For more than a century now, there has been a rising awareness of the need for universal human rights: first for the workers of the world, then for women and people of color, then for many other groups. This has led to many different waves of backlash, all tied to the specific movement they are going against.
In this era of continued growing awareness, it seems to some people that there’s no end to the complaints about subgroups being exploited or mistreated, which is why they use the term “political correctness” derisively. They are trying to reduce these movements to demands about words, when the use of words is only a symptom of the greater problems. Calling a black person a “nigger” is not the root of the problem. It is a symptom of the underlying racism that made that person say it. Wanting white people to stop saying “nigger” is an attempt to get white people to see black people in a more respectful light. People who object to such “correctness” only see the word, not the causes of the use of the word, or they are racists and simply don’t care if people use that word.
But there is a more sophisticated strategy that they can take here. Instead of just objecting to the “correctness,” they sometimes say something like, “so you think [oppressed group] is so fragile that they can’t stand hearing the word [slur]? I think you need to start treating [oppressed group] like adults who can stand up to a simple word.” Here is a real life example of a misogynist commenting on the “ban bossy” campaign:
The biggest level of cognitive dissonance is – this is a campaign that is done in solidarity of young women and girls, yet it is making it sound like they are so fragile that they can’t handle being called a word. I mean, really? Are we really making that argument? Cause if we are, then you are tacitly admitting that they shouldn’t be holding positions of power. Reason – because they can’t take criticism.
This is an insidious tactic because it claims to be on the side of the oppressed, that the oppressed are not weak and can take the abuse, so it’s not really abusive. This particular example is even better because it creates a double bind: either women are too weak to be called “bossy,” in which case they don’t deserve power (as if men can take criticism any better), or they are strong enough to be called “bossy,” in which case we should continue to insult them. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Inevitably this tactic is framed in terms of “fragility” or “weakness.” The implication is that if members of an oppressed group are offended by a certain word, then they must be “fragile” or “weak,” and (at least in the case of the example I quoted) therefore unable to withstand serious human interactions. This is, of course, disingenuous and hypocritical: when people in power are offended, they don’t conclude that they are too “fragile” or “weak” to keep holding power. It is therefore purely a matter of self-interest, and the end goal of the maneuver is to shut people up.
I’m talking about tactics based on arguing that the person defending a given group is trying to turn the people of that group into victims. This particular argument is just a specific instance of that category, since it contends that the people trying to abolish slurs are implying that the oppressed people are weak. In general, though, the rationalization used is not that the oppressed people are “weak,” but rather that they have “agency” or “choice,” which is even more insidious because it seems to “empower” oppressed people with the ability to decide their destiny. The argument goes something like this:
1. You claim that a group of people P is oppressed.
2. But such a statement denies that people P have agency and (have chosen the life situation that you decry/need to choose a better life situation and “life themselves by their bootstraps.”)
3. Therefore you are denying people P agency, portraying them as victims when they actually (are/should be) empowered.
There are two branches to this argument, and they switch from one to the other depending on whether they find the oppression desirable or not. So for instance, homemaking, pornography or prostitution get the “they’ve chosen the life situation that you decry” branch, while poverty or police harassment get the “need to choose a better life situation” branch.
One major problem with this argument, however, is that it does not apply to bigotry, which is the foundation of the oppressions they are trying to rationalize. So for example the following argument makes sense to them:
Women in pornography and prostitution have agency and have chosen the life situation that you decry. Therefore you are denying women in pornography and prostitution their agency, portraying them as victims when they actually are empowered.
But once you start trying to address sexism itself, neither branch of the argument makes sense. While genderists do believe that various parts of sexism are empowering (such as the fuckability mandate or rigid gender roles), sexism itself is still not considered “empowering,” and it makes no sense to say that women who are victim of sexism need to choose a better life situation, since they can’t change being a woman (genderist blathering notwithstanding). The “agency” ploy only works on the oppressed’ reactions to bigotry. It doesn’t work on the bigotry itself.
That’s obvious if you understand what “agency” is really all about, and that’s victim-blaming, more specifically, defending evil institutions by claiming the victims’ participation is justified by “agency.” But obviously victims of bigotry do not participate in it, they only participate to their own reactions to the bigotry.
But this is a major flaw of the argument, as it doesn’t actually explain the oppression itself. Homemaking, pornography, prostitution, poverty and police harassment are effects of misogyny and racism, which are the root causes. The latter cannot be addressed without also addressing the former. Therefore any argument which justifies one without justifying the other is logically flawed. If the existence of those effects is justified by “agency,” then misogyny and racism must also be justified by “agency,” otherwise neither can be justified by “agency.”
Is identifying oppression the same as turning people into victims? Well, I think there is a problem with the question, insofar as a belief in “agency” seems to preclude any victimhood whatsoever. How can anyone be a victim if everyone has the “agency” to “choose” their oppression or to leave it? Take a very clear-cut example of oppression: a mother is beaten by her husband but does not want to leave him because of the children. According to the argument, the mother is not being oppressed because she has the “agency” to leave him, so the fact that she’s not leaving is actually “her choice” (they would never say that last part, but it is implied). Things like financial dependence or fear never factor in “agency” explanations (they never count against prostitution or pornography, for example), so we can’t let them factor in here either.
Such arguments reduce victimhood to a matter of subjectivity, whether a person feels “empowered” or not, whether they are said to have “chosen” where they ended up. This is generally not based on any facts or statistics. Every case is treated as a separate entity, and institutions are portrayed as being somewhat fluid, not quite real. Coercion and exploitation is obscured by the stories of the happy homemakers, the happy hookers, the happy actresses. Poverty and lower social status are portrayed as a sort of laziness, reserved for people who don’t work hard enough to get themselves free of it. There is a great deal of vagueness, of ambiguity, projected upon the whole thing, following the principle of inserting a “shadow of a doubt” in order to secure innocence. If some people aren’t victims, then none really are.
I like to think of this as “eracism.” It’s become fashionable to deny the existence of racism, while hiding it behind codewords and dogwhistles. A racist candidate is now a “law and order” candidate. A racist policy against blacks is now targeting “welfare queens” or “urban crime.” One erases racism by turning victims into miscreants. It is a high priority of anyone who supports the status quo to deny that anyone is being victimized by the system, that it’s all fair and just part of the game.
Eracism is necessarily victim-blaming, and I would include the “you’re turning everyone into victims” argument in that category, because it seeks to cloak oppression with “empowerment.” When people treat victims of sexist or racist oppression as “empowered,” they are hiding the victimhood, and they are also hiding their own role in the process as social agents. By projecting blame on the victims, they exculpate themselves. This is a comforting thought, if you don’t care at all for truth or justice.