On Persecution Complexes and Rage

The interplay of rage and persecution complexes works to shape trans, LGB — and in fact all — struggles against oppression.  It can become an eternal feedback loop that can stymie any attempt to move progressive causes forward, if it succeeds in establishing its circuitous pattern.

This translates to many struggles, so I’m going to speak generally and with varied examples — but I’m reminded of this most recently by the claims of persecution over a confrontation that happened at the New York dyke march, by Cathy Brennan, so will probably focus there most frequently.

(Oh dear god, I invoked the name. Now here come the bajillion bloody emails and the character assassination — it’s like goddamn Beetlejuice.)

Because I’ll be talking in generalities, I’ll be using terms like “oppressor / oppressed.” And because privilege is relative, and we all have some form of it or another relative to someone else, there are times when just about any group takes on the role of the oppressor — ourselves included.  So if I jump around a bit, you’ll need to bear with me.  The principle is what I’m focusing on, moreso than the many players.  Rather than participate in the game, I’d rather dismantle it.  Break the cycle, not perpetuate it.

Probably the most obvious model of how the persecution and rage cycle happens is with the far right’s characterization of anything that benefits LGBT people, women, science, atheism and just about anything outside of fundamentalist interpretations of church doctrine as “anti-Christian persecution.”  As such, I want to preface this with a clear statement.  My quarrel is with narrow branches of ideology that seek to marginalize trans, LGB and any other class of people, regardless of the excuse given.  My quarrel is not with Christianity, and I acknowledge the affirming people of faith, who give me hope.  My quarrel is also not with feminism, a movement which I am very much in solidarity with and believe in.  Faith and feminism are both often co-opted by narrow-thinking bigots who use them to spin excuses for prejudice at the best of times, and in their darker moments exploit them as shields for sympathy and to cry persecution in a way that they hope will convince onlookers that they’re the real wronged party.  In the end, Christianity and womens’ rights movements are victims of these ideologues as well — albeit less obviously.

The persecution complex is a tactic used by oppressor classes — sometimes fully believing their own jargon — to try to keep the right to oppress. In some cases, those classes have experienced oppression, and view that as a license to pass it on.

As minorities gain rights and power, of course, advantaged people perceive that as a loss of power and interpret it as counter-oppression.  This results in cries of reverse discrimination, especially in the face of prescriptive remedies (i.e. legal remedies ranging from equal rights laws to affirmative action policies), which can be rightly criticized for not dealing with prejudice in the hearts and minds of people, but at the same time are among the few early remedies available to a minority.  As “reverse discrimination” becomes an effective rallying cry, it encourages the advantaged to redouble their efforts to use the many techniques that are used to keep oppressive hegemony in place, which include — but are certainly not limited to — these:

