Oppression and Individualism

Recently, as I was roving the vast interwebs, I came across a quote: “People tend to notice oppression when it’s happening to them.”  It really brought up a lot of things I’d been thinking about lately. It’s almost midday where I am but I’ve been up since early morning without my coffee, so I’ll do my best to make this a coherent post.

The idea that some people believe themselves to be oppressed or discriminated against, almost to the exclusion of others reminds me a lot of these sketches on an American TV show called Saturday Night Live. In the sketches, a recurring character called Penelope is featured in various common situations (defensive driving classes, volunteering at a soup kitchen, etc.) and in each of these situations she attempts to “one-up” everyone else. Doing everything bigger, better, faster, etc. often in very humorous ways.

Penelope’s one-up game is strong

These “oppression olympics” as it’s been called, seem very similar to this kind of mindless competition. Penelope represents a uniquely individualistic, self-centered, narcissistic character and each of those characteristics is blown out of proportion for comical purposes. Unfortunately, I see some of the same characteristics in discussions of race, gender, and other hot-button topics. It’s almost as though certain individuals (not representative of their respective groups) are trying to monopolize inequality for themselves.Whatever struggle someone else faces they have it worse or they faced that struggle way before you faced it.

Now I know what some people are going to say “omg liek wite ppl cant b uhpressed bc they are…wite!” These people will jump through hoops and do all sorts of mental gymnastics to avoid the cognitive dissonance that comes from clashing with their a simplistic worldview wherein traditional minority groups are always suffering more and it is always at the hands of an oppressor. It’s the scourge of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant! (WASP). I do understand why someone would want to constantly re-arrange the information they’re receiving to fit a very simple model. It is harder to look at the world in shades of gray rather than in black and white (pun intended). If we accept, for example, that men are sometimes disadvantaged in comparison to women, we must allow for a more complex worldview. It is simpler to frame all disadvantages facing traditionally advantaged groups as a function of some prejudice that actually affects the minority group more. Anybody remember when Hillary said that women were the real victims of war? It’s easier to frame the death, mutilation, psychological scarring and lack of support for (primarily male) veterans as actually hurting women than to accept that maybe sometimes it’s hard to be male and sometimes it’s hard to be female.

I could talk about these issues for hours, but one of the main points I want to get to is how individualism plays a huge role in all of this. Many western cultures operate on an almost masturbatory worship of the individual.

“Anyone who doesn’t love literally everything about you, even your flaws, even if you’re an incredibly rude, entitled POS, is just stupid and you don’t need them honey!” -Featuring on a Newsfeed Near You!

When we are told that we are always more important than others, then messages like “worry about yourself, then worry about others” stop meaning “put the oxygen mask on yourself before others” and start meaning “put 3 oxygen masks on yourself at the expense of others’ lives because you get a little anxious when you can’t breathe deeply.”

It is this same thinking that leads us to believe that only our worldview is important and others who are unlike us could not possibly have valid alternative experiences (coincidentally, this is a load-bearing pillar of racism as well). Because we are so individualistic we find it very hard to recognize ourselves in others and acknowledge the importance of the community. The focus on community is something underscored in many eastern schools of thought (bodhicitta in buddhism, filial piety in confucianism, festivals, ceremonies, and much of the overall orthopraxy of shinto).

Now, I’m not saying “east rules, west drools”. That would be oversimplifying things. Remember what I just said about that? I’m just saying that borrowing from an eastern perspective to temper our self-absorption can help us to recognize that all people struggle with different problems.

Regardless of race, gender, socio-economic standing, IQ, or any of those divisive categorizations, we all suffer and we are all sometimes treated unfairly by society, the government, or others in general. Just because someone else is suffering doesn’t mean your suffering is any less valid, and just because you are suffering doesn’t mean another person’s suffering is any less valid either. Instead of thinking “ha, stupid ______, you’re a ________ and they can’t be oppressed/struggling”, think about what that group may be experiencing, whether or not you have considered their point of view, and how you can act to take a little suffering out of the world.

Help each other.


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