A powerful (and potentially hazardous) communication formula.
And I’m sure I’m guilty of, at minimum, passing on things communicated in this formula. Because one of its serious advantages, for those using it, is that it’s the sort of thing that sticks in people’s minds and that they want to pass on But I’ve finally recognized that I see a pattern here, and that it’s not always a good pattern. It can be used to manipulate other people’s awareness of a situation, or even your own awareness of a situation.
So if you think of communicating this way, use it with extreme caution because it’s quite potent and powerful. If you see people communicating this way, take a step back and seriously evaluate the situation before passing on such communications to others. Don’t let yourself simply be swept along by the power of this sort of language.
So let’s say I’m having a discussion with someone in realtime, and the person interrupts me repeatedly over the course of the conversation. I don’t know why they’re doing it. But it’s pissing me off, and I have a choice of how to respond.
Do I say, “You keep interrupting me and it’s really irritating.”
Or do I say, “You are repeatedly interrupting an autistic person with a significant communication disability.”
Do you see what I did there?
Do you see how that significantly alters how I perceive the situation, how anyone witnessing me saying this perceives the situation, and how everything will go from there on out?
“He’s talking over me.”
“He’s talking over a multiply disabled woman of color.”
“He’s not listening to me.”
“A rich cishet man is not listening to a working-class genderqueer person.”
“She’s harassing a friend of mine.”
“She’s harassing an elderly gay man.”
On the surface of it, both sets of sentences mean basically the same thing. The only difference is that the first sentence doesn’t describe the people in question. The second sentence at minimum describes the person being (presumably) harmed in some way in terms of their oppressions, and may also (but often doesn’t) describe the person doing the (presumed) harm in terms of their privileges.
Sometimes this kind of thing is very important to point out. So it’s not like the second way of doing things is always the wrong way of doing things. But any time you do this, and any time you see it being done, you should think very carefully about what is happening and what the consequences of such descriptions are going to be.
Because the second kind of description is an extremely power-filled way to communicate. It takes an everyday situation and makes sure that everyone listening sees the interaction as fraught with oppressive overtones. In fact, it makes oppression the main aspect of the conversation that everyone is going to be looking at. And it makes people do that whether or not they actually know anything about the situation, and whether or not the situation was actually oppressive in nature.
Like… people interrupt me all the time. Sometimes they interrupt me because I am a developmentally disabled person with a nonstandard communication method. Sometimes they interrupt me because they’re in a hurry. Sometimes they interrupt me because they’re assholes who interrupt everyone. Sometimes they interrupt me because they themselves have a communication disability (whether I can see it or not) and have a good deal of difficulty judging the timing of a conversation. Sometimes they interrupt me because I myself am doing something oppressive to them and they’ve had enough.
But regardless of any of those things, if I frame the situation in terms of ableist oppressive dynamics, people who care about ableism are going to have a powerful response to the situation. Other disabled people, especially other people with communication disabilities, will be more likely to be sympathetic to my side of the story. Even if the situation was one in which, say, I was being racist to someone and they interrupted me because they were sick of my bullshit, nobody’s going to notice that if I frame it in terms of a nondisabled person interrupting someone with a severe communication impairment.
And I’ve noticed that in a lot of anti-oppression communities, this way of framing situations happens almost like a reflex. Like, regardless of the realities of the situation, people’s first instinct when they’re pissed off at someone, is to instantly use the formula “You just did ________ to a ______ person” where the first ________ is something someone is doing wrong, and the second _______ is an oppressed identity. People aren’t necessarily consciously intending to manipulate everyone’s view of the situation, although sometimes they are. But it happens all the time.
I witnessed a fight once where I pretty much saw what had happened. And what had happened was something where both parties had done a lot of crappy things to each other, there wasn’t really a right side and a wrong side, it was more like a wrong side and a wrong side. And oppression was really not the issue on either side of the conflict, it was more of a personality conflict between two people with extremely strong-willed personalities who had happened to get into a knock-down drag-out Internet fight that got seriously ugly.
But later, I saw people who weren’t even there, and had no idea what had happened, beginning to talk about it in terms of “This guy hurt a disabled woman of color.” And as soon as that happened, everyone suddenly “knew” that the guy in question was oppressive to women of color. And to this day, I hear him described as “that guy who makes things unsafe for women of color” until that was permanently attached to his reputation.
In fights like that, I often see a pattern of attack and counterattack that goes something like this:
Jack and Jill have a conflict of some kind.
People on Jill’s side instantly start saying, “Jack hurt a woman of color.”
People on Jack’s side immediately retaliate by saying “Jill hurt a disabled working-class trans man.”
Months later, people who have no idea what happened, when they hear about Jack, instantly describe him as “that white guy who oppresses women of color”, and people likewise talk about Jill as “that rich cishet woman who oppresses disabled working-class trans men” and nobody actually knows what happened. So it sort of escalates in steps: First it starts with a conflict where oppression may or may not have actually come into play. Then oppression gets dragged into the matter on an individual level, whether oppression was seriously involved in the conflict or not. Then one or both people get a reputation for offensive and oppressive behavior, not just towards one person, but towards all people who share that person’s oppressions. So it goes from “John and I had a fight” to “John oppressed me for being a disabled woman” to “John oppresses disabled women”.
