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Techniques of Oppression:

Anger, Bigotry, and Minorities

Anthro 194J: Cultural Construction of the Masculine
S. Morgensen, Instructor
Copyright © 1997 B. A. "Collie" Collier




The syllogistic nature of Hurtado's argument is such that disagreeing with one of her self-created classifications implies disagreement with all of them. Since it is a lamentable but incontestable fact that racism exists, by rational conclusion one finds oneself initially agreeing with Hurtado's other categorizations of white racism. Unfortunately, while Hurtado's arguments are allegorically elegant, they are not necessarily exclusive to whites. We are limited, however, by her choice of presented information: naturally that which best proves her points is all that is presented. Unfortunately there is a rather simplistic, essentialist slant to these summaries: whites are racist - they vary only in degree. Furthermore, Hurtado's categories of "tricks" are extremely broadly defined. Thus they enable racism to be used "as a floating signifier, whose function is essentially that of denunciation. The procedures of every form of power are suspected of being [racist], just as the masses are in their desires (Foucault 1972:139)."

Does Hurtado wish to imply that racism is somehow made more sacred or non-existent, simply due to its use by a racial minority? Or is it simply that she is in desperate need of a competent editor? If it is Hurtado's desire to indiscriminately include all whites (and only whites) as "tricksters," then this article accomplishes that goal nicely - her stereotypical "tricks" are so all-encompassing as to include every form of human manipulation. Therefore, within the limitations Hurtado has set us (information only on 'white abuses' within a hierarchical framework used to supposedly break down hierarchy) we are led to somehow believe that people of color are incapable of racism, while white people cannot avoid it. This double standard is immediately obvious if we turn it around. Who would not laugh incredulously if they heard that white people are incapable of racism, while people of color cannot avoid it? Yet we accept the obverse as an sacrosanct and inviolable truth, to the point that anyone who contests it is vigorously attacked and vilified.

I have so far confined myself to examples involving racism. However, bigotry is not an exclusive characteristic of skin color, nor do I wish to give that impression. I turn now to Bornstein for an example of bigotry. It is to her credit that she is both stating this in a humorous fashion, and that she makes this statement as an example of self-destructive behaviors:

I have found an underground of male-to-female gender outlaws which already has its own unspoken hierarchy, definable from whatever shoes you happen to be standing in - high heels or Reeboks.
Post-operative transsexuals (those transsexuals who've had genital surgery and live fully in the role of another gender) look down on:
Pre-operative transsexuals (those who are living full or part time in another gender, but who've not yet had their genital surgery) who in turn look down on:
Transgenders (people living in another gender identity, but who have little or no intention of having genital surgery) who can't abide:
She-Males (a she-male friend of mine described herself as "tits, big hair, lots of make-up, and a dick.") who snub the:
Drag Queens (gay men who on occasion dress in varying parodies of women) who laugh about the:
Out Transvestites (usually heterosexual men who dress as they think women dress, and who are out in the open about doing that) who pity the:
Closet Cases (transvestites who hide their cross-dressing) who mock the post-op transsexuals.

Clearly this is a self-sustaining cycle of bigotry and scapegoating, which will never end until someone (like Bornstein) stands up and draws attention to it, and shows its inapplicability to true acceptance and tolerance. This is as true for racism as it is for 'sexual' hierarchies. As I have stated before, bigotry is still bigotry, regardless of who perpetrates it. Unfortunately such scapegoating is a human characteristic; we cannot look to only one class or category of humans either as its sole perpetrators, nor to stop it.

Let me pause here to be clear on what I mean by scapegoating. McCarthy writes:

Scapegoating is invariably a sign of failed teamwork. It prospers in an environment with a narrow, misunderstood, or distorted sense of accountability. Individuals and groups with a strong moral ideation are especially vulnerable to scapegoatism. Typically, the person or group who is scapegoated symbolizes ... some pathology in the team psyche. Scapegoatism is a maladaptive, defensive reaction in which failure and other evils are magically warded off by finding someone to blame.

Note there is no mention of exclusivity in regards to who scapegoats or is scapegoated. What is instead highlighted is that this is not a healthy or productive reaction. It is frightening how often groups (both majority and minority) use this technique to justify ostracism, disrespect, and assignment of blame. Unfortunately, as McCarthy goes on to note:

Ultimately, untreated scapegoating is fatal. ... The direct victims (the people blamed) ... respond with impenetrable defensiveness and reverse scapegoatism. ... their effectiveness is greatly reduced... The secondary victims are the balance of the team, and they are victimized in at least two ways and with more profound and dangerous consequences: since blame has been improperly though conveniently assigned, true cause and effect are never analyzed, genuine inefficiencies are never exposed, and the problems are left to express themselves in new ways that in turn trigger more scapegoating. The newly validated scapegoating impulse becomes stronger than ever, having just fed itself by taking huge bites out of the efficiency of the team. A single successful scapegoating episode will always compound the virulence of the scapegoating impulse in the rest of the team.

