The oppression olympics

The “privilege” concept, nowadays almost omnipresent in gender, class, race, and any other debate about systemic social differences, is considered to be a useful tool to think about the precise position of a person amid the network of relations and political powers that constitute a social environment. Nevertheless, we believe that this concept is more troublesome than helpful when it comes to produce a critical discourse. In other words, it simply doesn’t work. This is the idea we want to discuss here.   

In a recent incident in Mexico City, Tamara de Anda (@plaqueta) made a legal complaint against a male taxi driver who shouted at her “guapa” in the street. In addition to the hate speech produced around Tamara’s reaction, fairly common when a woman dares to speak aloud about gender violence and street harassment, a discussion emerged around questions like “Was the legal complaint a form of class oppression? Was this issue exhibiting Tamara’s privilege as a white middle-class women, over the taxi driver’s social condition?”. We consider this is a clear example of how using the “privilege” category can produce more inconvenients than advantages in a public debate.

Allegedly, to talk about “privilege” implies that we are considering the social conditions determining the place from which a subject speaks, it is supposed to situate subjects in their context. So, to acknowledge what privileges belong to a person, or the ones a person doesn’t have, would produce a reliable cartography of the sociopolitical functions embodied by that person. For this reason it would be important to acknowledge the privileges that constitute each subject’s condition. This contextualization pretends to establish an equal ground for all individuals. The privilege stance assumes that, by making visible the privileges of some individuals, the need to produce an equal platform in which all subjects can enunciate their discourse, in which all discourses have the same power, where all subjects would have the same capacity to manage their rights, is also visualized. But, does this really work?

In the @plaqueta and the taxi driver’s case, the original harassment instance developed into a competition to decide which one of the persons involved had more and better privileges, who was performing them and how. Is a man’s privilege – the taxi driver – in a sexist society, in which masculinity takes over the public space and female bodies are objectified and sexualized, bigger than @plaqueta’s privilege? Or is this privilege exceed by white skin and a supposed belonging to a superior socio-economic class, embodied in Tamara de Anda? This specially in a society where racism and classism are a daily condition, so much that they are almost naturalized.

The “privilege” framework assumes that actions must be evaluated according to the social position that individuals occupy. Here is where we find the category’s first problem: action is reduced to a matter of individuals. “Privilege” transforms the social, historical, material and political complexity, with which subjects are intertwined, into a game board where some participants win, and others lose. Social justice is then presented as a matter of discussing which privileges holds a certain individual, and/or the hierarchical stance of one privilege over another (for example, if the class privilege it’s above the gender one).

This reduction of a social or political question to an individual problem is problematic because it relies on power as something assigned to particular persons. According to Judith Butler, to assign the totality of power for action to individuals is a way to reinstate the “sovereign” category into the political framework. The legal evaluation of citizens’ actions can only take place if there is someone to blame for a particular action. This is for Butler the relocation of the sovereign’s power in each one of the individuals.

By producing this reduction, the fact that individuals are not the absolute producers of an enunciation of action is forgotten. Subjects are part of a discourse with a historicity that goes beyond the individuals who act. This, of course, does not mean to free individuals form their responsibility when they act in a certain way, but it does mean to free the assessment of those actions from a simplistic, reductionist, field of morality.

According to the “privilege” theoretical framework, to have a privilege implies that we can draw a clear boundary between subjects, someone has a race privilege, while someone else does not have it. One can also talk about a sum of privileges, or about the sum of the lack of them, the advantages and disadvantages that this means in the personal history of individuals, and the way in which privileges determine the development of their lives, the quantity and/or quality of services to which they have access, or the rights that guarantee the value of someone’s life, or not.

This stance on the concept of privilege, as an irrevocable attribute of individuals, involves an essentialist economy of power. According to this idea, there would be some fields for political action which belong to certain identities, while other identities would be excluded from such fields. Social justice would consist on the calculation, and administration, of the political power this individuals have, according to their social context, and this power could be expressed as a list of having, or lacking, certain privileges.

So, action would be determined by individual identities, from which anybody could escape. Contrary to the way they are supposed to work, as situated and dynamic contextualizations, privileges become absolute and essential. This is caused by the identification of power with the belonging to certain social groups, from which oppression and control are inherent characteristics. For example, men oppress women, white people oppress people of color, rich individuals oppress the poor ones, heterosexuals oppress homosexuals, etc. This is another clear disadvantage of the “privilege” category, and is linked precisely with the way sovereign power its enacted.

