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July 6, 2011 / Katie

On Rational Arguments

I’m noticing a trend lately in a lot of liberal blogs that deal with issues of oppression and privilege, in which people are not bothering to make an actual, cogent argument demonstrating their claims of oppression

There’s this trend of saying, “I’m oppressed (or that other group over there is oppressed) because I say so, and if you don’t believe me, it’s because you’re privileged.”

But this can degenerate quickly. By this logic, anything can become an oppression. I can claim I have non-Android-user oppression because my spouse has access to all kinds of awesome apps that aren’t available on my iPhone and sometimes I feel sad or frustrated about that. Never mind that I have awesome apps not available to him, and that having a smartphone in the first place could never be related to an oppression that I face, but rather a privilege.

But I mean, seriously. If we don’t have any standard beyond “I feel bad and therefore I’m oppressed” then all of this becomes nonsense. If we can’t make a rational argument demonstrating, with evidence and clear logic, what that oppression consists of, then how can we even be sure it exists ourselves?

There are a lot of things I feel bad about. They are not all oppressions. There are a lot of ways people hurt me. They are not all oppressing me. The claim of oppression is weighty, and it requires serious intellectual weight behind it. No single one of us has to do that work alone, but we also can’t throw the value of that work out the window ala conservative anti-intellectuals claiming that logical discourse and information gathering aren’t as important as personal feelings.


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  1. Twistie / Jul 6 2011 2:22 pm

    How dare you oppress me by saying I may not be oppressed! I don’t even have a cell phone! If that isn’t oppressed, I don’t know what is! Cease oppressing me with your apps and specialized ringtones! I’ll tell my mommy!

    Er… um… I may have just underlined your point with that outburst. ; )

    Yeah, if you can’t point to an actual act of oppression, then maybe it’s time to really take a good long look at whether you have a case for oppression. Either you’ll find you have a legitimate case that you can now properly articulate to others, or you’ll find you aren’t being oppressed, in which case you can relax and let go.

    I have a brother who’s always trying to claim oppression. Because you know what? If there’s one group of people in this world who can never get a fair shake about anything, it’s middle-aged, white, able-bodied men with advanced college degrees. (rolls eyes) His proof? He’s never been seated on a jury.

    Funny, the one time I got seated on a jury, there were five middle-aged, white, able-bodied men with college degrees sitting right next to me. In the twelve juries my mother sat on, she was the only woman on about half of them and it was Big News the first time every face in the jury box wasn’t white.

    I think my brother doesn’t get seated on juries because he presents as the sort of guy who wears a tinfoil hat to bed to keep the government from reading his brain waves. Oppression? Meh, perhaps. On the other hand, if I was on trial I’d rather not have a jury of the wildly delusional deciding my fate.

  2. Meowser / Jul 6 2011 7:22 pm

    That’s funny, Twistie. I’ve only had to report for jury duty once (ah, the benefits of being a nomad!), and that one time, we sat there in the room for three hours and only a few people were even called in to be interviewed. So most of us were dismissed without anyone knowing anything about us other than our names, which can only tell you so much.

    It’s funny, but I actually can’t think of too many personal examples of when someone actually told me, “I don’t like you because you’re part of group x” directly. It’s more like the looks I’ve gotten on job interviews or blind dates, or the looks on the faces of people I liked and wanted to get to know better, the one that says, “You don’t belong here,” or, “I had no idea you’d look like THAT,” or, “I’ll be nice to you, but no way are you getting to be part of my life.” Even an autistic like me picks those up, because I know that people in the “group x”-es that I belong to HAVE had people just say it to them straight up.

  3. silentbeep / Jul 7 2011 1:23 pm

    I see this a lot on tumblr, and I have a theory as to why this happens, this “phenomonen” of which you speak. I think there are a lot of people that are completely denied their right to anger, completely denied their right to speak, in their off-line worlds. In other words, I think there is a lot of trauma going around (especially on tumblr). So, when people get the space to express that anger, trauma and hurt it turns into something that is nowhere close to intellectual rational discussion – it’s not about that. It’s about pain and hurt and wanting to be heard desperately and this often turns into having zero tolerance for dissenting opinion or questioning. What looks like reasonable questions on the questioner’s end, may look like a total denial of that person’s identity (the person being questioned on the validity of their claims). I think the “questioned” feel like they have to validate their feelings, their existence, and they are sick of doing it – so you get the hard, hard line and no tolerance for discussion or nuance.

    I’m sympathetic to such people, and I think my description above is flawed actually. It’s more complex than that. Sometimes, people really are oppressed (such as me as a fat, Latina, woman) because in many contexts, I am. So, sometimes I get tired of having to explain over and over and over again why fat bashing, woman bashing, and Mexican bashing, is a huge problem on a societal scale. That being said, I don’t believe in blogging being my own form of “group therapy” and I don’t expect that I will get emotional validation from strangers, that’s not realistic nor is it fair. I also think there is such a thing as people asking questions in good faith and are trying hard to get out of their ignorance – I don’t think it’s fair for such people to demand i educate them, but I can tell if someone is asking in good faith, and if I have the energy that do, I may do more explaining about the intersections of fat, female, and brown identity.