Thus it can be seen that anger and bigoted assignments of blame are not adaptive or empowering long-term impulses. They are instead simplistic assessments of the problem. I am still astonished when I consider their insidious effects - why is it that no one questions such essentialist treatment of the scapegoat? Furthermore, by tarring any who are at all loosely allied with the scapegoated victim, such behavior effectively isolates the target one wishes to 'punish.' After all, no one wishes to invite attacks or vitriol similar to that being suffered by a scapegoat. We are all fearful of:

...the spectacle of a terror which threatens us all, that of being judged by a power which wants to hear only the language it lends us. ... [we become] accused, deprived of language, or worse, rigged out in that of our accusers, humiliated and condemned by it (Barthes 1957:46).

However, this scapegoating invites an unhealthy form of group-think that chastises innovation and true self-analysis, and forestalls any attempts to either get at or constructively deal with the true roots of the problem. True, if the goal is merely short-term gain (such as becoming the center of attention, or striking out vengefully) scapegoating is a perfect technique, since the desire for increased understanding and/or growth of all associated with the group is subordinated to the selfish desires of the individual or group insisting on the scapegoating.

I will, of course, be accused of reverse racism for the beliefs I am stating in this paper. Hurtado cleverly uses reverse racism to support her arguments; I see no reason why I should not do the same. She notes:

The often openly expressed response to charges of racism [against persons of color by whites] is the assertion that whiteness is a legitimate criterion of resource allocation because merit is color-blind and that it is a coincidence (or inherent superiority) that most meritorious persons happen to be white and male [emphasis mine] (1996:157).

This is (as I'm sure she knows) nonsense. The most meritorious persons are currently both white and male because of the privileges they accrue in this society. This is not the issue I am examining. I am discussing being unfair in order to redress prior unfairness. The question becomes: at what point does one stop being unfair? I have no problem with helping people that need some financial assistance to complete their studies - I am myself a beneficiary of such assistance. Where I draw the line is when a double standard is being applied - where assistance is being given due to some inborn criterion such as skin color or biological sex. There is no 'exit strategy' for this program. Will we be favoring skin color or sex forever, as long as it is not white or male? How long shall we punish a certain class of people? When will the groups receiving these advantages decide they have received the redress they sought? It seems likely that as long as they are successfully receiving these advantages they will continue to declare themselves as still disadvantaged.

Thus we can see in the above examples how the rhetoric against racism or bigotry becomes institutionalized - and as a result, become itself racist and/or oppressive. The tools of this process are scapegoating with anger, and application of unwitting double standards. The result is that the oppressed become what they're fighting against, blindly helping to maintain the hierarchializations of the majority. Unfortunately, no matter how pretty the arguments used, how oppressed the speaker, or how unwitting the double standard is, bigotry is still bigotry.

Indeed, I find it interesting that anyone that seeks to even open a discussion of the issue, in terms of 'when should we stop?' is labeled a racist. There seems currently to be an accepted mythology concerning the discourse on bigotry, a belief that those that have been oppressed have acquired some inner essence that inoculates them against any possible abuse of power. Yet in the Merriam-Webster definition of the word 'oppress' there is no mention of any class of people being immune to the ability to abuse others. It is easy to forget, I think, that abuse of power is an expression of bigotry in all humans. According to Foucault, power is accepted because it is not merely repressive. It does not only say 'no,' but rather it "traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse (1977, 119)." In that case, the oppressed and formerly powerless might find the ability to exercise power - even unjust power - intoxicatingly irresistible. To oppress is to discover one's self, to exist oppositionally to one's victim, to know one's own strength and power. As Barthes notes,

We find again here this disease of thinking in essences, which is at the bottom of every bourgeois mythology of man (which is why we come across it so often). ... myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear. ... Myth is a value, truth is no guarantee for it; nothing prevents it from being a perpetual alibi: it is enough that its signifier has two sides for it always to have an 'elsewhere' at its disposal. ... Men do not have with myth a relationship based on truth but on use: they depoliticize according to their needs [emphasis his] (1957: 121, 123, 144).

Thus the current mythologies about bigotry (and in specific racism) insidiously create themselves because they are needed in order to hide acts of bigotry by certain classes of people. These 'myths' could be stated as follows: 'bigotry exists, but the oppressed are surely incapable of such outrages. It must be only the hegemonic majority committing these outrages, thus they must be solely to blame.' Sadly, those that espouse such tactics do not seem to realize they are using the very theoretical frameworks set up for them by hegemonic thought. As Foucault notes,

In order to be able to fight a State which is more than just a government, the revolutionary movement ... hence must constitute itself as a party, organised internally in the same way as a State apparatus with the same mechanisms of hierarchies and organizations of powers (1972:59).

