Vectors of Oppression – Freed in a Wave, Research Time, 06/06/2016

So what does probably the most pretentious title for a post in the entire nearly-three-year history of this blog mean? Other than my getting more pretentious tonight. After a long day at the day-job, I feel like I’ve earned it. And frankly I still feel enough energy as I write to pound this out pretty quickly. 

The last panel I attended at the Canadian Philosophical Association in Calgary was titled “Cultural Racism,” and my favourite paper there was the first one. Alia Al-Saji presented a paper on the process of racialization – the social forces at all scales of oppression and marginalization that constitute people as a race.

I've probably learned most about the everyday experience
of oppression from activists' experiences. Definitely not my
own. And the one that's had the most effect on me has
been Black Lives Matter. Following the feeds of people
like Johnetta Elzie can teach more about real liberation
than a hundred philosophical books. The philosophy can
still be a good hand, though.
I was happy to meet Al-Saji, since she was one of the people whose work I had used in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. In particular, I used some of her work on Maurice Merleau-Ponty in my sections on the nature of perception. And while the paper itself was very insightful, I told her that it had one nagging problem.

Compared to how a lot of other academics were treating the nature of race, it was actually a very forward-thinking argument that races are entirely socially manufactured, with no essential underlying physical substrate. That the marginalization of communities economically and socially goes hand in hand with stigmatizing them with ugly, cruel stereotypes. 

Marginalization and stigmatization equals racialization. If I can put an absurdly and blatantly simple gloss on the concept. 

And I move in a social media world where a ton of people already understand this concept intimately and work against it in their activism and communication. The real world seems to have surpassed the debates of the community of academics. 

Now, I’m not exactly surprised. But I’m saddened that a profession that – on the whole – thinks itself literal thought leaders* is now falling being the times. I used to think a position here could position me in the leading edge of progressive ideas. I no longer think so.

* As in, leaders in thought itself.

Antonio Negri talks about the nature of racialization, specifically intersectionality. It’s a matter of liberation. Intersectionality is, in most discussions, about how different oppression vectors can co-exist in a single person. Like the black lesbian in the wheelchair.

But intersectionality is also – and most importantly – about how all those oppressions are ultimately the same process. Gender oppression, for example, is no different than racial or religious oppression in the social process that actually constitutes it. Successful activism has to accept this.

Now, the reason Black Lives Matter has moved me so
much is that I was probably most ignorant about the
different vectors of racial oppression that black people
in America experience. I used to be one of those people
who complained that protestors never accomplished
anything because they were all so violent, believing
everything I heard in media. Paying attention to
DeRay McKesson, for example, taught me so much
about where all those vectors were. Before online
media let me share their experience, I couldn't have
had any of those brutally educational experiences.
Thankfully, this is another way that real-life activists have progressed beyond the so-called thought leaders of the university system. So many in online communities understand their own struggles as intersecting. That you can’t win against one vector of marginalization without progress against all of them.

Negri notes the example of the American union movement. It was focussed on class marginalization and workers’ rights. Liberation for people alienated because of their wealth and social castes. And it succeeded for a while.

One of the places where the union movement in America foundered was as the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movement kicked into gear. Worker activists could never – overall – get behind movements against racism. 

In many cases, too many workers remained hostile to black liberation and entry into the same social circles as whites. The same goes for their attitudes to women. The only thing close to a rational concern – other than falling back into unthinking prejudice (“I won’t work with n___rs!” “We don’t do women’s work!”) – is fear that increased competition will drive down their wages and make jobs more scarce.

Those attitudes completely ignore the macro-scale reasons for liberation. The more people are wealthy and able to produce wealth, the wealthier society will become. More people will spend money and produce things, relationships, and ideas that can grow wealth.

I see the same danger for the union movement and contemporary environmentalist movement. If union leaders and activists stick only to short term thinking and ignore the intersection of economic and environmental violence, they’ll see industrial shifts as risks to their jobs. Too many already think this way.

What makes that a problem is that all oppressions – gender, race, class, religion, ability, culture, sexuality – are the expressions of the same process. Racialization – to marginalize and stigmatize the marginal. So all liberation has to happen at once.

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