Cushioned by oppression

Years and years ago I wrote a grumpy, O-tempora-o-mores-type post about various things, in which I mentioned a letter to the Guardian by Tim Lott in which he said that the Scottish working class was ‘cushioned by oppression’, but I couldn’t track the link down: I’ve found it now, and the letter is here. It’s in response to an article by Andrew Hagan on that underrepresented and oversurveilled group, ‘the English working class’, and what it actually says is that (although ‘the English are naturally dominant – 84% of the British Isles is English’) ‘the English working class remain uniquely isolated, and abandoned, not cushioned, as the Scots are, by a victim’s sense of belonging to an “oppressed” group’.

I love it. As well as the brilliantly explicit self-contradiction (naturally dominant but uniquely isolated?), it’s a very compressed statement of an attitude I see around a lot: the idea that being a member of an oppressed group is somehow more comfortable and easier than being a member of a privileged group.* It’s an attitude often expressed in the idea that it’s ‘easy’ to accuse someone of being racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist or otherwise colluding with large-scale oppressions, while it’s very hard to be on the receiving end of one of those accusations.** Someone wiser than me (and this is another link I’ve lost and now can’t track down) said that this may perhaps come about because members of privileged groups (and this is sort of the very basis of privilege, in some ways) don’t get told that they’re wrong very often, so being criticized is very unusual and distressing for them, while members of oppressed groups grow up thinking that they’re wrong, and have to work quite hard to reach a position where that’s no longer the default setting. That explanation rings quite true to me, from all kinds of bits of my experience – obviously, as a well-off middle-class able-bodied white cissexual lesbian, I’m a member of both oppressed and privileged groups, so I’ve had both sides of it. (I got called a racist in passing last year, in a situation where there wasn’t much space or time to talk through the issues, and I was really surprised by how distressed I was about it and how hard it was to respond, given that my conscious and firm belief is that racism is absolutely structural to the society I live in, requires a lot of work to undo in individuals, and will probably manage to speak through me from time to time regardless of my best conscious efforts to counter it: which doesn’t mean it’s okay, but does mean I shouldn’t be quite so thrown when it happens.)

Anyway, so because members of privileged groups are used to being told that the way they/we are is right – every passing bus or beer advert will tell them that being white/thin/middle-class/young/heterosexual/clearly gendered is the norm, as well as being something to aspire to – they/we can experience a kind of envy, or panic, in situations where we/they are told that’s not necessarily true: that, from the point of view of a lesbian, heteronormativity is not just not aspirational, it can be actively oppressive and damaging. And we go, OMG, there’s a position of rightness which I don’t/can’t inhabit! BUT SURELY IT IS RIGHTFULLY MINE! And then experience the person who is standing in that position as being ‘cushioned’ from that momentary sense of shock that happens when our own experience is decentralized.

But dude, that person’s experience has been (and is being) decentralized all the time. Knowing that it’s called ‘oppression’ (rather than ‘my fault’) helps, sure, but in comparison to privilege, oppression makes really bad cushions.

*That’s not true, by the way. I mean, it’s not true by definition. What ‘oppressed’ means is pretty much ‘having a less comfortable and harder life by virtue of your membership in a particular group, and by comparison with a member of the corresponding oppressing group’.

**This also isn’t true: it’s scary and difficult to name oppressive behaviour, and doing so makes you very vulnerable to (often disproportionate) counter-attack, dismissal, and/or derision.

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4 Responses to Cushioned by oppression

  1. Garboil says:

    the idea that being a member of an oppressed group is somehow more comfortable and easier than being a member of a privileged group

    I think a lot of this is that privileged people expect to speak from a position of power all the time, so that even when there’s no explicit accusation of complicity in some systematic oppression, their little feelings get hurt by anything that threatens their hegemony. Wanky Christians who see being wished “Happy Holidays” as an attack on Christmas, for instance, because being reduced to an equal footing with everyone else celebrating a midwinter holiday instead of being uniquely recognized bumps them down from their pedestal.

    In social justice conversations the voice of the oppressed has (or ought to have) more authority, and the privileged people are so used to being in control of the podium that they can’t cope with this, and start longing for some oppression to claim so they can jump back on stage. And then they start whining about how “cushioned” the oppressed groups are by their status as victims.

    In the case of Scotland there might be a legitimate argument to be made here, because the Scots do seem to be better at social democracy than the English- if you look at the state school system, or the (lack of) tuition fee hikes, or the state of the NHS or what have you. So in that sense the Scottish working class are cushioned in a way the English working class are not. And maybe that does have something to do with a general sense of we’re-all-in-this-togetherness from being a minority population in the UK, although you’d have to control for the fact that Scotland is poorer on average than England and provide actual, you know, evidence to support the assertion.

    But my God, what a stupid letter that was.

    • nowandrome says:

      Oh, God yes. To all of this, especially the ‘THEY are “allowed” to speak and I am not? Something must be wrong here!’ feeling. (I’d love to track the uses of the word ‘allowed’ through all this anti-victim, anti-PC discourse, because so often when people say ‘I’m not “allowed” to call people queers/celebrate Christmas/etc’ they mean ‘Not everyone will approve of me wholeheartedly for this action!’ Which is a very different sense of “not allowed” than most members of oppressed groups have, eg “I am risking my life by doing this!”)

      I am cheating slightly by leaving out the second half of Tim Lott’s sentence, though he does seem to be saying that the Scots are ‘cushioned’ by their sense of oppression rather than their better social democracy, which is what actually cushions them, if anything does. (I have family in Scotland and we gape at their free prescriptions, excellent schools, lack of university tuition fees, etc.)

  2. Garboil says:

    when people say ‘I’m not “allowed” to call people queers/celebrate Christmas/etc’ they mean ‘Not everyone will approve of me wholeheartedly for this action!’

    My favorite is “You’re violating my freedom of speech! (By criticizing anything I say/refusing to supply a platform from which I can spew bigotry/etc)” This would be fodder for several doctorates, I think.

    he does seem to be saying that the Scots are ‘cushioned’ by their sense of oppression rather than their better social democracy

    Yeah, no, that totally is what he was saying. Which is a shame, because an analysis of the differences between the social status of the Scottish and English working classes and how that intersects with the Scots’ minority status might be interesting… if it was done by someone other than him.

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