Phrases often take on lives of their own. I noticed this when reading a social media conversation where a queer friend said to a straight person “you do not experience structural homophobia, so…” It got me thinking about what that ‘structural’ is doing in that sentence. The ‘structural’ has migrated there from other discussions: people use it to prefix conversation about various types of oppression, usually to claim something about the way society works. It most often comes into play when not talking about directly violent elements of oppression, but those that are less perceptible outside its dynamic: e.g., implicit social threats of violence, rights to employment, covert and unconscious examples of homophobia, or sexism, or racism. I think it is meant to underline the actual reality of these experiences of oppression, and its permeation through the social fabric.
But, yes, these phrases go wandering, take on lives of their own, grow other implications. Why is the ‘structural’ prefix so popular? It is presumably part of a claim that phenomena such as differentiated employment or access to healthcare are not simply neutral features of the world ‘as it is’, but are politically distributed. But this ‘structural’ dimension of social experience is only intelligible to us comparatively, and collectively. Therefore, while it is strictly accurate for my friend to say to his straight interlocutor “you do not experience structural homophobia”, it is equally true for me to say: neither do you. You experience homophobia: its ‘structural’ element arrives in collective appreciation of its common logic with other experiences. That is to say, there is no dividing line between the structural and the incidental: all homophobia, and all oppression, is structural in that it is patterned by a particular social logic.
The reason I think this is important, and that it is important to insist on the collective dimension of social experience, is that the prefix ‘structural’ can be used to exculpate and disempower. It can give rise to the kind of argument that states there are no ‘winners’ from oppressive social structures. This, it seems to me, is an error in reasoning. What it suggests is that patriarchy, or heteronormativity, actually traumatises all human beings (this argument is rarely deployed for white supremacy, the historical reason being hopefully obvious.) This may in fact be true: but it is certainly easier to deal with a traumatised subject-position in one’s slippers, in the armchair, as one’s wife sweats over a hot stove in her 15th consecutive hour of work. It is rather like saying capitalists are also losers from capitalism, as they have to degrade and destroy life to make a profit. There patently are winners from oppressive social structures. That is why they exist.
Why does this argument come about? It is an individual argument: it comes from looking at the individual consequences of social dynamics rather than the way they affect groups, or classes, of people. Doesn’t an insistence on the social, or structural, dimension of oppression in fact suggest that there must be winners and losers? Further: it is equally important to conceive of an anti-oppressive politics as extendable beyond the individual: that is, it is a political rather than personal project. I mean by this that it is legitimate to try to challenge and eliminate personal prejudices in oneself, but that a political project has to go beyond this, to identify the social logic that imparts these prejudices in the first place, and articulate a politics that seeks to destroy them. Again, it seems to me this requires thinking beyond our immediate experience, about why our social order might need to create interior externalities, or classes of people becoming ‘surplus populations’, or rely on unpaid work in the form of social reproduction. As such, ‘structures’ are constructed (but materially real) social norms that appear to take on a seemingly immutable presence outside of the subject: but they are nonetheless constituted by and dependent on human action, and can therefore be changed.