is in itself one of the purest manifestations of freedom.  And art criticism should have never started meaning artists have to accept censorship by mob rule.

How did the land of the brave and free become so cowed and enslaved as to bully not only a poet but a national publication with over a century of history into “apologizing” for a poem supporting oppressed and marginalized persons (but not retracting it)?  I trace it back to the chilling effect of Reagan, whose rise led to the end of intellectual freedom in public media and various backlashes since.  But the tendency toward self-righteousness knows no ideology and is regrettably universal.  The P. C. Left That Dares Not Speak Its Name, however, is currently the most zealous police of speech.  If you condemn the political correctness of your fellow liberals, your fellow liberals will brand you racist.  Another friend of mine, A. O. Dugas, says, “This is why the Left is doomed.  We can’t stop eating our own.”  The Right continues to destroy the World and laugh as we bicker over poetry, prose, and speech.

But “white” (I use this word cautiously) liberal P. C. bickering is one thing.  Another is when I defend Carlson-Wee and an African-American man asks me why, if the above poem is not problematic, I think some readers are upset by it, and I answer that perhaps the “black” (Ibid.) community does not like having a mirror held up to it.  The African-American man then says to me, “Oh no you fucking didn’t. Lol. Dude you are the absolute worst. I’m done. Screen shotting this and I’m done. . . . You’re writing 2018 books from the perspective of a 1800’s white savior complex. Blocking you now. Peace”  He threatens, insults, and wishes me peace.  Multiple ironies!  Even more ironic: if I pointed out his AAVE (African-American Vernacular English), his nonStandard punctuation, and the fact that the poet seemed to have captured it pretty well, he would probably take that as another example of my racism.

For those who don’t know, “White-Savior Complex” is when someone thinks she or he is helping the oppressed but is ultimately self-serving.  I think the privileged class must change its ways and the oppressed classes must not attack allies who are working to help them.  The problem comes when, due to their oppression, the oppressed cannot recognize help when they see it and confuse it for yet more harm.  I do not really see how opening myself up for threats, insults, and abuse of my intelligence online serves my interests at all, let alone only my interests.

I think the reaction of the man above shows I touched a nerve, hit the nail on the head, and proved my point.  I am not saying that the black community (or any) is advocating deceit to earn sympathy (that is clearly a fiction in the poem to engage the reader), but if the problem, as identified by this same African-American man, is that the poet wrote “poorly” and “offensively”, this man should be willing to support his assertion, to explain how it was written poorly or offensively.  He was not, as you can tell.  I see the poem as a brilliant critique of apathy and the gyrations into which it forces the oppressed—nothing but a depiction of the additional suffering forced, by politics, onto those who are already suffering enough.  And no one has even attempted to change my mind about it, beyond, “You’re writing 2018 books from the perspective of a 1800s white-savior complex.”  (Ah, correct punctuation.  Still no discussion of the poem.)  Agree with the mob or be cast out with a scarlet letter.  The saddest part is that that man does not know the difference between a white-savior complex and an ally working on his side.  It is not that the privileged class is the only thing that can help him, it is that an oppressed person can only do so much.  Martin Luther King, Junior, knew he needed the President and the Congress.  He brought the cause to them, they acted.  The law changing did not end the oppression but made it more difficult for the oppression to continue.  Without the support of the privileged allies, even the strongest possible leader emerging from the oppressed class will hit a plateau.

When a privileged writer uses his powers for good in the most subtle and complex ways, ways that could be misunderstood, it is the duty of the reader not to jump to conclusions.  A privileged person with a privileged education, is more likely to understand the message of the privileged work.  Knowing this, one could argue that it is incumbent upon the privileged writer not to write something that could be misunderstood, but this reduces art to the lowest common denominator or at least not the highest.  The artist or writer should write whatever she or he feels is the most powerful expression of her or his art or message and leave understanding to the audience.  If the audience is challenged or even incapable, so be it; but it is irresponsible to make false allegations.  The Merchant of Venice, for example, is Shakespeare’s only dystopian play.  It depicts a completely anti-Semitic society in which a Jewish merchant has no power and is not only forced into officiousness but, when even that fails, is destroyed by the system.  Antonio is the portrait of Christian privilege, and the system enforces his privilege to show us the injustice.  Unfortunately, the message of this play has been lost on countless readers for centuries.  That does not mean Shakespeare should have made it more “accessible” and obvious.  That means readers should learn better how to read.

When a writer writes something designed to expose evil by adopting its superficial characteristics, by writing an allegory, by writing a satire, the last thing that should happen is for the audience to misinterpret the work as evil.  And yet this happens.  Then, whether or not you side with the interpretation of the mob (usually also privileged) will determine whether you are labeled Good or Evil.  You are not allowed to disagree, privileged though you are (you may find yourself wondering where your privilege went and why other members of your same class get to dictate right and wrong to you).  If you exercise logic and reason to advise, for the sake of the oppressed, that perhaps the slogan “Black Lives Matter” could be improved, you are racist.  Though you are a lifelong opponent of racism—though you devote your love of language to helping the oppressed—you are racist.  Adopt the slogan you are commanded to adopt, despite its potential flaws, or you are racist.  If you even point out potential flaws to help the cause, you are racist.  “Be cool or be cast out,” as Rush sang.  It can’t possibly be that you know how the privileged will react to the slogan.  And when they do respond saying white lives matter too or that black lives are not the only ones that matter, it is not that your advice and you are vindicated . . . oh, no.  You warned them the slogan would be taken that way.  You commented that it was being taken that way.  Though you yourself understand the slogan, you know all too well how the apathetic privileged will and do take it.  But the oppressed will not hear it.  You will not be allowed to give your best advice to your fellow human beings who are not capable of seeing your advice as anything other than a delaying tactic to protect the privileged and preserve class inequality.