  • Demonize the oppressed.  Although these don’t necessarily happen in a chronological sequence, this is usually the earliest tactic.
  • Invalidate the oppressed.  “The oppression isn’t really oppression, because the oppressed person isn’t worthy of being thought of as one of us, anyway.”  The whole “people choose to be gay” meme is a resurgent technique used to invalidate people, which overlooks several facts, including that it shouldn’t matter whether one’s life is a choice if it is lived ethically and responsibly.  It’s because choice fails as an invalidation technique that the far right has now shifted toward inventing think tanks and studies funded in stealth, to manufacture apparent “evidence” of unethicality and irresponsibility, while hiding the ideological bias of the studies.
  • Spin the oppressed person’s objections to your oppressive actions as attacking your ideology and everybody who subscribes to the most general form of it.  “See?  They’re being anti-Christian / anti-Feminist.”  No, Cathy Brennan, sometimes, it’s just you.
  • Blame the oppressed.  “Well if the oppressed didn’t draw attention to themselves and behave in a way that makes them different from everyone else, they wouldn’t be oppressed.  If the oppressed chooses to be different, it’s their own fault.”
  • Overplay the oppressed person’s power and status.  If it works for the poor helpless oil industry against mean, powerful and well-funded environmentalists, it can surely work for RadFem individuals who insinuate that when we transition to female, we still somehow maintain some sort of male privilege, or unfairly benefit from having once experienced it.
  • Being human, the oppressed will sometimes resort to brainfart arguments.  Exploit that.  For example, are we really arguing that if someone is not sexually attracted to a woman with a penis, then they’re automatically transphobic?  I get the cotton ceiling discussion, but when we tread here, we’ve slipped off the path.
  • Spin the oppression.  “It’s not segregation, it’s tradition.”
  • Deflect from the oppressed to one’s own victimhood elsewhere.  This is unique to horizontal violence (i.e. it’s something that can’t be effectively parlayed by affluent white males), where one can point to their own membership in an oppressed class as though it’s evidence that they would never truly oppress another if it weren’t warranted, or invoke the Oppression Olympics mindset of “who is the highest priority” to claim that the oppressed is less deserving of empathy, or that experiencing greater oppression excuses oppressive behaviour.  This is especially effective when the oppressor’s minority is larger and characteristic in question involves some very real oppressions faced.  Given the way that we prioritize our activism (rather than keeping our eyes on the prize of ending all oppression), the impulse to dismiss the “lesser” victim without scrutinizing the conflict further can be seductive to left-wingers and centrists who might otherwise be potential allies.
  • Create a false equivalence, by claiming that giving equal power to a minority takes away from your rights and freedoms (a.k.a. your power to oppress).  This is the whole gay rights versus Christian conscience argument, right there.
  • Discredit the oppressed by accusing them of mischaracterizing your position — which becomes especially easy to do when you yourself characterize it differently, depending on who you’re speaking to, sometimes with carefully coded phrasing to make it appear that there is no contradiction (i.e. “I respect trans women as women,” and “Females have a right to be free of Males if they so choose. Trans women are male.”)
  • Co-opt the oppressed by holding them up as a victim of oppression, but frame the oppression in your terms, rather than the victim’s.  We saw this most recently in Ugandans’ reactions to the infamous Kony 2012 video, but surfaces in just about any patriarchal instance in which external leaders know better than the oppressed how to fix the oppression, whether the conflict is about burqas or deciding who (trans women, trans men, genderqueer people, academics, the lesbian and gay establishment, medical professionals, cis media, pretty people, RuPaul) gets to speak for trans peoples.
  • Bait the oppressed into doing something that would appear to validate your hypothesis.  “So, If You React to Feminists Like You are “Mentally Ill,” Are We Supposed to Ignore that? Just Checking.

This is not a rulebook of techniques to use to get what we want, but a means of recognizing them when they are used against us.  Again, our goal should be ending oppression, not elevating ourselves at another’s expense.

That last point about baiting is especially effective, because anger is a natural human response to oppression, especially when there has been constant, cumulative aggressions directed at a person.  It’s like a cornered or injured being’s automatic impulse to lash out at anyone that nears.  It’s like the spontaneous bursts of rage born of post-traumatic stress (which minority stress is most likely a form of, however characteristically different from the battlefield-induced version it might be).  The initial shock of violence stuns a person into silence and submission; cumulative violence eventually boils over, causing one to lash out in violent ways.  This is what the 1% owners of society hadn’t counted on, and now deal with by directing minorities against each other in the form of anti-abortion legislation, campaigns against same-sex marriage, fomenting of racial prejudice, invention of wild conspiracy theories, dredging up long-obsolete controversies like birth control and far more.

This doesn’t excuse what we sometimes do with that anger, though.  Violent rhetoric — not to mention actual violence — are not needed, not helpful, not constructive, not effective and not appropriate.  There needs to be a separation between that rage and the immediate reaction. Most times, what comes out of angry mouths is actually posturing (I seriously doubt, for example, that a 17-year-old trans teen would jump through a monitor and across continents to actually lash out), but that doesn’t really make threats of violence excusable, either.

