On Politics, Internalized Oppression, and Speaking Even When Your Voice Shakes

I should be catching up on writing career things while I'm between semesters, but now that I have my studio back, this blog post is crowding the front of my mind. So I'm going to get it out of the way first, and then I'll work on that story stamping its feet in the queue.

So, Trump will likely be president, barring some Electoral College miracle. But even if somehow Hillary Clinton takes the oath of office, we've learned something about the level of right-wing ideology in American1 culture, and it's higher than we thought. Of course, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community have been shouting this at the tops of their collective lungs for years now. Meanwhile, women have watched their reproductive rights erode under a persistent hail of state-by-state lobbying on the part of the religious right. So the bigots, the homophobes, and the misogynists have been among us for a long time now; gathering strength, radicalizing, waiting for the right time to take America back for white, straight, rightist ideologues who believe women's bodies do not belong to themselves. It's a recipe for fascism about to come out of the oven, and we are right to label it a poison.

That's why I've been thinking about internalized oppression lately. Internalized oppression is what happens when a marginalized group begins to believe the things a dominant group says about it. For instance, women in a misogynistic culture might come to believe they are bad at math because they've been told that women's minds are less capable of understanding it. This kind of oppression manifests on two fronts; the personal and the communal. The individual woman might never try to succeed in the sciences because of what she has internalized, but she might also inflict what she has internalized upon other women and sabotage their scientific endeavors.

It's perhaps worth noting here that many of the people I care about are deeply circumspect about some aspect of their lives because of the potential consequences for being who they are more publicly. There are bisexual women who pass for straight because they're involved in relationships with men. There are Pagan people who don't discuss their faith publicly, or if they do, only in the most general of terms. There are vegans who prefer not to discuss their ethics because of the very real potential for backlash. There are polyamorous families.

Some of this circumspection is a simple desire for privacy, which I share to a degree. You already know that I'm bisexual, Pagan, and vegan (and if you didn't, you do now), but the degree to which I share those identities varies based on the situation. For the most part, I speak about my sexuality because I believe in bisexual visibility, but the details of that identity are private except to my closest friends. I speak about my Paganism because much of what I write and study is drawn out of and feeds back into that identity. I speak about my veganism because I know that consuming the flesh and secretions of animals is harmful to them, to us, and to the Earth, but I'm careful about the way I frame that message and that identity.

But how much of this is is a desire for privacy, and how much is internalized oppression? Do I hold back because I don't want to share those pieces of identity or because I fear the consequences of speech? And make no mistake, there are negative consequences for speaking about certain identities and experiences. However, I fear the consequences of silence might be greater now. You see, fascism thrives on social control, on creating an inside and an outside, on enforcing those boundaries. In the present case, the inside is white, straight, and conservatively Christian. People of colour and Muslims fall outside that boundary, and so they are scapegoated. But that scapegoating won't end with visible others. It will branch outward, and everyone who naturally falls outside the fascist definition of normal will have a choice to make. Either we will speak about our identities, or we will silence ourselves. If we choose silence, how long will it be before we believe the rhetoric directed at us? How long after that will it take for us to inflict that belief upon others?

I'm not advocating radical openness about things which naturally ought to be private. However, I also know the answer to my own question. I do sometimes fear the consequences of speech, and when I speak on those occasions, I'm fighting my own self-protective instincts to give voice to things I believe in like visibility, religious equality, and compassion. It's hard, but I believe it's necessary, especially now. If I stand for the humanity and the rights of people of colour, and if I stand for the humanity and the rights of the Muslim community, and if I faithfully represent my own intersectional identity, then I challenge the social controls, the boundaries, and the scapegoating I mentioned before. I make it harder for them to exist and easier for the values I cherish to take root.

So I'm asking you to consider the problem of internal oppression and the merits of speaking even when your voice shakes, as Maggie Kuhn would say. I'm asking for us, in all of our various identities, to give voice to the truth of diversity inasmuch as we are able to do so. I'm asking for us to live our values and talk about them, even when we disagree, and to disagree respectfully. The alternative looms and will become the new normal not all at once, but by insidious degrees. Please, let's not permit this to happen, in our minds or in the world.

  • 1. I'm conscious of my place as an American expat as I write this, and I'm also aware that rightist ideology is manifesting in many places besides the United States. But I'm writing from my strongest frame of reference here.