    More than anything, I believe completely in kindness and the complexity of every human life – everyone has their own suffering to bear in some way, big and small.

    However, there is such a thing as privilege. There is such a thing as oppression. Sometimes people don’t want to hear about the existence of either one of those tthings.

    People don’t listen often because they feel “guilty” about their privilege or about someone else’s oppression. While guilt is natural its often not helpful. My style is this – I try and remember the inherent humanity of all people, even the ones that don’t see mine as a fat brown woman. It’s hard to do sometimes. But I never want to abuse people on line because they are not learning fast enough, or because they are not doing “activsm right” or some such thing. I want balance.

    • Katie / Jul 7 2011 1:42 pm

      TW for domestic violence on this comment.

      I absolutely agree with what you are saying, and that’s really why I pointed out that no one of us has to do the job by ourselves. I’ve been in plenty of arguments with people denying fat oppression who expect ME to baby-step them through every single concern that they have. They’re not happy with me giving them a whole laundry list of resources and saying, “I can’t educate you about this, you need to educate yourself.”

      But, what I AM saying is that the laundry list of resources needs to be there. WE, collectively, need to have solid theory to back up our claims of privilege and oppression. Interpersonal harm and trauma exist both within and outside of systems of oppression, as do mental health issues. I think there is much value in speaking our truth, often angrily, and refusing to kowtow to privileged people who demand that we as an individual speak for everyone in our group. But at the end of the day, if we’re going to claim that our anger and pain is in response to a systemic oppression, then we need to be able to demonstrate that. A great example is a man claiming that he is oppressed by women because his mother was abusive and his wife cheated on him. That man has my compassion as a human being who has faced tremendous pain and been genuinely harmed. But his harm (and possibly trauma) does not translate into systematic male oppression the same way a woman with an abusive father and cheating husband is experiencing the fruits of a sexist system.

      Because claiming a system of oppression requires stepping back from any one individual’s experience or feelings and having an evidence-based, logical argument demonstrating that systemic oppression exists. Some of that evidence comes from the collated experiences of members of a particular class, but to do this, generalities need to be employed to some degree. The existence of one man who’s been raped and one woman who has not doesn’t automatically mean that rape isn’t a woman’s (sexist) issue, for example. And just because rape is an issue of institutionalized sexism (aka patriarchy), doesn’t take away from the legitimate harm the raped man has experienced, but it also does not make a case for rape being a tool of systematic oppression of men the same way it is for women.

      As to the issue of all of us talking to each other (esp. on places like Tumbler) out of our trauma/PTSD, I wish I knew of a better way of handling that. I think you’re right, I just feel a bit stuck as to how to move forward with that reality :-/

  4. silentbeep / Jul 7 2011 2:12 pm

    “WE, collectively, need to have solid theory to back up our claims of privilege and oppression.”

    In the main, I think you are right. I mean, people can talk about whatever they want on their blogs. However, within social justice movements, I think there has to be space for not only talking from emotion but also from intellectual discourse and rationality. Because I think that’s how human nature works: different people respond differently to different types of arguments. Sometimes, people need to hear the full blunt force trauma of what people are going through and sometimes there needs to be that solid theory.

    Also, I agree with you example above of trauma sometimes intersecting with societal oppression and sometimes not.

    • silentbeep / Jul 7 2011 2:21 pm

      And ideally, I think emotion and rational discourse can come together, and be supportive elements in any argument within social justice, for the full expression of people’s oppression.

      • Katie / Jul 11 2011 10:28 am


        My concern is when one comes without the support of the other, or (perhaps even worse) when a person clings so tightly to one that they actually claim that the other is worthless. e.g. “I feel oppressed, and therefore your rational arguments about this oppression not existing are not worth discussion” or “I have rationally decided you are not oppressed, therefore your experience doesn’t matter.”

  5. cinnamongirl / Jul 11 2011 7:38 am

    I find it difficult to comment on the subject of this post as it stands, because I don’t know which oppressions or even which blogs you are talking about. Can you be more precise?

    With all this talk about needing solid evidence to back up claims, of oppression, I’m assuming you are not talking about the forms of oppression which have a lot of solid research and evidence to back them up ie sexism, racism, homobigotry, etc. Is this a reasonable assumption?

    I’d be interested in hearing which claims of oppression you are talking about, and even more interested in which liberal blogs you are talking about, so that I can go and see those claims for myself and evaluate them. Once I get a handle on exactly what it is that bothers you, I’d love to comment further.

    • Katie / Jul 11 2011 10:36 am

      hi cinnamongirl!

