meditations on abuse, oppression, social justice, community, and ethics
February 19, 2016
This is related to an earlier post I made about the conflation of abuse and oppression.
I am, of course, recalling that time some months ago where I publicly said I didn’t like a person and why. This was, alternatingly, called out as either abuse or oppression (maybe both). I think shortly thereafter I begain a discussion with some friends about the… dilution of ‘abuse’ as a concept in the ~discourse~. As is normal for, months later I’ve processed some of my feelings and such and now want to discuss further.
This does go a step further than the linked post because I’m introducing a third kind of ‘harm’: interpersonal harm.
We’ve reached a point where if I say I don’t like a person (with or without a reason), this can be framed as either abuse or oppression. And I wish I were being hyperbolic but since this actually happened to me, it was the tipping point for me to realize that ‘abuse’ as a concept has become hopelessly diluted and, ultimately, meaningless (at least within the ~discourse~ and related communities).
At the time I asked this question: Is it possible to abuse someone who you have never once directly interacted with? And since we are also talking social media, someone who isn’t even on the site where you express your dislike of them?
After a lot of reflection the answer is ‘maybe’ or perhaps ‘it depends on the context’.
One possibility is that, in terms of cyber bullying, it could be considered abusive (since bullying is simply a type of abuse), to post negative things about someone online, regardless of whether or not you directly communicate these things to the person. Indeed, cyber bullying can frequently take this shape, as it creates a hostile environment for the intended victim. And a hostile environment can often induce other people to directly bully the person and/or is harmful in its own right. This alone renders the fact that I posted on a site that the other person isn’t on irrelevant (esp. since it isn’t like what is on tumblr never leaves the site or is shared externally).
Thus, bullying/abuse can indeed be enacted in indirect ways that still manage to directly harm a person (trying to turn a person’s peer group against them is a type of harm, since ‘isolating’ another person is a classic sign of abuse. And while most people will interpret this as someone control who a person can interact with, turning someone’s friends against them has the same net result: social isolation).
It makes me curious to ask whether or not intent has some meaning in this case. I recently discussed how intent does matter when assessing the ethics of an action. It may not be magic but it is important for ethical analysis. Or, at least, it is a non-trivial component. As in that post, this isn’t about negating the harm caused by an action. As far as the victim is concerned, the harm or damage is the same regardless of intent. But unless you are a pure consequentialist this can’t be the sole ethical measure of the agent did the thing.
As noted at the time, my intent in mentioning my dislike of this person (and the reason why) was to articulate a bias I had in the topic at hand. It was a way for me to signal others that they should take care to interpret what I’ve communicated while keeping this bias in mind. Because biases have a large impact on what is said and how it is said. For this particular case, the bias was to indicate that, unlike in many cases, I wasn’t approaching the theory I was critiqueing with charity. As in, I normally try to understand another person’s arguments as being (possibly) true and in its strongest form. But… because of my interpersonal bias, it was not the case for the situation.
Not much of a comfort, I’m sure, to a person who has been dealing with an already hostile environment and having to field many attacks of various kinds. When you are the victim (as I know for myself) it can be hard to discern between attacks and criticisms. They all begin to look alike.
But is it abuse?
I’m not going to answer that question myself since it really isn’t up to me to decide whether or not I am (or have been) abusive. The point of this post isn’t me either trying to rationalize what I did or excuse it or even deny the claim of abuse, but to simply explore this subject in depth.
Was what I did oppressive? This was the other charge. I was told that I was enacting oppression on an axis I don’t personally experience.
The answer for this one seems a little… more clear to me. In part because I didn’t actually know that the other person had that identity. Thus, it seems unrealistic to accuse me of harming a person because of that unbeknowst to me identity.
For me, this raises an interesting question. Is it important that the oppressor perceive the other person as having that identity?[^id] Honestly… I have to say ‘yes’ because oppression depends on some notion of difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. If you do not know that the person is Other, I’m not sure you can be culpable for harming them because of this fact. At least not in a direct, interpersonal way. Obviously, given that our society structures life in such a way that we oppress by default and without doing any particular thing, since we are talking about institutional oppression.
As above, this isn’t about me claiming that I am not the other person’s oppressor along this particular axis. I am. Its a marginalization I don’t experience, and thus I benefit from the oppression regardless of how I feel about it or what i do.
