If you’ve ever been told that you’ve internalised the patriarchy, that your feminism isn’t up to the mark because you don’t take specific account of ethnic minority women, that you can’t talk about abortion because you’re a man, that you should probably not even talk in a public place because as a cis white straight man your very words, dripping with the lard of privilege, constitute an act of violence against the voiceless that share said public space – you’ve probably come into contact with intersectionality, oppression and identity politics.
This trend continues to gain currency, not just in the recesses of gender studies departments and radical webzines, but in mainstream public and media discourse as well. I find it disquieting to say the least (for reasons to be explained shortly), but never have I been as infuriated as when I had the misfortune of encountering the article ‘Yes, Very Skinny Women Still Have Thin Privilege – Here’s Why’, by Melissa A. Fabello, published on EverydayFeminism.com.
If you’re reluctant to feed this cesspit of wrongness with additional clicks, here is my summary of the article:
The main argument is that if you respond to fat-shaming by pointing out your own thin-shaming, you’re wrong. Thin privilege is a real thing; you cannot therefore be oppressed for your thinness. Your oppression can simply be attributed to a different bucket of your identity, targeting, for example, your femaleness or your gayness.
If any of this sounds unfamiliar, you need to at least bear in mind the premise that there is a lot of oppression going on in the world, and that it typically centres on one end of an identity binary: male=privileged, female=oppressed; straight=privileged, gay=oppressed; thin=privileged, fat=oppressed; sexually attracted to people=privileged, sexually attracted to trees=oppressed (I can think of other words for it); healthy in mind and body=privileged, unhealthy in mind or body=oppressed; I like cats=privileged, I don’t like cats=oppressed, etc etc.
My initial response was an eye roll. What. Ever. And then it turned into – wait, this is actually the most enraging thing I’ve ever read, and makes me want to tear out my hair and run down Shoreditch High Street shouting ‘Trump for President’ (and other worse things) in the spirit of contrariness. If I’m 100% honest, while I dislike the fact that there are unrealistic body standards in the world, and while I think that we should all be nice and respectful towards each other, ‘fatphobia’ is not something I’d typically get riled about – or at least, I wouldn’t rally under that word. However, as this article represents one of the worst examples of why the oppression brigade is so wrong about life, I decided not to roll my eyes and move on, and instead to engage with some of the most egregiously bad points made in the article in my typical hair-splitting way.
What sort of engagement are we talking about here? Well, as we shall see later, this movement, at least in its internet incarnation, defines itself by its inability to be debated with. I’ll do my best to argue with it, but – trigger warning – there will be some recourse to snark.
1. Problem #1 – Unnecessary fear-mongering
“sometimes, it can hard to parse out which oppression(s) you’re facing at any given moment”
Did you know that you face oppression every minute of the day, nay multiple oppressions? What, you don’t think you do? Firstly, let me tell you just how badly you’re wrong about your everyday experiences, and secondly let me reassure you that your life will be so much better, humanity will be so much further advanced, once you’ve trained yourself to spot the microscopically insignificant mistreatments that bombard you every second – all in the name of human progress. Remember, there’s no such thing as a first-world problem.
2. Problem #2 – Distortion of logic
“Intersectionality Means We Can Be Oppressed and Privileged at the Same Time”
Or, let me just redefine what opposites are to support my argument.
3. Problem #3 – Impoverished definition of humanity
“We all exist in constellations of identity. I’m not just one star or another star; I am a combination of stars that create what you see when you look at me.”
