Oppression Olympics: a game nobody wins

By Adolfo Aranjuez

In my previous column, I championed equality of outcome, positive discrimination, and privilege analysis as strategies to redress inequality. These constructive ideas emanate largely from the realm of identity politics – yet this analytical framework falls short, for me, when used as a methodology to restrict discussions about oppression. Rather than acting like a “road” that facilitates the direction of discourse, it becomes more like a “fence” that cordons off certain people and ideas.

I’ve written about the gulf between theory and praxis before (regarding grammar nazis) and, here, we see a similar disjuncture. The issue is captured in this comic by Stephanie McMillan, which shows just how easy it is to fall into the trap of comparing the “notches” in our “underprivileged belts”.

Underpinning “Oppression Olympics” is the impetus to establish authority: we recognise – rightfully – that lived experience strengthens a person’s political position, and that we must centralise the views of the disadvantaged.

This becomes counterproductive when we start deeming these identity markers infallible – as a young, brown, queer, effeminate migrant with mental illness, for instance, I’m a minority on six levels, trumping a middle-aged straight white male. A concomitant problem arises: as Michael Brull asserts, we begin relying on minority labels as irrefutable evidence of a person’s authority. In doing so, identity politics frames all outsiders – individuals from other minority groups and even the most well-meaning of “allies” – as forever unable to contribute to discourse, as they lack firsthand knowledge.

Lived experience can powerfully exemplify oppression’s real-world effects, but it’s also very limited. The personal is indeed political, but one person’s encounters can’t account for the sum of all other persons’ experiences, despite shared “membership” to a group. It’s reductive to view individuals as nothing more than their sociopolitical labels.

Aaron Goggans cites a further criticism: identity politics automatically presumes the marginalised’s “innocence”. In turn, outsiders are often demonised for co-opting precious discursive space or invalidated as “part of the problem”.

As McMillan’s comic depicts, what this often leads to is ideological infighting while larger-scale oppression affecting everyone – such as capitalist exploitation – persists. Adolphe Reed and Helen Razer even attack identity politics on Marxian grounds as a system that favours representations over reality.

Impact may be more important than intent, but this doesn’t mean intent is of no importance – overt hate speech is worlds away from earnest questions about cultural appropriation.

Preoccupying ourselves with pronoun use or whether an actor of the right ethnicity has been cast in a film may seem like we’re debating abstractions instead of actual issues. However, as Goggans clarifies, these concepts do have real-world impact – our attitudes and actions are (re)shaped by how we understand identity and difference.

The real kicker is that action inspired by identity politics often happens within “call-out culture” – the public shaming of Sonia Kruger is perhaps the best recent example. It offers marginalised individuals a (spurious) sense of empowerment over our disadvantaged situations, as well as the (equally spurious) feeling that we’re “good citizens” ostensibly fighting injustice, albeit through clicks and comment boxes. Yet, as Maisha Z. Johnson points out, these behaviours can easily mirror the systems of subjugation we’re rallying against.

Words are potent political tools – Tim Soutphommasane has cited the link between bigoted comments and physical violence against minorities. Yet danger also lies in militant identity-politicking. Impact may be more important than intent, but this doesn’t mean intent is of no importance – overt hate speech is worlds away from earnest questions about cultural appropriation. Excluding, silencing and shaming can alienate outsiders who genuinely wish to help, and can risk radicalising those threatened by the intellectual(ised) left. Waleed Aly has suggested that such disenfranchisement contributed to Pauline Hanson’s re-election.

Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins stresses that while authenticity lies in speaking from and to subjective experience, such knowledge is partial: it’s both inherently biased and incomplete. It’s crucial, therefore, that we acknowledge the limitations of identity-based labels as bases for discourse.

This isn’t about sitting idly by as minority groups face violence while policymakers debate oppression’s nuances. Nor is it about downplaying the importance of rage, and its links with disadvantage, in catalysing accountability. What this is about is preferring solidarity over separatism: dialogue must be “transversal”, to quote Collins, spearheading change both horizontally (within minority groups) and vertically (across hierarchies of intersectional privilege).

I can’t help feeling that, when people are automatically maligned solely by virtue of a label, we’re doing ourselves a political disservice.

A worthy approach is exemplified by ABC series You Can’t Ask That: it gives the disadvantaged a vehicle for educating the wider public, simultaneously centralising minority experiences and encouraging sensitive, transformative discourse.

You Can't Ask That ABC

Danzal Baker and Wakara Ganderra share their experiences in the ABC‘s new series You Can’t Ask That.

I’m not saying my piece has definitive answers, but, in the spirit of what I’ve just argued, I’m open to having my views challenged. As a six-level minority, I recognise my Oppression Olympics privilege – yet the fear remains that I’ll be jumped on for saying something not-quite-right. Beyond myself, I can’t help feeling that, when people are automatically maligned solely by virtue of a label, we’re doing ourselves a political disservice.

I don’t deny that it’s empowering to engage in discussions that put us centre stage; to see our “oppressors” deferring, willingly or otherwise, to our authority; to feel like we’re no longer peripheral. But we must also remember that this form of empowerment isn’t enough. Shutting someone down is a fleeting win; rectifying inequality in the long term is more than a game.


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Right Now set a challenge for a lucky bunch of postgraduate students at the Centre for Advancing Journalism (University of Melbourne). The pay off? Scale. Impact. Investigations. New journalists launching careers with skills, contacts and credibility in climate and human rights reporting.