But this is simply what institutional oppression is. What of the interpersonal? When you are acting as Agent of Power and the other person has been cast in the role of Other? Obviously, this is also very clearly oppression. But in direct, personal way. It is you directly acting upon the Other, not passively benefitting from the disparity in power. Indeed, you are serving to enforce it as an Agent.
And it is interpersonal oppression that I think requires some knowledge (or idea or perception) that the person is Other. Identity based attacks are oppressive because you are targetting someone for who they are. It is unclear to me how you can enact an identity-based attack if you don’t know the other person’s identity (or aren’t making any assumptions, etc.). I could be wrong about this.
So… with the above in mind, the question remains: is it possible to articulate a dislike for someone that is neither abusive nor oppressive?
I’m inclined to say ‘yes’. It is easy to imagine situations where a disclosed distast for another person cannot be understood as either abuse or oppression. Like… I don’t like my parents. But given that they are my parents, they technically have power over me. And there isn’t really much in the bare statement “I don’t like my parents” that appears to conform to any of the generally recognized understandings of abuse.
In the situation I’m talking about two things stand out to me. What I wrote had two main components: 1. I expressed my feelings about another person and 2. I stated a fact about them (as reason for my feelings).
It’d be easy for me to say that ‘expressing your feelings’ can’t possibly be abusive/oppressive but… that’d be disingenuous. As above, articulating such feelings in the right context can be either. In my case… it can’t be denied that I have a certain level of social influence and capital. Most of us do to varying degrees. For myself, I know that there are more than few people who take what I saw seriously. Perhaps enough so that my expression of dislike is enough for them to also dislike the person. And suddenly I might be creating a hostile environment for the other person.
Of course… we don’t really want to say that no one is able to express their negative feelings about other people. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with saying ‘I don’t like that person’. And we certainly have no moral obligation to remain quiet about those feelings.
What of the statement of fact? Well… again it isn’t clear cut. Since… sometimes we are wrong about what we think is ‘fact’. But… perhaps all that is necessary is a sincere belief that, at the time, you were speaking the truth. Not that this does much to alleviate the harm that can come from speaking untruths about other people.
Can it be abuse? Can it be oppressive? Sometimes, yeah. I mean… the curious thing about stereotypes (as in why they are stereotypes in the first place) is that many people believe that they are true. They are pretty much always wrong. But… many people when they speak them do so with a sincere belief in their veracity.
This isn’t the post I set out to write. Since I think I intended to write something a little more definitive. But… all we are left with is knowing that the context of an action impacts ethics. As does intent. As does the harm caused.
Not terrifically groundbreaking stuff.
At the very least, we can look at the general conflation of oppression and abuse and we can see that there is no clear formula for calculating ethics and realize that….
People are often hasty to accuse and hasty to defend. But that we’ve also created a situation wherein certain kinds of actions are interpreted as unethical when they may not be. It is stifling and ridiculous to say that articulating a dislike for another person is automatically either abuse or oppression.
This aspect is actually one of the things that has always kept me distant from a lot of activist type groups and ~communities~. That there isn’t any room for personality conflicts and the like is just… not something I can actually understand. And certainly not an environment my autism can function in. Nowhere in this world is there a social group (unless entirely handpicked by my self) that only has people I’m going to like. Indeed, it would seem to me that expecting such a group to exist is pretty unrealistic and outright impossible when the criterion for entry is simply existing.
The closest I’ve ever come to joining what might be called an activist/identity-based community is the very periphery. Some of my reasons for this are personal and have nothing to do with the community dynamics (like… I hate how most activists talk. Not in terms of the content or whatever, but there is a certain… shared rhythm I’ve noticed in their speech that grates on my nerves and always drives me away). Other times its realizing that I’m expected to perform a certain kind of social behaviour that I don’t understand and, unlike the mainstream world, don’t have years of practice at pretending like I do.
Then I look at these kinds of community dynamics and I don’t really understand what possible benefit I could gain from forcing myself to learn how to function in a different social context. I forced myself to learn how to do professional networking because there is a real and substantive value in knowing how to do so. Trying to figure out how to perform Activism(tm) just looks like a lot of work with very little payoff. And, tbh, I’d rather laze around in bed listening to mm audiobooks.