What is a human being? A particular instantiation of the universal form of ‘human being’, comprising a form (soul) that gives shape and meaning to a certain configuration of matter (body)? A thinking, reasoning mind attached to a lump of meat that mechanically executes its bidding? Either of those, one feels, get closer to the truth of ‘what makes me me’ than this ‘participation in multiple [dubious] group identities’ rubbish: an accurate description of the being that is me is not ‘I am a straight white cisgender woman [and I will spare the rest, for the recitation thereof doth bore the reader, a fact which does not prevent the afore-cited author from doing so notwithstanding]’. A more accurate description of me would be ‘Primarily, I am, and I am a unique and autonomous member of the human race, and only secondarily I have certain characteristics, some transitory, some essential’. The first definition is simply a fixed list of categories whose existence may or may not be supported by anything stronger than how I feel at the time, and which denies me any autonomous mode of being outside attributes that have little relation to my unique character, that I did not choose, that I have no control over. Not only is my identity dissociated from anything to do with my actual self, instead consisting only of what’s thrust upon me, but this silly amalgam of categories appears to exist purely to set me at odds with the rest of the world and prevent me from establishing dialogue, let alone understanding, with anyone belonging to the opposite pole (‘it casts as authentic to the self or group an identity that in fact is defined by its opposition to an Other’ – source). Intersectionality and oppression politics cannot do otherwise, since they define me according to inherently antagonistic (not to mention uncompromisingly unsubtle) binaries: privilege/oppression, power/impotence, leaving out the majority of the human experience that does not revolve around my social standing, voice and influence in relation to others. Only the most reductive way of thinking about human relationships, history, and the economy – as the evolutionary fight to ensure survival through domination – could land us with this awful way of characterising our lives as, ultimately, no more than a power struggle.
4. Problem #4 – Reality redefined, possibly to avoid debate
“I believe in the existence of subjective truth”
You’ve well and truly given the game away now (although a neater formulation might have been ‘I believe that truth is subjective’ – I’ll let that comment stand, even though I just spent five minutes failing to conclude whether there is a difference in meaning between the two). Here is the crux of the problem. When your credo is essentially ‘I believe that I believe’, we are going to have a hard time coming to a mutual understanding (which despite my snarkiness I really would like to do). Indeed, you’ve defined your position in such a way that it is impossible for it to be argued with (clever that), since there’s no standard beyond your subjective mind – which I’ve no way of contradicting – against which your opinion can be held to account. Yet maybe this is not the point. The subjective truth we are talking about here is, tellingly, people’s ‘experience’ of discrimination, etc. This indeed is the point: that reality consists of experiences, feelings about the world, and not facts (what you might call objective truths that we can all access and debate), meaning that the content of said reality cannot be contradicted. Of course, there is a wider philosophical debate to be had around all of this, based on much less simplistic analysis.
5. Problem #5 – Failure to distinguish between a person and a characteristic
“the thin ideal exists specifically to oppress fat people.”
Really?! Do you honestly think that’s why there is a ‘thin ideal’?! It seems obvious that the modern wave of bikini bridges and A4 waists owes its existence less to a nasty conservative/corporate conspiracy than to Twiggy’s leggy leap to fame in the Sixties, setting a new trend that is still with us, for now. We have absolutely no way of judging the motivations of the people who promoted, supported or tacitly assented to Twiggy and other skinny models, then or now, and thus no grounds to claim that perpetrators of the ‘thin ideal’ are doing so on purpose to attack fat people themselves.
Most importantly, this is a great example of the effects of insisting that our characteristics are our essence: our author seems not to be aware that one could disagree with the concept of ‘fatness’ (e.g. based on aesthetic standards about lines and proportions, or evolutionary standards about gene optimisation, or even just because one fancies it), without feeling or enacting anything mean about anyone who embodies it. This is a problem.
6. Problem #6 – Complete detachment from reality
“Oppression is the “War on Obesity.” Oppression is the world not offering you access to resources, by declaring “war” on you, by wanting to get rid of you”
Firstly, in case anyone doesn’t see how this is obviously bullshit, let’s be clear: of course we should be less obsessed about people being thin, and of course one can’t equate certain waistline measurements with health. However, you have lost your grip on reality if you honestly can’t see that being extremely fat is very commonly associated with health problems, and that the war on obesity, if you must so violently characterise it, is therefore a necessary public health measure designed to ensure that our best interests of long and healthy lives are fulfilled. (If you want to debate best interests, whatever: being healthy and long-lived can be stated to be in our best interests, because as human beings we have purposes and obligations (whether innate or created by ourselves) that depend entirely on our continued existence and largely also on our good health. If you don’t believe that best interests exist, that’s fine, but it means you don’t have much grounds to complain if these non-existent things are violated when other people treat you unfairly or oppress you.)