On the other hand, if individuals have the sovereign power to determine actions, then it seems that it follows that they would also have the capacity to cancel power, to stop making use of it. This has led some people to conclude that when someone becomes aware of the privileges they have, then they could freely, and by an act of will, stop performing those privileges. Here seems convenient to ask: what kind of subjectivity can recognize its privileges? What kind of subject can give up to them? We are dealing here with a theory that supposes, on the one hand, that awareness (self reflection, self knowledge) guarantees emancipation and, on the other hand, that there are some subjects who can modify their political action’ conditions (the ones with privileges) and others who cannot (the ones with no privileges). In fact, this position affirms that one can give up on a privilege by a certain confessional ritual, where an individual declares their advantages over others. The privileged person’s guilt is then forgiven, and the person is free to act without fear of their actions being oppressive anymore, because they have confessed guilt and were pardoned. Moreover, there is no way to compensate the lack of privilege. The ones lacking privilege can’t rebuild their political identity by means of confession. Thereby, the “acknowledgment” of privileges establish an even bigger gap between individuals, and at the same time, it substitutes the possibility of collective action towards social justice with an isolated and exclusive act.

This sovereign subject who acknowledges their privileges has, presumably, special access and absolute control to their interiority (because they are transparent to themselves) and also to their exteriority, because they are able to modify the consequences produced by their political action just by means of a reflexive exercise. Furthermore they supposedly are able to distinguish, in a very precise way, between oppressed and oppressors, and they can choose between both positions, according to what fits them better in each situation, or their life’s narrative.

The possibility of a voluntary suspension of privileges, of its confessional annulment, assumes that the discursive situation of subjects can be reduced to a collectivity brought about by the sum of individual wills, and their particular consciousness. This means to say that social justice issues can be solved by the sum of awareness of a social group, forgetting that there are some issues that can’t be solved with this maneuver, like institutionalization of various kinds of discrimination, systemic inequality, or structural injustice.

The privilege stance presumably creates a power relations cartography, which allows to guide processes of recognition, and grievance. What we are looking for is to leave aside that cartography. We should look for a concept of subject that allow us to make arguments on justice, oppression and equality, without transforming responsibility into individual guilt. Instead of completing a political cartography made by an exhaustive moral auscultation of personal privileges, drawing another map is work to be done; to do that, we should take into account that there is no radical distinction between oppressed and oppressors, master and slave, nobody is exempt from possible complicity with injustice; control is not only exercised from an external position, and it is not an act of will, but it is most of the time interiorized, and materialized in everyday practices. In this way, oppression would stop being transformed into moral capital. A privilege stance articulates a logic of politics as access to certain resources, services and rights, but it leaves the potential to change those conditions in the hands of the good will of some enlightened individuals, with access to the acknowledgment of their privileges, with access to the holy grail of reflexion and consciousness. The privilege stance reduce emancipation to a self-improvement technology.

All of the above make us think that the “privilege” category contributes less to comprehend social and political reality than it explains. Talking in terms of privilege, with the purpose of reducing social and political conflicts, brings in the risk to obscure the debate on the constitution of discursive situations, rendering them as effects of some individuals actions with good or bad will. To think that performing a privilege is enough reason to disqualify an enunciation situation, is to reduce our possibilities to understand the configuration of such an enunciation itself. To assume that setting aside one’s privilege is all we need to produce an equal ground for discussion, means to reduce the effects of normative practices and language to the acts of some good and bad persons.

To talk about “privilege” trivializes discussions, not because there are no unequal situations which condition individuals experiences, but because it diverts our attention from a necessary structural critique of subjects and discourse configuration, and focuses our attention in a series of ad hominems, that in every case are based on the assumption of a determined and static identity. Privileges aren’t made by individual processes, they do not disappear as the result of some awareness. They are structures for the production of subjectivity, and we must give an account of those structures without losing sight of our aim, that isn’t reduced to reach self awareness, but the production of new worlds. Our aim is to look for a process for becoming the multiplicities we embodied, those multiples worlds that we are.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *