I have little interest, really, in the ways different people excoriate Richard Dawkins for his ignorance. However, whenever I come across very clear rhetoric, I like to note it, and this one happens to concern Mr. Dawkins.
I guess Dawkins showed his support for Muslim feminists, but then he turned around and insulted them by not being careful with his language, and then another white guy jumped in, and the Muslim feminist insulted him, and then Dawkins was offended and said the remark was “a racist, sexist, bigoted thing to say.” Oh, no, Mr. Dawkins — that was an error on your part, as other liberal white males were careful to point out.
So, here’s the fascinating insight for me. The Muslim feminist had responded to Dawkins this way:
You can’t be racist to white people, also you can’t be sexist to men.
Yeah, white guys who were raised up with an implicitly universalist ethic get really angry when they read that. All kinds of objections spring to mind, including Bible verses, the Kantian categorical imperative, liberal political rhetoric about democratic equality, and conservative political rhetoric about equality under the law. It just sounds unfair that someone is allowed to punch you, repeatedly, and you are not allowed to hit back, even when being very careful to use exactly the same techniques.
It’s all about the so-called power structure, or “oppression”, as another white guy explained:
What Dr. Dawkins apparently doesn’t know is that racism and sexism are about power and oppression, not about judgments and insults. When Salya says you cannot be racist to a white person, or sexist to a male, what she’s saying is that those comments cannot reflect or reify oppression. Salya’s words can never oppress Richard Dawkins, but Richard Dawkins’ words can absolutely oppress Salya, particularly when he insists that the right to represent Muslim women belongs in the hands of white atheist males.
Surprisingly, I accept this as a useful clarification on the use of terms. As a white male, I have always been perplexed by the polemical use of the terms “racist” and “sexist,” as if they were synonymous with “jerk.” I can see, though, that they are not merely judgmental and insulting, but also operate in a political context to undermine “power and oppression.” Of course I knew that was their purpose, but not that they could only be used in that context.
So, have we witnessed a little bit of progressive enlightenment for an old white male, even if I don’t feel guilty yet? Not quite. I’ve always been aware of privilege and social classes. Mostly I have squandered any privilege I may have derived from being a white, middle-class, US male, since I was perpetually baffled by the supposed benefits.
I tried (briefly) being empathetic with the “oppressed,” but really that is pointless unless one wishes to either attack the authorities directly or drop out of society entirely. Either way, there is no reciprocity from the oppressed, because a white male can never do enough to compensate for systemic oppression, therefore the oppressed owe him nothing.
So, I simply went back to being aware of the power structures, while not being really concerned about oppression as such. I’m afraid that “oppression” as a social force is too inchoate for me, and too tied up with social group boundaries and identification, such that I consider it largely imaginary.
Here’s the problem: brutality and unfairness happen to particular people, whereas oppression happens to a group of people, in aggregate and on average. No individual is oppressed; he is beaten, tortured, or insulted. Oppression is purportedly a matter of systematic injustice; but justice is measured by individual cases, and the system only exists in the form of laws or attitudes. Laws may be judged unconstitutional, unfair, cruel, etc., but they can only be unjust in particular applications. So, what is left are systematic attitudes.
Attitudes, however, are not determinative of actions. Ideas do not have consequences; behaviors do. People are responsible for their actions regardless of attitudes. The fantastic superstition about thought crime is that attitudes can be policed, and that this will result in just actions. However, this corruption of logic only has the desired result in the case of insecure, self-doubting losers, AKA white liberal men; the desired result being not “just actions,” but rather cowering, whimpering fear of a withering scolding from nonwhites and non-men.
So, anticipating an imaginary rebuttal, I will have my strawman point out that a society is fundamentally unfair to various classes of people who do not have authority. I say, so what? Every society I have lived in has been fundamentally unfair to me in some way, since I have not ever had absolute authority. I do not necessarily hold this against most of them, since I do not expect them to affirm all of my preferences and beliefs.
That, I believe, is the primary mode of oppression that most people experience, as distinct from particular incidents of unjust treatment: a society has failed to affirm all of their preferences and beliefs. The idol they worship has turned out to be an evil and capricious god who despises them. That is justice.