Social Justice & Not Making Assumptions

Something that worries me when I browse online left wing spaces is how often social justice enthusiasts will dismiss a person because they assume that this person is privileged and has never truly suffered or suffered oppression. Often this assumption is made merely because of a particular belief they have, or because of their appearance and name, or because of their position within structures of oppression e.g. being white or male.

There are several problems with this.

1. Oppressed people are not a hive mind and disagree with one another. So you can’t assume, say, that someone isn’t trans or gay merely because they disagree with a current orthodoxy on the left. For example, I’ve had radical queers assume I’m heterosexual merely because I support gay marriage. Or I’ve seen people assume that a sex worker isn’t one just because they disagree with another sex worker on what legislation best serves the interests of sex workers. Worst of all, these kinds of assumptions usually go alongside claims that a person can’t speak about a topic because they don’t belong to the relevant group, such as being gay. This then creates a culture in which people are pressured to out themselves in order to have a right to an opinion, which they may not want to do for legitimate reasons like avoiding backlash from people they know.

2. You cannot infer a person’s identities or experiences of oppression merely by looking at people or their name. Obviously people don’t generally look gay, queer, disabled, mentally ill, neuro-atypical etc. Nor do people look like they’ve suffered oppression.

Take me. People often assume from looking at or listening to me that I’m a privileged cis straight man. In fact I’m agender, pan sexual and disabled. I grew up with an abusive homophobic father and was severely bullied at school for being effeminate, disabled and intelligent. I’ve suffered from depression, anxiety and social anxiety. I was regularly suicidal from the ages of 11 to 21 to the point where my new years resolution was consistently just to survive. Yet because I look a certain way, and think things like it’s a good idea not to get angry in political discussions, people assume I’ve never suffered oppression and don’t know what it feels like to talk to someone who holds oppressive views about you.

3. People can experience incredibly traumatic events that don’t constitute the typical society wide structures of oppression like homophobia or racism that social justice enthusiasts focus on. For example, a man raped by a woman, someone who was bullied because they were the new kid at school or wore glasses, someone who was emotionally abused by their mother, or someone who finds it hard to make friends and so spends all their time alone. Left wing people seem to forget that not all oppression or harmful events belong to a society wide structure that negatively affects people of a particular identity. Moreover, people of all backgrounds can and do experience mental illness, which is, regardless of one’s privilege, an awful experience.

So in short, please don’t generally make assumptions about people just to score political points or dismiss ideas you can’t be bothered to argue against. You don’t know what the person you’re talking to has gone through. You don’t know the kinds of experiences they have had. So play it safe, don’t make assumptions about people.



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