Over at Bitch today, I did an analysis of Peggy’s recent entrance into the Oppression Olympics:
First of all, and I wish this went without saying but it probably doesn’t: Peggy was wrong, wrong, wrong to equate or even compare her struggles as a white woman with those of African Americans of the same era. First of all, it’s demonstrably true that they aren’t the same, either in character or in seriousness—Abe is right in that no one was firing bullets at women at the time to keep them from voting. Second of all, it erases the experiences of people who actually face both kinds of discrimination at once. Third, it sets everyone up in a kind of competition for equal status, that assumes that whatever grant of it we’re going to get is a limited pie, so we’d all better start squabbling over the pieces, rather than expect the kind of unlimited horizons that are currently granted, as of birth, to the people at the top of the pyramid in this culture. (The competition suggested here is often referred to as the Oppression Olympics.) And in doing this she demonstrates a common problem that the feminist establishment has run into whenever it’s tried to make analogies between the experience of women and the civil rights movement.
I do think that sometimes analogies of this kind can be wielded effectively, say where one is trying to demonstrate to a white woman that her opinions about the experiences of black women are not as useful as the actual reports from people of that kind: “How do you feel when men try to tell you what it’s like to be woman?” In other words, I am okay with appeals to other kinds of oppression if the idea is to get people to use the kind of double-consciousness almost all systemically disadvantaged people have—the realization that what your culture tells you you are is not what you, in fact, are—to get them to open their eyes and ears to types of disadvantage they don’t suffer from. But there is less of this empathetic motivation present when you are, as Peggy is here, abstractly using the struggles of others as a means of self-defense or aggrandizement. (“I’m just like them… and they could have done what I did.”) Someone else’s suffering shouldn’t be your rhetorical strategy to deflect personal criticism.
As always, feel free to comment/discuss here.