Secondly, claiming that ‘the world’ is against you is the sort of argumentation that better befits a teenage diary than a serious journalistic publication.
Finally, I’ll return to my earlier point that no one here wants to get rid of fat people. You might as well say that the WHO should stop promulgating the War on Ebola in case its sufferers take offense or feel like they’re being targeted for elimination – by those attempting to help. Expecting a doctor not to comment on a patient’s extreme obesity, regardless of why they made the appointment, is like expecting a doctor to shut up about the festering wound dripping blood and pus onto the waiting room floor, when all the patient wants to talk about is hayfever.
Another great example of how, slowly slowly, we find ourselves waving goodbye to the real world.
7. Problem #7 – Just everything
“Acknowledging your thin privilege is simply saying, ‘I got 99 problems, but fatphobia ain’t one’ ”
Do you know what, I know all about your 99 problems, because your website is full of them. It reads like the firstname.lastname@example.org inbox.
In this sorry world, the only duality is between privilege and oppression, or in other words power and lack of it. There is no right or wrong, no real truth or untruth, and thus no way of grappling with these ideas using the apparatus with which we’ve been inculcated, upon which our civilisation has been built (I’d add ‘rightly or wrongly’, but those terms have no currency here, so I won’t bother). But, putting aside my irritation that this utter claptrap has been able to weasel its way out of rational evaluation by the media and many of its advocates, let us play the game and ask what is power?
Power is the potential or ability to do something. Let’s take the example of the oppression of women in the western world. If within the next six months, as seems likely, we have a female President of the United States, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Opposition, then I will have proof that the type ‘woman’, as exemplified in Hillary Clinton, Andrea Leadsom/Theresa May, and Angela Eagle, has within itself the power, the potential, to be a world leader. That these are statistical exceptions is only relevant to the identity politicians, for whom this proves that these high achievers are succeeding ‘despite’ themselves, while their fellow group members’ comparative failure is attributable, in defiance of logic, to that same group identity that was so unimportant for the cited exceptions. That these are statistical exceptions is irrelevant, instead, to anyone endowed with common sense and unencumbered by wilful pessimism, who can see that if social group membership doesn’t stop one, it won’t stop any of us.
This is not to deny that certain groups of people sharing common characteristics undergo systemic unfair treatment on account of those characteristics, that this does have real impact on their potential, and that this should not happen. But as a member of at least one those groups (not that that matters), let me assure you that constantly impressing upon me that I am oppressed, that I am a victim, is the least helpful way one could go about combating this problem and the surest way of preventing me and my kind from aspiring to that full potential that, I am assured, is simply impossible to attain under the current system. Objecting that Hillary achieves in spite of her womanhood and because of her white/educational/class privilege does exactly that.
If I am encouraged to believe that I am a victim of anything – random unfortunate events, the oppressed identities that were thrust upon me at birth, the unfair treatment of others – then I have no choice but to believe that my misfortune is due entirely to things beyond my control. If I am not in control of my life, I thus have no way of improving my situation; only my oppressors can help me; I am condemned, and I am patronised. The presence of exceptions to the rule – not to mention common sense and logic – shows otherwise: that achievement is not solely tied to social identity groups or to the oppression factor that sits over one’s head and poisons one’s outlook, that the human spirit comprises something other than affiliation with or opposition to a group. Perpetrating this narrative of oppression simply perpetrates oppression itself – and victimisation, and lack of agency. I am oppressed any time that I do not believe that I can fulfil my potential; I pave my way to unhappiness and dissatisfaction if I believe that power is the main answer; I betray myself, my humanity, my autonomy, my ability, any time that I give in to this insistence that the cards are stacked against me.
Those are my 99 problems. Yet, like most decent people, I don’t need to be bashed over the head with my supposed privilege to be grateful that they are not a lot worse than, by now, a very patchy hairline.