There is a school of thought which argues that human societies are predominantly characterised by oppression and by the resistance which this generates. The goal towards which such societies should travel is liberation from tyranny and the attainment of equality for all. Following from this there exists an observable hierarchy of oppression and, therefore, of oppressor. At the top of the hierarchy sits the white, Western (ie. colonialist), heterosexual male. On the receiving end of varying degrees of oppression, suppression and exclusion are women, gays, transexuals, people from visible ethnic minorities, Muslims and others too numerous to list.
There are, I think, various problems with this model. It, for example, takes insufficient account of socio-economic class which enables, say, a black lesbian CEO to oppress white proletarians whom she employs below the minimum wage. Also, this analysis has sprung up in Western countries which despite their many flaws are undoubtedly the best places in the world to live if you happen to be a woman, or gay or belong to a visible ethnic minority. No doubt there are many obstacles to human flourishing if you belong to any of these groups but far fewer than you would experience if you lived in those countries which have not been deeply rooted in Western paradigms. What this points to is oppression being something which emerges from a matrix of causes of which sex, sexuality and race are only a part not the whole, since although they are universally present they do not have uniformly identical or even similar outcomes wherever they appear.
For the sake of argument, however, let us accept the hypothesis as stated. One of the conclusions which its proponents deduce from it is that being in possession of ‘privilege’ so clouds your judgement that you are unable to accurately perceive reality. On the other hand being on the receiving end of oppressive societies enables you to see clearly and analyse accurately how these societies ‘really’ operate. Thus we can discount pretty much anything a white heterosexual man says while we should pay close attention to what disabled black lesbians tell us. A side effect, incidentally, of this view is an increasing desire to ‘no platform’ those with ‘privilege’ in favour of those without. That is, to deny speakers or writers the opportunity to express their views since they will merely use that opportunity to defend their privilege and so add to the burden of oppression (sometimes described as ‘violence’) which the unprivileged experience on a daily basis.
There are exceptions to the rule of course. If an American disabled black lesbian supports Donald Trump or a British Muslim supports Brexit it is because their minds have been colonised as well as their bodies (what Marxists call false consciousness.) Likewise if a white heterosexual male supports the liberationist perspective, and accepts the leadership offered by the oppressed, it is because their mind has been freed.
And here we run up against one great big inescapable flaw in the whole structure of this philosophy/ideology. The model simultaneously posits both that reality exists wholly independent of the observer and that there is no difference between the observer and the thing observed. That is, ‘privilege’ or the experience of oppression so dominate a person’s mind that their ideas (and therefore their speech and actions) cannot be separated from it. Nonetheless a privileged person can speak out against oppression and an oppressed person can speak in favour of it because they are able, as it were, to extract themselves from themselves (and their situation) and view it from an abstract perspective.
Both these things cannot be true, but taken together they can be politically useful. A feminist, for example, can dismiss any criticism of her perspective which emanates from a white male heterosexual by the simple expedient of telling him to ‘check your privilege,’ which means that it is unnecessary to address the content of what is said because the identity of the person saying it necessarily precludes him from the possibility of making accurate observations about oppression. At the same time, our hypothetical feminist can welcome support from her critic’s twin brother provided he accepts her leadership (or he allows his mind to be colonised by her) because despite his identity he has been able to get with the programme.
If we accept that reality exists independently of the person observing it and that at least some humans possess the capacity to observe that reality as it is independently, to some extent, from their own particular place within it, then it follows that there can be no a priori dismissal of a viewpoint simply on the basis of the identity of the viewer. Now, it is certainly the case that what you see depends in no small degree upon the place you happen to be standing while you look. For those who respond to the world reflexively rather than reflectively (ie. most of us) it is going to be the case that this response will emerge from a complex that includes our own self-interest and the prevailing worldview that dominates our society as well as the actual facts of the thing to which we are responding. However, those whose approach is reflective more than it is reflexive are not so bound.
One characteristic which humans uniquely have is imagination. Among other things it enables us to experience sympathy, empathy and the ability to project ourselves into situations which we have never experienced. Granting that an imagined experience of oppression is not the same as a ‘real’ experience of oppression it is still different from an unreflective response to a world in which we are immersed. Further to that, there is no single ‘real’ experience of oppression anyway since those who experience it do so through the filter of their own minds, imaginations and interpretive tools, such that, for example, two women will respond to being wolf-whistled in exactly opposite ways.
One conclusion I would draw from all the foregoing is that white heterosexual patriarchs are perfectly capable of producing analysis or commentary which reflects accurately the lived experience of many women, gays or people from visible ethnic minorities. Likewise those from oppressed groups are perfectly capable of writing the most egregious nonsense about these lived experiences. The key tool for analysis is not the situated body or even the situated mind it is the imaginative sympathy of the situated person which enables them to transcend their situation. Therefore the key tool for liberation is the encouragement of imagination and sympathy not their corralling in within strictly predetermined boundaries of more or less arbitrarily decided identities.
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The painting is God the Father by Cima de Conegliano