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Why analogies of oppression don’t work

AnalogyComparing one injustice to another which is more familiar, or more widely regarded as a problem, can provide a ready shortcut to sympathy for your cause, but analogy can also be lazy, inaccurate, inappropriate, and even oppressive, writes Gauche Sinister.

12 September 2010

We understand everything by reference to something else – or at least, language demands that we describe it in this way.

In politics especially, analogy is a really effective and intuitive way to make an argument. Comparing one injustice to another which is more familiar, or more widely regarded as a problem, can provide a ready shortcut to sympathy for your cause.

But analogy can also be lazy, inaccurate, inappropriate, and even oppressive.

Some analogies are obviously farcical – the suspicion people have towards the wealthy, for example, is rooted in entirely different motivations than the disdain people have towards the poor.

In modern liberal thinking, discrimination stands in for all oppression, with prejudice as its cause, and individualisation as its solution.

But discrimination is only one aspect of oppression. (As a start, others might include erasure, marginalisation, fetishisation, tokenism, appropriation, exploitation, segregation, assimilation.)

An idea of discrimination that assumes initial equality, which is thwarted by individual prejudice (rather than systemic inequality which requires active resistance), is the most popular and persistent understanding of oppression.

And this understanding of discrimination lends itself nicely to generic policies that supposedly protect various identities and positions – policies that are always power-evasive in their language, as though, for example, discrimination "on the basis of sexual orientation" is as likely against heterosexuals as against queers.

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” (Anatole France, The Red Lily, 1894)

The discourse of anti-discrimination reinforces a notion that all oppressions are similar.

And while I may well agree that different types of oppression are equal, I think that analogising one to another stunts our knowledge of either.

I'm as guilty of the practice as anyone, if not more, and it is so much easier to compare something strange to something familiar than try to explain it in its own terms.

But I also think it's vital to understand the historical, cultural and social context particular to each type of oppression.

There’s some awareness within radical activist communities that telling someone their experience of X is just like your experience of Y is rude, if not oppressive, because it re-centres your own position.

But I want to fight even my own tendency to explain different oppressions and privileges I experience in reference (rather than in relation) to each other.

In thinking about oppression, I want to discriminate more.

Perhaps because the most violently overt forms of skin-colour-based racism are fairly widely recognised as unacceptable, race often seems to be the default analogy for all oppression.

But even putting aside the fact that racism varies in every country, at any time, for each specific racialised group, as well as members of any racialised group in conjunction with other factors in their lives, racism generally has characteristics and conditions that aren't applicable to other oppressions.

This isn't about hierarchy. It's about specificity. Three very crude examples:

  • One reason classism is not so much like racism is because while your racial identity might change across cultures, within one society an individual's racial identity is usually stable throughout their lives, though they may be positioned differently day to day. Individual class mobility is greater, so most people are more willing to understand class as a (relative, temporary) position rather than an (essential, immovable) identity. Race is inscribed on the body in a way that class is not.
  • One reason sexism is not so much like racism is that intimate, affectionate, companionate relationships are expected across gender boundaries. In fact, sexual and romantic relationships are a key area in which people can see gender being maintained, fought, and exploited. The fact that a man is heterosexual is not used as a defence against his misogyny, yet the prevalence of inter-racial relationships is somehow seen as evidence of equality.
  • One reason heterosexism is not so much like racism is that race is typically visible and inherited. Most people have family members who are similarly racialised, and if not, race only rarely needs to be disclosed or announced, while “coming out” or being “closeted” are climactic moments in the conventional Western queer story, and isolation is a common theme.

Recently I've heard several arguments comparing the oppression of non-human animals to racism. Some of my friends called out that analogy as racist, and others responded that their criticism was speciesist.

I don’t think it’s necessarily speciesist to find the analogy problematic – though I am a woman and a person of colour, and comfortable with both experiences, I prefer them not to be analogised.

Additionally, I think there's a multitude of reasons why people of colour might resist being compared to animals which don't rely simply on disgust at being associated with animals because animals are inherently unequal to us.