      If you read a couple posts back, I was talking about someone who was claiming “Scottish oppression” based on flimsy claims and anything I said to argue that was construed as me playing oppression olympics or further contributing to their oppression. That was a major trigger for this post, but I’ve seen it in other areas as well. Frankly, I’m a little worried about bringing up some of them, because I have seen people being so defensive and attackative about folks bringing up the logic of the argument rather than just taking at face value what the person is saying about how they feel. An example is that in this case of the Scottish oppression thing, someone actually made a lengthy post about me, lying about what I had said not just by taking it out of context but actually by claiming I have said things I have never said. I tried to comment to the post, and the blog owner responded by editing my comment—she took out all the vowels from what I had said but left the consonants (lolwhut?) and put her own response, which continued to lie about what I said.

      All over the issue of a so-called “Scottish Oppression” that she doesn’t even claim to personally have (she’s from Finland).

      I’ve seen other people ripped even more to shreds for daring to question things like this. I’ve seen women’s personal information and details placed out in public and seen these same women receive threats of death and rape for daring to question certain oppressions. You’ll understand, I hope, why I am reticent at this point to name them immediately. In this post, and some others I have floating in my mind, I am toeing the water by talking about this in a theoretical sense. But I had made a choice to link my personal and professional identity to this blog, and that makes it very difficult and dangerous for me to make certain claims.

    • Katie / Jul 11 2011 10:39 am

      With all this talk about needing solid evidence to back up claims, of oppression, I’m assuming you are not talking about the forms of oppression which have a lot of solid research and evidence to back them up ie sexism, racism, homobigotry, etc. Is this a reasonable assumption?

      Yes and no. Yes, when I say that I am seeing a lot of people claiming oppressions without an ability to back it up rationally, I am not talking about things that have been clearly demonstrated, like sexism, racism, homobigotry (I like that term a lot better than homophobia! thanks!), fatphobia, classism, etc.

      But I actually do include those in my general analysis when saying that to claim that an oppression exists, we must have empirical evidence and logical arguments to back up those claims in order to expect others to take them seriously. It’s the same standard applied to all the oppressions. But it is very clear to me that some have been (and continue to be) thoroughly supported.

  6. cinnamongirl / Jul 16 2011 11:23 am

    Hi Katie, sorry it took me so long to get back to this post.
    With regards to your second comment, I think, by your answer, that you may have misunderstood my question. I was not asking if you think racism etc needs empirical evidence, I was asking if these ‘isms’ were the oppressions you were talking about in this specific post.

    I went back and read your post about Scottish oppression (I didn’t read the comments). I get your general point about the distinction between prejudice and oppression, and I agree that this is an important distinction. But I was a bit confused about these sentences: “I have seen no demonstrable evidence that Scottish people, as a class, are oppressed.** They may be subject to some pretty rotten discrimination, and that in itself sucks and is terrible.” While I understand the distinction you made between prejudice and oppression, I’m quite confused by the distinction between oppression and discrimination. I would have thought there is a connection or a sequence there: Prejudice is not in itself necessarily oppression, but I would have thought that discrimination is a form of oppression, or an aspect of it? Eg if, say, white people are prejudiced against black people, then they have the power to discriminate against them, with the end result that black people are oppressed? (I hesitate to use this example in case it derails the discussion into one about black and white, but since you moderate comments I’m trusting that won’t happen). So I’d really like to hear your views about the distinction between discrimination and oppression.

    In regards to the Scottish thing in particular, I’m only slightly familiar with Scottish history in general and this particular social phenomenon. But I have read a huge amount about Irish oppression, and it surprised the hell out of me, because I had no idea it was so bad, and continued until so recently – I mean I’d heard an awful lot of ‘Paddy and Mick’ jokes, jokes denigrating Irish people and that sort of thing, but I didn’t realise that Irish people were compared to apes and refused jobs and entry to shops like black people in the USA, or that within living memory where I live (Australia) people would wash the chair an Irish person sat in and refuse to use the same (washed) cup an Irish person had used. Finding these sorts of things out later in life, I guess my first response to the Scottish thing is to assume my own ignorance rather than assume that Scottish oppression doesn’t exist. Like you, I prefer evidence, but on this subject I think I’ll go and look for that evidence because the existence of both prejudice and discrimination against Scottish people leads me to believe that there is reasonable grounds for the existence of oppression, and I do have a hazy memory of reading about historic oppression against the Scots.

    I do see spurious claims of oppression, just not on liberal blogs – for example I have seen Christians claim to be oppressed when states enact laws allowing gay marriage, and men claim to be oppressed when women say men should ask for consent instead of forcing themselves on women. But I don’t see these claims on liberal blogs unless they’re trolls in the comments. As for what that person did to you on that blog, yeah those kind of tactics always suck, regardless of who is doing it, Love the word ‘attackative’ btw. :D

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