Inspired in part by this concurrent thread about white people and privilege, but something I’ve been thinking about for a long long time…
DOES ANY GOOD come out of maintaining a list of categorical oppressions and making referece to that list to modify or contextualize what would otherwise be a standard of “treat everyone as equals, same rules for everyone”?
Discussion points, in favor of: We all want a world in which everyone is treated equally and fairly. (Or at least we believe we’ve established that much as a common goal and reject any dialog with people who think otherwise and consider them no longer relevant to the moral and ethical discussion). But we do not as of yet live in such a world, and to go forth and treat everyone equally without regard for what they have been through, their contextual situation, assuming that they got to where they are now strictly as a consequence of their character and their behavior and their innate abilities is ITSELF unfair; it lets those who come from a more privileged background benefit from that privilege as if all the advantages that privilege conveys were the result of personal effort and character and other individual characteristics, when that is not in fact the case. We DON’T all start off from the same starting line and we don’t get to operate in the same context; therefore we SHOULD be aware of the various categories by which the world of people is divided into privileged versus disempowered, and take the fact of a person’s membership in those various categories into account when we view them, their immediate situation, and their current behaviors and so on.
Discussion points, in opposition: We all want a world in which everyone is treated equally and fairly, where there remains no categorial identity to which an individual could belong that would cause identical or comparable characteristics or behavior to be viewed more favorably or less favorably than those same characteristics or behavior when evidenced by someone who did not belong to that same category. We do not as of yet live in that world, but it is questionable that one can proceed towards it while insistently hanging on to those very categories as fundamental identity factors in order to speak of current and past inequities and unfairnesses. Certainly, indisputably (or at least we’ve established that much as a shared understanding and reject any dialog with people who would dispute this), there are indeed and have been such categorical oppressions and inequalities, and it could not have been possible to do anything to stop those oppressions and inequalities without speaking of them, to draw attention to them, since merely stating a wish for equality and fairness did not make everyone aware of those patterns as unfair patterns. And it is reasonable to posit that treatment of those disenfranchised by such inequities needs to be remedial — in the sense of seeking to remedy — before a subsequent world in which equal and fair treatment is itself fair and possible, but if and only if such remedial treatment is temporary. If it becomes ensconced as a permanent understanding, it reifies the very category across which the original inequity existed. The other problem with this category-conscious approach to fairness and equality is that it makes the tacit but unreasonable assumption that there are a finite number of categorical oppressions and that we happen to know them all. The history of social justice does not support that attitude. From decade to decade and era to era, we have identified new categories across which unequal and unfair treatment has been newly recognized, meaning that ways of treating people that would not have formerly been noted as instances of unfairness now get seen as such. Hence a person who might currently be understood to be a victim of categorical oppression might have been viewed by the same people as one of the privileged just a decade or so earlier. Hence there should not be a societally maintained list of the oppressions and who have been oppressed by them, but rather such assessments need to be refreshed and replenished anew.
Example (just to have an example): I believe affirmative action is a good and reasonable policy, to address a real and unfair social inequality. I believe affirmative action absolutely has to be a TEMPORARY redress — to posit it as permanent is to ensconce inequality in stone. Therefore there shall come a time when affirmative action should be closed out and allowed to expire, as attitude, as policy, as anything other than a closing chapter to the oppression it worked to remedy. I don’t think that time HAS in fact come yet but I think it is important at this point to emphasize its temporary nature.