I came to see the BLM slogan as good enough, but I still think “Black Lives Matter Too” would have prevented a great many misunderstandings.

Whenever anyone uses her or his position of privilege to lift others up, that effort is going to be misunderstood by those who focus not on the purpose of the work or even its effects but on the status of the writer. It’s sad, since using one’s power for good is what we should be doing and, in case we lacked consciences and didn’t know that already, is what we are constantly told to be doing.  That is hypocrisy.  Whenever an oppressed person attacks an ally, that is even worse.

What does oppression do?  Among other things, it causes the oppressed not to understand the most sophisticated forms of help, particularly the forms most capable of reaching the apathetic privileged, to make them think different ways.  Oppression causes the oppressed to confuse these forms of help, these forms of mind-stretching, for harm.  And I can sympathize with the oppressed; I can understand they are incapable of distinguishing between actual harm and help; but they do not seem to understand that when they attack allies helping them, they harm themselves.  The Nation’s original interpretation shows they understood the poem.  The Nation’s apology shows they are willing to throw a poet under the bus to mollify the vocal minority.  It is not that they changed their minds, it is that they allowed others to change their stated position.  They left the poem up.  Defenders of free speech, having it both ways, or both?  You decide.

The question arises: if I understand you are oppressed and you understand I am not, that I enjoy privileged status from birth to death, better treatment, better opportunities, better education, why do not you also understand that I am more likely not to understand your specific situation and suffering but the meaning and intent of a member of my class attempting to help you?  Why must you think I am claiming more understanding of oppression than you?  That is your area of expertise.  Mine is privilege, and I am a much better judge of it than you are by virtue of my experience—my experience that you point out and for which you fault me.  Well, am I privileged or not?  If I am, then at least allow that I might understand what privilege is like, how the privileged think, and how best to reach them better than you do.  Privilege, for those of us who are moral, means reaching out to the apathetic to inspire morality, compassion, and change to benefit us all.  The oppressed cannot reach the apathetic privileged on their own.  Incidentally, that was the point of the poem.

The oppressed simultaneously tell us they are oppressed; oppression is wrong; oppression must end; and only they understand oppression.  Sometimes they see oppression where there is none.  But the ignorant privileged are even more dangerous, as their inability to understand the efforts of subtle and intelligent allies is unfortunately powered and amplified by their privilege.  It is the duty of all privileged to help the oppressed.  There are those who do not feel the duty at all, those who are the most problematic; those who feel the duty but do not always recognize efforts to help the oppressed, those who object to works like Carlson-Wee’s; and those who employ their full privileged powers to educate the apathetic, to attack the problems, and to lift up the oppressed.  These last, from Jonathan Swift to Jay Sizemore, are doomed to be misunderstood both by those they would help and by those well-meaning privileged who simply do not understand satire or allegory.

Mr. Carlson-Wee adopted the persona of a Virgil-like advisor to the oppressed to criticize the oppressors.  Who could possibly object to that?  The well-meaning privileged who do not get it.

Nowadays, of course, the liberal attitude toward political correctness may be summed up by this comment from my friend J. C. Karranza: “Generally I find that people who complain about political correctness don’t like be told they’re being assholes.  Also, they are the only ones who use that term. Everyone else just calls it ‘please stop being an asshole to people’.”  But Mr. Carlson-Wee wasn’t being an asshole to anyone.  He critiqued “the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization” to highlight the injustice they face.  It is the inability to see or focus on that main fact that I call political correctness. 

I do not engage in sexist or racist language, yet I oppose political correctness.  Why is that?  Because political correctness goes far beyond that.  The response to Carlson-Wee’s poem is the perfect example.  Yes, it is possible there are those who were actually traumatized and offended by his words.  But they either miss or do not care about the point of his poem.  To complain about the poem; to get both the Nation and Carlson-Wee to apologize for the poem; and to think the poem is somehow insensitive when its entire point was sensitivity to the dehumanizing treatment of the marginalized is political correctness.  Incidentally, I am sure Carlson-Wee, writing in the Nation on behalf of the oppressed, is not a right-winger.

It’s subtle, of course, and that is why it is still problematic.  The majority of people who complain about political correctness may be sexists and racists who wish to continue saying evil things, but that does not mean that political correctness does not exist.  They are not the only ones who use the phrase.  It goes beyond not being an asshole to others, hence my even talking about it.  Political correctness is overcompensation to the point of the loss of reason and logic.

How it Should Go

Me: “One of my brothers was bisexual and died of AIDS in 1991.  Due to society’s stigmas, almost no one knew he was bisexual, let alone sick.  My father learned his son was dead and LGBTQ+ in the same phone call.”

Self-Identified “Queer” Man Who Used to Identify as a Woman: “Thank you for sharing your story.  It’s amazing how far we have come and how much more we have to do.  It will take support from allies like you.”

IT WILL TAKE SUPPORT FROM ALLIES LIKE YOU.  He knows it.  Why doesn’t everyone?

The Bottom Line

For justice to prevail, oppression must end.  It will not end unless or until oppressors stop oppressing.  They will not stop oppressing unless or until they change on their own; their concerned peers dissuade them; or the oppressed dissuade them.  Only one of these choices is likely.

//

(1)  My friend Jay Sizemore says, “. . . Your assertion that oppressed people need help from privileged people to be free will get a lot of pushback.”  But is my friend Jay’s position that the privileged don’t need to change?  A privileged ally is not oppressed, but she or he is an ally.  She or he can and must help the oppressed.  It is not insulting anyone to say the help is necessary, otherwise why seek it or even consider anyone oppressed?  “You can help yourself; you’re fine.”