Oppressed and Oppressive
Most of us are privileged in some sense, and oppressed in some other sense. Almost everyone has been in uncomfortable conversations about oppression, whether in real life, on the internet, or in a video game chat room, with many of us having been on both sides of those conversations. Sometimes, qua oppressor, we have some tricky questions. Sometimes, qua oppressed person,* we don't want to answer those questions. A lot of people, qua oppressors, get angry at people, qua oppressed, for not answering perfectly legitimate oppression questions. It seems that we are slowly building a consensus on the general idea that oppressed people don't have a duty to explain things to oppressors. But, yet, a lot of people, qua oppressors, still get very angry. So, what gives?
*I'm using "oppressor" and "oppressed person" to refer to members of the relevant classes. Thus, as I am using the terms here, one can be an oppressor while doing no oppressing, and an oppressed person even without experiencing instances of direct oppression. Insofar as I am a man, I'm an oppressor; insofar as I'm not white, I'm an oppressed person -- my exact roles, if any, in oppression are irrelevant for these designations.
I will argue that there is such a duty. Oppressed people have an imperfect duty to explain oppression. But it is a very imperfect duty. What I mean by "imperfect duty" is that it is up to each oppressed person when they should meet the duty (in contrast, perfect duties always apply: for example, do not torture -- you don't get to decide when not to torture, always do not torture -- please and seriously). And when I say "very imperfect duty," I mean to stress that it is really up to the oppressed person to decide, and they can almost entirely avoid the duty if they need to. At no point will the oppressor be justified in getting angry. So, if I'm right, it would be great if people could stop being so damn angry at me for not responding to the demands made on me after my last post on the racism of philosophy blogging.
The Duty to Explain Oppression
So, first, there cannot be a perfect duty to explain things to oppressors. And, here, I don't just mean something silly like there cannot be a duty that oppressed people go around the country (or world) looking for oppressors to explain things to. No, I mean, there can't even be a duty of the form, "Always explain things to oppressors whenever they are confused and ask to have things be explained." There's just too much wrong with such a duty, so it is trivial to deny that it applies. Sometimes, I'm busy. Sometimes oppressors don't ask nicely. Sometimes I don't really know the answer. Too many problems. There can't be a perfect duty to explain things. That's obvious.
The harder question is why think there is a duty at all, even if it is an imperfect one. Well, my straightforward answer is: justice requires it. To get more specific, oppressed peoples are always going to be in epistemically superior positions when it comes to understanding oppression. This fact seems fairly uncontroversial. I think a stronger, but related claim is that there are some things that members of the oppressor class just cannot understand on their own. And, some of those things need to be understood by the oppressor class in particular for us to move forward towards justice. So, if we ought to move towards justice, then it will be required that oppressed people share their superior and sometimes exclusive understandings of oppression. So, justice requires that oppressed people talk to oppressors.
Now, this imperfect duty raises a worry that I take very seriously: it seems to create an asymmetric moral duty that is asymmetric in exactly the wrong sort of way. That is, oppressed people have a special duty that's on them just in virtue of being oppressed. So, to use a philosophically technical piece of jargon to explain this problem: it double sucks. And, as anyone who is familiar with the theory of double sucking can attest, double sucking is neither fair, just, nor moral.
To overcome this asymmetry, it would need to be the case that the oppressors have an equal or greater duty that corresponds to the oppressed's imperfect duty to explain oppression. Fortunately, I think they have two. First, they have a duty to listen conscientiously. That's a big duty. It may not seem so big: it is just listening, right? Don't we do that all the time? But it is very difficult because what you have to listen to is someone explaining to you a way in which you are bad (or at least are taking bad positions, saying or doing a bad thing, contributing to badness by accepting privileges without realizing it, etc.). That's tough. It is going to be much easier to completely distance yourself from the discussion, to deny what's being said, to insist that the other person is wrong, and/or to verbally attack the person taking the time to explain something to you.
For example, imagine that someone tells you that you said something racist, or tells you that some other person, who is white like you, said something racist. It is much, much easier to push back than to reflect on it and/or own up to it. In fact, a common response is to insist that "racist" is too strong of a charge and the person of color isn't even allowed to level it (unless they are talking directly to Nazis or KKK members; we are allowed to use the term against those groups, at least).
But, wait, what if the person of color specifically made it clear that it wasn't a case of strong racism? What if the person of color indicated it was a form of mild racism?
Too bad! The word "racism" is out of bounds!
Okay, but then how are we to explain racism to you? How are we to discuss how mild instances of racism are important because they contribute to a larger picture of racism? How are we to discuss how a field of intelligent people (such as, to throw out a random example, the field of philosophy) that are mostly not bad people, mostly not horrible racists (no one is publishing, "On the Advantage of White Supremacy") ends up being such a hostile environment? How can we explain the racially hostile environment that is made up of numerous small acts of racism if we aren't allowed to use the term in question to describe those acts? Sure, we can come up with more terms to make you feel more comfortable, but, as we come up with safer terms to make you feel comfortable, are we going to lose the impact and importance of having the discussion in the first place? Also, once we come up with safer terms, will you promise not to wait a bit of time and then tell us we aren't allowed to use those terms because they've started to make you feel uncomfortable? Eventually, the point of listening conscientiously is going to have to imply that the discussion isn't supposed to be about making the oppressor group feel comfortable about their contributions to oppression.
See, this is all tough. I'm going to return to the above issues shortly, from a different perspective. But, for now, it is important to recognize that people, qua members of oppressor groups who are privileged through those groups, have a hard time listening conscientiously to the things being explained to them. It is much easier to push back. It is much easier to insist that it doesn't make sense, that it is false, and that the oppressed person talking to you is unreasonable or just another angry black man. So, this duty to listen is a big one.
I said there were two duties. The second is to share the information. Once a member of an oppressor group learns the information, then they get the imperfect duty that the member of the oppressed group had. So, both sides have the same duty to share knowledge with others. The oppressor group also has an extra duty to listen. So, it seems to be asymmetrical in the right direction: more duties on the privileged persons.
This solution to the apparent unfair asymmetry is too quick. And, as we see why it is too quick, we will also see why the imperfect duty is at most very imperfect. It seems, according to the solution just offered, that the asymmetry is going in the right direction due to a simple count of duties: 2 duties for oppressors, and 1 for oppressed. It further seems like the math is good because the one duty that overlaps ensures that the other duty provides more burden to the oppressor, as it should be.
The problem is that the experiences of sharing the explanations of oppression are vastly different. When I am teaching and have to call out my students for their sexism, I stand in an unfair and somewhat surprising privileged position (though, to be clear, I think I could do this from an even stronger position were I also white). My students see me, as a male professor, calling out their sexism as more credible than if a female professor did the same. If a man thinks their responses are sexist, then they are more likely to believe that. If a woman says the same thing, they not only are less likely to believe her, but they are also likely to get angry with her. They are going to take that out on her evals at the end of the semester for sure.
I'm in a good position to judge this, even if it is anecdotal, because I do call my students racist, sexist, and heterosexist on a fairly regular basis (don't try that at home; I'm a professional). And, I've noticed how much harder it is for me to call out their bigotry when I'm in the oppressed group than when I'm in the oppressor group, even though it clearly should work better in the opposite direction. There's no reason to think this response is confined to students. The fact is that we tend to doubt the credibility of people in oppressed groups as if they have something to gain from pointing out oppression and so are biased sources. For some reason, it isn't limited to the (bigoted) thought that oppressed persons lack credibility, but this all somehow leads to oppressors becoming angry with the people of oppressed groups for sharing truths that they uniquely hold.
This finding tells us two things: it is so much harder for a member of an oppressed group to explain oppression than it is for an oppressor to re-explain it, and there's a lot of members of oppressor groups failing in their duty to listen conscientiously. The first point is due to the fact that oppressors won't grant credibility to oppressed persons, and oppressed persons have to face the possibility of angry responses. Really, my claim that the asymmetry falls in the right direction (or at least doesn't fall too heavily in the wrong direction) lies less on the equality of the two duties to explain, and more on the heaviness involved in the duty to listen conscientiously. Though I'm also not claiming that the duty to listen is itself more burdensome than the duty to explain. I only have to have suggested that the asymmetry is not too badly in the wrong direction that it should overturn the imperfect duty. But it is important to remember that it is very hard to explain things from oppressor to oppressed, which we should discuss in a bit more detail.
Oppressors Just Don't Understand
When someone who is oppressed is asked to explain something to someone who has unintentionally or unknowingly engaged in oppression, that's a very frightening situation. Here are just some of the possible scenario outcomes:
- The oppressor comes to understands and appreciates being told.
- The oppressor doesn't understand, but appreciates the attempt, and agrees to act differently and/or think harder about it.
- The oppressor doesn't understand, and kindly insists that the oppressed is just wrong.
- The oppressor doesn't understand, and insists strongly and with unintended disrespect that the oppressed person is wrong.
- The oppressor doesn't understand, but gets angry; hurtful and even more bigoted things are thrown the oppressed person's way.
- The oppressor never intended to try to understand: the request for an explanation was a purposeful excuse to start a verbal or internet fight.
The first problem is that 4-6 are quite painful from the oppressed person's perspective. Of course, 2 and 3 don't feel good. 3 especially doesn't feel good. Actually, 3 can be quite painful as well.
The second problem is that 3-6 are much, much more common than 1 or 2 (at least in my experience, and the experience of almost anyone who has ever seen or head of the internet). And, like I said, 3-6 are the ones that are fairly painful.
So, whenever an oppressed person is asked, "Could you explain this bit of oppression to me?" (Or is told, "You better explain this!"), they have likely had enough experiences of doing this to be weary. They have every right to check for the signals. Which scenario is the encounter likely to be, between 1-6? If the signals indicate 6, then they have every right to refuse. And, of course, the person attempting to bait them will be angry, but it was obviously smart to back off. If they think it is 3-5, then, again, they are right to refuse. Even if it likely 2, then you are likely just wasting my time. So, again, I'm right to refuse.
That means this imperfect duty mostly applies when you have reason to trust it is likely scenario 1. Because why should the oppressed person be responsible for having to engage in anything from 2 to 6? We have better uses of our time. And, especially if you are making demands on us, you don't deserve an answer that you are unlikely to accept and that will lead us into a painful encounter.
But it does seem that if the signs indicate there is a good chance that it is an encounter of type 1, then there is some imperfect duty to explain. But how are we to judge the signs? Well, this once again puts the burden back onto the members of oppressor groups, as it should. After all, if you are coming at us, asking for an explanation of some kind of oppression (maybe even demanding it), then you need to present yourself as trustworthy and open-minded. Otherwise, we don't have to help you. You haven't earned the right to place us in a risky situation.
Of course, it is very rare, even among long term friends, that people, qua their oppressor selves, present as trustworthy in this fashion for this kind of situation. In my experiences (recent experiences included), most members of oppressor groups who start conversations on matters of oppression where I'm in the oppressed group do so with an air that they know much better than me. In fact, I rarely get asked nicely to explain something by someone who simply respects my opinion. It is almost always a demand that is clearly setting me up for a fight. So, I refuse to get involved. I don't have any duty in those situations.
Though I accept that I have an imperfect duty that mainly applies when I have good reason to trust that I'm in situation 1.**
**As a side note: have I gotten myself to the point of arguing for a very selective, but perfect duty? Something like: All else equal (you have time and energy, etc.), when someone appears to be trustworthy, and it looks very much like we have a situation 1 on our hands, then you have a perfect duty to explain oppression. I think this is a hard question. I still think there can be discretion in spite of the oppressor doing all they can to be trustworthy. I also think there can be times where someone just doesn't feel like it: "Today's not my day to deal with oppression." Oppressed persons can take days off from oppression (well, actually, they can't, but they can take days off from explaining it). I think it is at most an imperfect duty, and not a selective perfect duty.
Not only Good in Theory, but also Applicable to Practice
So, having said that, if you want to make any demands on me that I explain things about this or my last post, I will continue to ignore you. I may even ignore well meaning, but potentially trap-seeming questions/comments. I may even unintentionally ignore some situation 1 type scenarios. I'm just going to use discretion and do my best to stay away from internet fights over things like racism and oppression. But I also won't delete your comments.