The most important reason, for me, is that self-determination is vital to my understanding of inter-human oppressions.

While animal rights activists may seek to protect a way of life for animals that includes minimal interference, this isn't comparable to self-determination.

All animal rights activism requires some degree of members of the oppressor group speaking for the voiceless and oppressed, in a way which would be inappropriate for an ally of any oppressed human.

In their attempt to compare human oppression of animals with racism, these activists glossed over an essential aspect of the oppression in question, which is a factor in how it is maintained.

Animals are not only denied agency, but their agency is unrecognisable to us; it does not and cannot translate to our political and social language. I don’t think the dissonance between animals and humans is comparable to any difference between humans.

Another analogy that caught my eye recently was in Tobi Hill-Meyer’s article on transmisogyny, where she says:

“When people who are attracted to women and have met only a few trans women announce that they would never date a trans women, that's transmisogyny. (Think about it, if a white person announced that they'd never date a black woman, especially if they had only met 2-3 black women in their life, we'd name that as being influenced by racism.).”

I’ve said elsewhere that I think you don’t get to say you’re attracted to women when you’re only attracted to people assigned female at birth, or gender-normative women, or women with cunts.

When people say they’re attracted to women, but mean cis women, or say they’re not attracted to men, but mean cis men, that’s transphobia. Certainly.

But when it comes to sex, gender is also widely accepted as not only a legitimate grounds on which to discriminate, but the primary axis of orientation.

So transphobia is pretty different to racism when it comes to sexual preferences, given its closer relation to gender.

Hill-Meyer has some important insights on the cissexism of mainstream feminism but in comparing the experiences of trans women and trans men, she seems to create a hierarchy of oppression which I feel is based on the erroneous assumption that invisibility is (always) a privilege.

In any case, people announce racialised sexual preferences all the time without it being called racist. People talk about how they have a thing for redheads, or blondes, or brunettes; how they think pallor is elegant or freckles are cute; even how they love skinny white boys (sometimes spoken like it’s so radical; as if conventional beauty standards favour fat brown men).

Apparently, as long as you articulate your preference as something more specific than white, the racial dimensions of your preference are excused or dissolved.

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t ever analogise, or that we shouldn’t ever try to build broader theories. I just want to think deeper before jumping to analogy, to tease out the differences and honour the particularities, to work on knowing something as itself.

Gauche Sinister is a Shanghainese/Melburnian critic who writes to the left at State of Emergency and on living under capitalism at No New Year. Ey also contributes to the queer hanky code blog, flagging opinicus rampant.


0 #4 Alex Melonas 2010-10-07 14:19
@Gauche: Your essay included a misdirected critique of “animal rights.” To wit: you misunderstand what speciesism is. I simply corrected you, which necessarily involves discussions about inclusion/exclu sion from the moral community. And once we begin having that discussion, sentience, that is, being the type of being with interests, or being capable of caring what happens to you (i.e., having a welfare) becomes relevant. If not, as my comment showed, we would necessarily exclude many, many human animals from the moral community as a simple matter of logic. But since we don’t do that, and since speciesism is wrong because it, like racism, takes irrelevant biological “groupings” as the starting premise (that’s the analogy!), nonhuman animals should be included in the moral community.

My argument doesn't deny that human animals and nonhuman animals have different interests (they do!), but your understanding of the analogy to racism was wrong.

If your claim is that people with mental disabilities have an interest in “self-determina tion,” it stands to reason that as a "negative right," all sentient beings, because they have subjective interests, equally have that interest. Indeed, some “animal rights” discourses are about extending a negative right to “liberty,” that is, “self-determina tion,” to nonhuman animals. How is it “pretty different” then, to argue on grounds of “self-determina tion” for the right to euthanasia for a person in advanced stages of dementia, who doesn’t have a living will, or for a severely mentally handicapped child to not be used as a subject in biomedical research, and for a female cow not to be brought into this world as a piece of chattel property, to be exploited on the grounds that her reproductive system is "useful" for some dominant group (where are the feminists?)? All three subjects have interests, and “self-determina tion” is one way to realize those interests. Most importantly, however, none of those subjects, as far as we know, have a subjectively experienced interest in “self-determina tion” in the way you are using the concept.