And face it: when oppressors play the persecution card, anything that could conceivably be twisted into oppression will be taken that way.  When I first responded to the Brennan-Hungerford letter to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (which claimed that extending human rights protections to transsexed and transgendered individuals would do harm to women by by eroding their rights), I understood that rage sometimes causes oppressed peoples to act rashly, and made a statement cautioning against reacting in anger and responding with violent rhetoric.  Naturally, this was spun as encouraging violence.  People with a persecution complex will always be capable of finding something to exemplify victimhood, and are not going to engage in rational dialogue.  What is important is to not provide actual validation of persecution claims.  The last thing we need to do is to undertake actual conflicts and be actually menacing.  It only appears to validate the concept that we’re somehow a threat.  It plays right into that whole game.

When oppressed peoples lash out at their oppressors in ways that appear to validate the excuses given for that oppression, they instinctively slip into the trap that keeps their movement stagnant, wrapped up in circuitous patterns that stymie progress.  Like it or not, it is up to us to break that cycle, by not playing into it.  When the advantage is the oppressor’s, the status quo benefits them.  Therefore, only the marginalized can change it, and in the process will have to rise to a higher standard.

When Barack Obama was elected President, Monica Roberts talked about the challenges before him and why he will likely be held to a higher standard than Presidents before him:

Over the last 400 years of African-descended people residing in the Americas, ugly stereotypes have been created and propagated about us that still persist to the present day. So in order to overcome the stereotypes that we are less intelligent, lazy, unpatriotic (well you get the drift), every African-American kid has had it drilled into us by our parents and elders that because of America’s original (and continuing) sin of racism, it would never be enough for us to just meet expectations, we have to exceed them. We were taught that we have to be quicker, faster, better, smarter and more prepared than non-Blacks. We were also taught that if and when we get a job, we have to get it done right the first time.

That pressure only increased if you were the ‘first Black’ in a position. You not only had to excel for yourself, but were cognizant of the fact that the hopes and dreams of an entire people rested on your shoulders.

You were also aware that, rightly or wrongly, our people would be judged in some cases based on your behavior and performance. If you didn’t do the job right, there might not be a second, third, fourth or 100th African-American following you and it might make it harder for other minorities to catch a break as well…

It’s true that most people are not like Martin Luther King or Gandhi.  But in order to accelerate our emancipation, we have to try to be.

It’s not right that it should be like that.

But it’s like that, anyway.

The solution is not to be passive, either, but to be smart about how we respond.  We need to challenge the ideology, not the ideologue.  And we need to break the cycle that is used to justify our oppression by refusing to validate it. Be angry, but act smartly.

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

6 thoughts on “On Persecution Complexes and Rage”

  1. Mercedes, My compliments on a well-written, well- thought out piece. Most communities Historically have fallen into that cyclical trap of oppressor/oppressed. While your piece isn’t a roadmap out of that, per-ce, it is a cautionary note to be smart in our activism. Knee-jerk reactions to oppression will get us nowhere. That being said, it shouldn’t be to hard to be smarter than, to rise above ,Cathy Brennan and her ilk!

  2. I am so tired of the “Religious” “Christian” right. They have gone off the deep end and missed the message of Social Justice in the New Testament. I believe that the Jewish followers of Jesus wanted social justice for the world. I have discovered a new book that shows how this social justice message was covered up by His Gentile followers. The church has blinkered its past. It’s no secret that Jesus strove to bring in the kingdom of justice here on earth and his followers implemented it in the communal society we read about in Acts 2:44-47. The church’s dirty secret is that the Jewish followers of Jesus continued to hold his vision dear, later influencing such sects as the Bogomils and even, according to their own oral traditions, the Doukhobors. After exterminating the Jewish followers of Jesus, the church’s historians buried this history of justice-seeking but an author by the name of Lawrence Goudge has exhumed their story and presented it in ‘Cover-Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus’s True Heirs.’ This book does the world a great service by illuminating for the first time this vital part of the history of social justice. I found it at http://tinyurl.com/69cazll.

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