Even when oppression is a big part of the picture, you should use and understand this communication formula with caution. While there’s plenty of people in the world who will just go “huh?”, people who care about oppression are going to take such a description seriously, and many of them are not going to ask for the other side of the story before they take on board the idea that someone is oppressive towards you, and then that easily and rapidly morphs into that idea that this person behaves oppressively towards people like you, habitually, all the time. And that morphs into the idea that this person shouldn’t be listened to about just about anything, is in general a bad person, should not be in leadership positions for any reason, deserves to lose friends and allies, may even deserve a community-wide shunning.
And given that there is not a person alive right now who does not behave oppressively, abuse their privilege, and hurt other people (both in oppressive contexts and in contexts where oppression really isn’t the issue), then you should be very careful before you use this formula to describe an interaction.
And you should also be very careful when you read things described using this formula. Even if your gut tells you that oppression is involved, be very careful. Not all oppressive interactions are equally oppressive. And once you see the situation entirely in terms of one oppressive dynamic, you’re likely to see the person in a very different light (and interpret their behavior as oppressive even when it’s not). And it’s very easy to make the leap from “this person engaged in a specific oppressive behavior towards a specific oppressed person” to “this person engages habitually in oppressive behavior of all kinds and severities, towards all people who share that person’s oppressions”.
You’re also unlikely, at that point, to see whether oppression was actually flowing the other way in the interaction. I’ve seen many situations where a white disabled person was being racist towards a nondisabled person of color who was being ableist. And basically, whichever oppression people mentioned first was the one most likely to be believed, regardless of which one was the worst in the situation (or whether one was even worse than the other). So if people first said “Joe was ableist towards John”, people were more likely to see the ableism than the racism. And if people said “John was racist towards Joe,” then people were more likely to see the racism than the ableism.
And that fact often makes people rush in to be the first one to bring oppression into the situation. So that then if the other person mentions that the oppression was happening in the other direction too, o hen they’re more likely to be seen as just making excuses for their own oppressive behavior.
Note that I’m not saying that oppressive behavior is a good thing, that it never comes into play during ordinary conflicts, or that people shouldn’t talk about it. And I’m not saying that being accused of oppressive behavior is as bad as being oppressed, or that making such accusations means that you’re always going to be believed.
But in communities where a large number of people are aware of (at least certain kinds of) oppression and see it as a bad thing that needs to be fought against. Then such accusations are a powerful social force in themselves, and unleash powerful social forces against those accused. In extreme cases, I have seen this way of formulating a situation escalate a conflict from the status of personality conflict, to an all-out war between two factions of people. Lost friends, lost community, mass shunning. It can get really ugly, and it can all start from one simple sentence, using the formula I’ve described.
So no matter how angry you are, no matter how justified you believe you are, always stop and think about the consequences before you use this formula to tell someone off, or describe an interaction you have.
And when you read something written in that formulation, always stop and think before you pass it on. I’ve noticed that there’s something almost viral about the speed at which “So-and-so behaved oppressively towards a disabled woman” spreads all over the place, becomes “common knowledge”, and morphs into “So-and-so oppresses disabled women.” Don’t be part of that viral transmission unless you’re damn sure of the facts. Because a lot of the time, there’s at most one tiny grain of truth that gets expanded and generalized to a wider statement about a person. And sometimes the only grain of truth is not so much that someone behaved oppressively towards a certain type of person, certainly not that this is habitual behavior towards everyone who is oppressed in that way, but rather than the person got into a fight or argument with someone who was oppressed in that manner, and someone somewhere along the way generalized that in a huge way. And even when someone did behave oppressively in one instance, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they make a habit of it.
As an autistic person, I frequently see instances of this in the autistic community. Someone will get into a fight with an autistic person one single time, and suddenly the person is pretty much blacklisted throughout the autistic community as a person who behaves oppressively towards autistic people in general.
And the very first warning sign that something like this is going to happen, is when a discussion starts off not with “You just hurt me” but “You just hurt an autistic person”, with an implicit accusation that the hurting involved (which in some cases is as little as disagreement or naive ignorance about an issue that isn’t widely understood) has something to do with the person being autistic or oppressed in some other way.
So when you see someone say that, think twice. Think three times.
And if you feel tempted to say it yourself early on in a disagreement, think twenty times. It can become almost a reflex to try to say that at the earliest point possible, and it goes along with an entire way of thinking that on the one hand can help you understand oppression, but on the other hand can manipulate your own thoughts and the thoughts of others in ways that aren’t really fair. Saying things like that tends to polarize people, and people in anti-oppression communities will feel pressure to take your side, or else to declare that you’re the one being oppressive and fight it out over which one of you is the most oppressive. Either way, nothing constructive is happening and a lot of destructive things are set in motion both inside and outside of yourself.