p.s. Yes Gauche, people do perform biomedical research on unconsenting subjects, but you and I think that’s wrong, and people also rape, but you and I think that’s wrong, and people are also blatant racists, but you and I think that’s wrong, and people also commit genocide, but you and I think that’s wrong. And that’s the point.
0 #3 Gauche 2010-10-07 10:32
It's irrelevant for policies around animal welfare whether or not animals can think or reason, if they can suffer.

It's relevant for political discourse and engagement whether a subject seeks political participation or simply better treatment.

If saying that animals ought not to suffer is not enough to convince someone, I don't think your arguments of analogy will help.

I would object to women of colour being compared to infants as much as I object to women of colour being compared to animals. I don't think self-determinat ion is a relevant concept for either group and it is what I seek. When other feminists ignore that, I think they're missing something vital.

I agree some humans can't engage with politics, but I also think there's a lot of ableist prejudice which assumes people don't seek self-determinat ion simply because we aren't willing to alter our political processes (and education, health, welfare systems) to accommodate different needs. And arguably people with mild developmental disabilities can represent those with more severe disabilities in a way which, if not self-determinat ion, is still pretty different from people representing animals.

Self-determination is a very relevant idea for people with advanced dementia -- it's basically what the whole euthanasia debate depends on.

Also, people do perform biomedical experiments on unconsenting humans.
0 #2 Alex Melonas 2010-09-30 13:10
The analogy used by "animal rights" activists is as follows. Speciesism is basing the exclusion of a class of beings from the moral community on a biological distinction: species membership. It’s a prejudice, analogous to racism and sexism. The most common answer given when I ask people why we don’t perform painful biomedical experiments on unconsenting humans, or kill the homeless when shelters become overpopulated, but we do it daily to nonhuman animals, is: Because they aren’t human. Well that begs the question: What’s so special about humans?

All the answers to this question are meant to be prerequisites for inclusion in the moral community that aim to avoid the inconsistency of making the issue one of biology, as the speciesist does, while simultaneously condemning the most blatant sexists for citing the biological fact of sex as reason for discounting the interests of women. In other words, we’re seeking out a relevant characteristic that separates humans from all other animals.

Moral agency, which is basically the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and act accordingly, language-use, or “intelligence” are the most common responses. The reasoning runs like this: one or some combination of these principles is the prerequisite for membership in the moral community and therefore animals are excluded. Does that work? No. Once we begin to identify these characteristics we will necessarily be excluding members of our own species. Some mentally handicapped humans, the severely senile, those who have suffered certain brain injuries, and every human baby aren’t moral agents.This obviously holds for whatever level of intelligence we cite, "self-determina tion," or speaking human language because inevitably some humans will be excluded (or some nonhuman animals will be included).

Only one option remains: they’re not members of our species so the rules don’t apply. This is deeply problematic because the reasoning logically parallels those who would cite race, or sex as this insuperable line.

Think about it. We would ask the sexist: What’s so special about being male? His answer: Well, because men can do X, Y and Z. Our retort would be the same just detailed because we’re dealing with characteristics that some possess, while others don’t, or they’re possessed in varying degrees. The sexist is left with one option, just like the speciesist: a biological difference. Since we reject this kind of reasoning because it relies on an ethically irrelevant characteristic, both the sexist and speciesist ought to be challenged.
Animal rights, then, is simply about consistency.
0 #1 David Skidmore 2010-09-12 20:54
There does seem to be a temptation to say that oppression of gay people is no better than oppression of women, Aboriginal people, immigrants or any other group perceived to be more socially acceptable than gays. A bit like dividing the world into "deserving" and "undeserving" poor. In fact, anti-gay violence and discrimination shouldn't need an analogy and should always be regarded as oppressive and unacceptable in and of itself.

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