Categorical Justice

MAD MEN: A diary about (and for) men who are mad about stuff


For example, when some men angrily claim that, as a result of feminism, men are now being discriminated against, taken for granted, or otherwise victimized, those feelings are real but unjustified.  Simply put, women do not have the social power to oppress, subordinate, or discriminate against men.  Gender is a power relation.  Consult our nation’s history and see who has (and has had) the political, economic, legal, and cultural power.  And reflect on the following (from Politics of Reality, by Marilyn Frye):

Women are oppressed, as women.  Members of certain racial and/or economic groups and classes, both the males and females, are oppressed as members of those races and/or classes.  But men are not oppressed as men.

Think about that.  A radical feminist plainly acknowledges that men are oppressed.  Men can be oppressed because of economic class, race, sexual orientation, disability.  But men are not oppressed because they are men.  Being-a-man is not what causes anyone to be oppressed; a black man, a gay man, a poor man may be oppressed.  But they are not oppressed because they are men.

So, here the author is acknowledging an arbitrary definition of “social power” that includes baked-in oppression. The author carefully distinguishes individual and categorical oppression, implying a definition of social justice as a situation wherein someone may be oppressed for various reasons, but is not oppressed for being who she is categorically.


The exact same circumstances of oppression could exist for the individual, or even for groups of individuals falling into certain categories, but if there is no universal experience of oppression within a given category (such as gender identity), then apparently there is “social justice” as relates to that category. The category itself is doubtless assumed to be mutable and dependent on the oppressed person’s identification.

It is all very much a game of social roles, subjective identification, feelings of oppression, ethical norms, etc. In other words, at base there is no regard for physical circumstance, physical characteristics, overt expressions, or codified law/policy. Even the perceptions of “oppressors” are not relevant, since they are presumed blind to their privilege.

The two criteria for social injustice are, apparently, (1) a feeling of being oppressed and (2) membership in a category defined as oppressed. Feeling oppressed without belonging to an oppressed category, although valid, is not considered to be socially unjust. Belonging to an oppressed category, yet not feeling oppressed, does not invalidate social injustice; rather, it calls for “consciousness raising” or an “awareness campaign” so that every member of the category will feel the oppression. So, really, the only necessary criteria is belonging to a category defined as oppressed.

Such categories are not permanent, as far as I have noticed. For example, around the turn of the 20th century Irish, Polish, Italian, and Spanish immigrants to the US would have been considered an oppressed category, because they were oppressed specifically due to their ethnic identity. Now that their ethnic identities have been mostly submerged into “Euro-American” identity, as long as their ethnic distinctions are not the subject of mass media scrutiny, the oppression meter reads pretty low for them in the US. They are the subject of jokes among themselves and other distinct ethnic groups, but hardly “oppressed” in any systematic way.

Jews, on the other hand, maintain some ethnic distinctions, and the mass media still scrutinizes them because of those distinctions. Therefore, the categorical distinction remains, along with debate over whether the particular distinctions confer advantages or disadvantages.

This post started out, however, with quotations about gender distinctions. The author of the quoted piece is absurdly naive. At least in the US, class distinctions supported by racial appearance overwhelmingly cancel out any kind of gender-based oppression. There is no poor black man in the US who will ever win out in a public dispute with a rich white woman.*

I have concluded that distinctions fluctuate and that everyone makes distinctions, and everyone will continue to make all kinds of distinctions, because it is the only way to survive in a society of more than a half dozen people. It is a kind of mental shorthand to deal with the vast amount of social knowledge involved with living in large groups. The distinctions vary in type, although as societies become more densely packed or more heavily trafficked, then the more obvious distinctions become more important, even if their superficiality makes them disconnected from proximate causes of behavior. Over time, “culture” comes to define most distinctions, although this term is not fixed in meaning.**

Oppression as a social justice issue concerns itself with distinctions that disadvantage entire categories. The task of social justice is to raise awareness about the categories and the oppression. Despite the way it is bolstered by stories of individual oppression, it is concerned mostly with the abstract process of defining categories, describing oppression, and publicizing the results of the inquiry.

Although policy objectives and individual remedies are sometimes pursued, they usually turn out to be inadequate, and the ultimate goal is widespread awareness.*** The awareness is supposed to lead to guilt in the oppressors and outrage in the oppressed.

Why am I concerned with these analytical definitions? Because I often feel sorry for people labeled as oppressed, and yet I am disgusted by the abstraction of the “social justice awareness” process. As it strays further and further from physical reality, or even genuine feelings, it becomes more remote from the actual human condition as well as the actual remedies for suffering. It becomes a cynical propaganda campaign; a salve for the wounded hearts of the “aware” members of the oppressor category; a false hope for members of the oppressed category; and a fake set of superficial stereotypes forced onto everyone.

In other words, social justice awareness becomes functionally indistinguishable from systematic oppression. The useless, empty-headed, self-righteous advocates for social justice eventually start to look just like the arrogant, reflexively self-righteous, angry jerks they are opposing. Because politics makes everyone dumber, and the crowd is always wrong.

* The man in such a case is not, I suppose, being “oppressed as a man.” He is being oppressed as poor; but being black and male accentuates the untrustworthiness of being poor, relative to a rich white woman. The feminist analysis would likely admit the power relation, but suggest that the poor black man is being oppressed by rich white men who infantilize and protect the rich white woman, thus oppressing her as well by depriving her of autonomy. The direction of this sort of inquiry always leads away from concrete reality in order to support presuppositions.

** The fact that the distinctions become progressively separated from physical causes (biological, geographical, etc.) means that new distinctions may form rather quickly and arbitrarily, based on transitory social factors and superficial cues. The constant fluctuations, however, mean that convergence would be dependent on the interplay of various factors tending toward social unity. There is no necessary “progress” toward convergence in any particular grouping, despite the bias favoring this belief throughout US history. Likewise, there is no necessary divergence based on supposedly fixed, insuperable distinctions (evolutionary, racial, religious, political, economic, etc.). Counter-arguments propose that either convergence or divergence are not inevitable, but might be preferable, and so must be imposed either by persuasion or by force. I say that either method, in pursuit of either objective, constitutes meddling; and then the ethical questions concern whether to meddle, not whether the supposed outcome would be preferable, since the outcome is uncertain.

*** Awareness of distinction, not unity; and so the moral hollowness of social justice becomes apparent, when it leads to perpetuation of the worst traits endemic to each class — arrogance in the upper middle classes, resentment in the lower middle classes, apathy in the highest class, and despair in the lowest class.


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