CN: contains reference to oppressive violence and some (attempts at) dark humour. Also contains frequent sarcasm – I’ll try to mark it for those who have trouble with that, but I might miss some.
Good news, marginalised sibs*! I have been hard at work in my Sciency Lab of Science, and I have discovered a Thing! We don’t actually have to justify our existence!
If you’re not a member of a marginalised group, you might be wonder right now what I’m talking about. Fear not, friend, for I am about to Learn You A Thing!
If you pay attention to current events, you may have noticed a strange trend when it comes to how certain groups reply to criticism, attacks, and violence. This covers a whole range of oppressions, from racism to fatphobia, transphobia to ableism. It covers an equally broad range of violence**, from verbal abuse to literal death. When a black person dies in police custody, for example, any sympathetic media coverage will always focus on how they were a good student, or how they were working two jobs to support their family, or how they had never committed a crime in their lives. When a fat person is shamed for being fat, people are quick to point out that they’re depressed, or they had an illness, or that they’re working hard to try and lose weight. When a trans person is assaulted, we’re forced to defend ourselves by pointing to our work in the community, by proving that we spend our weekends working at soup kitchens instead of clubbing, and that we never drink alcohol. When people with disabilities or mental illnesses are attacked, people often defend us by claiming we’re unable to defend ourselves, that we should be treated as innocent, ignorant, incompetent children, who are basically angels because of all the horrible terrible things we have to deal with because we’re ‘not normal’.
Excuse me for one moment, writing that last sentence made me nauseous…
Okay, so you might be thinking: ‘But Cambrino, what’s wrong with pointing out that someone’s a good person? Shouldn’t we be breaking down the negative stereotypes about marginalised people?’ And yeah, you’re absolutely right. We should be breaking down stereotypes. You know when we should be doing that? All the damn time. But that’s not what this kind of justification is about. This kind of justification is about people saying “this marginalised person didn’t deserve to be treated like a marginalised person because they don’t fit our stereotypes of a marginalised person”. When we make these kind of excuses, we basically take that marginalised person out of that marginalised group and make them an honorary not-marginalised person. And that isn’t helping anyone.
This kind of justification also leaves no room for imperfection. Black student on a B average? Nope, sorry buddy, you probably deserved what happened to you. Fat person who goes for the occasional walk but doesn’t exist on broccoli stalks and lemon water? Too bad, we’re gonna shame you forever. Trans person who smokes marijuana and likes a drink on the weekend? Maybe just stay home, it’ll be safer. Disabled person who just hates other people? Basically you’re the reason nobody likes disabled people probably. /sarcasm/
It leaves everyone who isn’t five times as perfect as literally any other human being out in the cold. And all the while, members of privileged groups suffering the same kind of violence (physical or verbal) don’t need a reason why they shouldn’t have been targeted. A white, middle-class cishet man being assaulted is always a tragedy. It doesn’t matter if they’re an habitual drinker who was high on three different drugs and yelling obscenities in the middle of a busy street – if someone comes up and punches them for it, the person who punched them is an arsehole, and a criminal arsehole at that. And that’s true – but it should still be true if the victim were a black trans woman sex worker, one of the most marginalised people in the Western World.
It also glosses over the fact that a lot of people in marginalised groups suffer because of that very marginalisation, and this means that there is a higher statistical likelihood that we will have criminal records – not only because more of us live in poverty and are forced into situations where criminal behaviour happens, but also because police target marginalised people – particularly people of colour – far more, because the entire legal system is racist as hell, from police to court. Because more marginalised people live in poverty, we are therefore less likely to have university degrees or high grades, because education is hard to access when you’re broke. People living in poverty are also more likely to have substance dependence issues, for a whole host of reasons that don’t stem from them being shitty people, but have everything to do with the fact that being marginalised is hard and people will find coping mechanisms for that. The point is, not everyone who is oppressed is, or wants to be, or can be, the ‘perfect person’. It doesn’t mean they deserve to be treated badly. But when we try to justify someone by pointing out how great they are, we throw these other, less idealised, people under the Oppression Bus.
The real reason we keep repeating these justifications is because there is a deep-seated, unconscious belief in our society*** that marginalised people somehow deserve to be treated poorly. Now, before you start jumping up and down and explaining to me why you think all people should be treated equally and how you would never be so horrible, let me just say: chill.
I’m not saying we’re all monsters who happily go about beating up marginalised people. Of course we’re not. This isn’t something most of us are consciously taught or aware of. It’s mostly a subtle social message that we get through media, art and literature, the law and politics – our whole culture is based on it. And that is super uncomfortable, because we want to believe in free will and individualism and all the rest, and not that we live in a society with strong cultural prejudices that oppress certain people for no good reason.
So when we see someone harmed, and we feel bad, we react in the only way we know how. Rather than saying “this oppressive violence is bad because it’s oppressive violence”, we try and explain why this particular individual didn’t deserve what happened to them. This allows us to preserve the status quo and believe that we’re good people at the same time. Sadly, it doesn’t help the people who are being harmed by the oppressive violence, because it makes that violence about individuals, instead of about cultural systems.
What do we do, then? Should we just stop talking about the people who are harmed by this violence? Should we stop pointing out the ways in which they were good people?
The answer to both of those questions is obviously no. We should celebrate each and every human for whatever is good about them. But that shouldn’t be limited to a narrow view of perfection involving achievement and self-sacrifice. It should involve things like ‘they made me smile’, or ‘they tried’, or just ‘they were human’. Some people aren’t ‘good people’ by any popular definition, but that doesn’t mean they deserve to be victims of oppressive violence.
And we absolutely must acknowledge, openly, honestly, and sensitively, the oppressive systems that led to that violence in the first place, because if we only ever focus on individuals – and this is where we need to talk about perpetrators as well – we will never address the root of the problem. Nobody should have to be ‘perfect’ in order to exist. People deserve to be free of violence because they’re people, and for no other reason.
I’m just gonna repeat that last bit: People deserve to be free of violence because they’re people, and for no other reason.
Thank you, and good night.
* sibs: short for siblings
** violence: I’m using violence as an overarching term for physical, emotional, psychological, and verbal abuse, attacks, assault and so on. Violence is never only physical
*** ‘our society’: I’m referring to Australian society here, but this can apply to the US, Canada, the UK, and much of (particularly Western) Europe as well.
Text: All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017.
Image from: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/sexual-assault-the-new-justification