By using the myth-making capabilities of the hegemony and the tools and tactics of the hegemony, various groups and individuals are unwittingly helping to maintain the very hegemonic double standards they purport to wish to disassemble. Here can be seen the consequences of blind assumption of the tactics of one's enemy. Anger and double standards will not dismantle the trappings of privilege, but rather only reassign blame - and perhaps allow the formerly oppressed the right to shoulder those very trappings themselves. Lorde herself writes, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house (1984: 110)." Why then does she promote the use of anger and double standards - the tactics of the master?



I don't expect this paper to be approved of - I'm not following the PC academic 'party line.' But why is it so taboo to mention this trait of bigotry as potentially applying to all humans? Deikman writes of a possible reason,

We can feel secure in the protection provided by a group, but that protection has its price. Compliance with the group often extends further than acceptance of the group's views to include participation in the attack on deviants by subtle (or not so subtle) disapproval, punishment, or rejection of any member who voices criticism of the consensus.

Thus if an observer introduces the possibility that bigotry might be a human trait, rather than a trait belonging exclusively to the hegemonic majority, the approval of their group is abruptly withdrawn. Lurking over the observer like a Damoclean sword is the threat of possible future disapprobation - or even outright attack. The choice is clear; stand with the group, or stand besieged and alone to speak the uncomfortable truth. Most people desire acceptance - it also is a human trait. However, as a friend politely noted, I am a trouble-maker, and I'm not willing to pay that price. I will not stifle questions on what I see as an injustice, merely in order to be accepted. Foucault writes,

The university hierarchy is only the most visible, the most sclerotic and least dangerous form of this phenomenon. One has to be really naive to imagine that the effects of power linked to knowledge have their culmination in university hierarchies (19:52).

I am unsurprised, if disappointed, that my most intimate exposure to bigotry has happened on a college campus. It is an unfortunate truism that many of those who espouse anger and unwitting double standards are part of the academic world. Nevertheless, while the problem of angry double standards appears to be originating there, it seems to me that the birth of the cure is also possible in the same location. As academics and as people supposedly dedicated to seeking out truth, it would seem our duty to fight this mythologizing. Foucault adds later,

What the intellectual can do is to provide instruments of analysis... What's effectively needed is a ramified, penetrative perception of the present, one that makes it possible to locate lines of weakness, strong points, positions where the instances of power have secured and implanted themselves by a system of organisation dating back over 150 years. In other words, a topological and geological survey of the battlefield - that is the intellectual's goal (1972:62).

It is not for the academic to promote histrionics, or engage in tearful accusations of racism. This accomplishes nothing, antagonizes potential allies, and is actively destructive of the cause of eliminating bigotry in the non-academic world. Instead, to effectively fight bigotry - in all its forms, regardless of who it is perpetrated by - the intellectual would do better to identify and historicize bigotry, that it may be better understood, addressed, and ultimately eliminated. Barthes also tells us how to accomplish this goal. He notes:

There is therefore one language which is not mythical, it is the language of man as a producer: wherever man speaks in order to transform reality and no longer to preserve it as an image, wherever he links his language to the making of things, meta-language is referred to a language-object, and myth is impossible. This is why revolutionary language proper cannot be mythical (1972:62).

The revolutionary goal is there before us: a society free of bigotry. We - all of the members of this society - can produce such a society, but we cannot do so by promulgating the very double standards that caused the racisms and bigotries we are attempting to deconstruct. We must be wary of a psychological need to essentialize and scapegoat, to preserve the image of bigotry as belonging to the Other, and instead understand its history in order to eliminate it.

Once again, I'd like to state my views clearly, with an eye to avoiding essentialist simplification of my arguments. I do not feel that anger at oppression is inappropriate - merely the thoughtless application of it to the wrong target. I do not feel that bigotry is unique to minorities, but rather to humans. I do feel that focused and controlled anger can be a key tool in disassembling bigotry and double standards - in all their forms. I also feel that while I may not see a bigotry-free society in my life-time, it is a glorious goal that is worth working towards... and this paper is part of my attempts to do so. I'd like to close with a quote that I think is still relevant today. It was said by Reverend Martin Niemoller, in Germany:

When Hitler attacked the Jews, I was not a Jew, therefore I was not concerned.
And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, and therefore I was not concerned.
And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists I was not a member of a union, and therefore I was not concerned.
Then Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church -- and there was nobody left to be concerned.

If you see what you believe is a wrong, speak out. Ask questions; seek always for the truth. Don't let yourself be defined by others. Be concerned. Silence implies consent.


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