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Systems of Privilege and Oppression, Essay Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1437

Essay
  1. According to Johnson, privilege and oppression are the products of our social systems and our belonging to these same social systems. In this regard, the reinforcement and perpetuation of privilege and oppression becomes especially problematic: if they are part and parcel of social systems, the sense in which human beings always exist in social systems, that is to say, in relationships with others, seems to mean that privilege and oppression are a fundamental part of our way of life. One could answer, therefore, that reinforcement and perpetuation of privilege and oppression exists because we exist as social animals. This conclusion, however, following Johnson’s premise is not entirely accurate, to the extent that privilege and oppression are part of particular ways of organizing social systems. For example, Johnson identifies the phenomenon of privilege as consistent with social systems that are dominated, identified and centered on privileged groups. Therefore, any time a social system exists in which these three elements feature, we can say that privilege and by extension privilege are perpetuated and reinforced. An example can help clarify this notion: consider a society in which there is a clear arrangement of hierarchy based on, for example, race. This can be a system of apartheid such as South Africa, or a slavery system such as that which existed in the United States. It is the white group in the society that is dominant; they, for example, set the laws that enact apartheid. Furthermore, the society is identified by its dominant class: the slave-owning class, for example, is the key group in this social system. This ties in with the notion of centering: all the activities of the social system are centered on the needs of this class. We can see why oppression and privilege go hand in hand in these social organizations: the presence of a privileged group means that this privilege is coming at the expense of others, therefore, of an oppressed group. At the same time, we perpetuate and reinforce this system by participating in these social arrangements: for example, Johnson notes the specific ways in which gender privilege and oppression is maintained, even in subtle ways. For example, in the English language Johnson notes that masculine pronouns are often used to speak about all of humanity. This is an unconscious way in which our language shapes the distinction between gender groups, and therefore creates a dominant and oppressed structure of society.

2. Michael Kimmel’s theory concerning masculinity in America is based on a theoretical perspective where he wants to argue that masculinity is something that is conditioned historically as opposed to representing some transcendental archetype. This means that definitions of masculinity vary over time and across societies and cultures. To understand what masculinity in America means, therefore, following Kimmel’s logic, is to understand the particular historical situation that gives the particular American definition of masculinity. Kimmel calls American masculinity a “marketplace masculinity.” This means that what it means to be male is essentially defined by values produced by a capitalist free-market economy, values consistent with this type of ideology. Accordingly, as Kimmel notes, what constitutes manhood in American capitalism are phenomena such as “aggression, competition, anxiety.” (45) These are all characteristics associated with the economy of the free market, which emphasizes a constant struggle. This ties in with another example of American masculinity: what Kimmel terms “hegemonic masculinity.” This means a masculinity defined by dominance and power: to the extent that one is dominant and powerful, one exhibits masculine traits. At the same time, the exhibition of masculine traits means that one cannot embody feminine traits to be masculine. Kimmel cites the psychologist Robert Brannon who defined American masculinity in four concise phrases, that reflect the hegemonic and free-market capitalist image of American masculinity: these are “no sissy stuff!”, “be a big wheel”, “be a sturdy oak”, and “give ‘em hell.” We can see in the last three the clear connections to capitalist ideology: one is to be aggressive against others, one is to be successful on a material level, one is to be firm under pressure. Kimmel, however, says that the first point is the most crucial: American masculinity is also based on an aversion to anything that goes against these principles, which is essentially defined as the feminine. Accordingly, Kimmel’s definition adds another dimension to American masculinity: it is not only the masculinity of the free-market capitalist, but also a masculinity defined in terms of its hostility to that which is its opposite, the feminine.

3. Following Rose Weitz’s approach, the issue of women’s bodies is crucial to understanding relationships of men and women, and thus the greater social system in general, since how women’s bodies are portrayed by a particular social system tells us where the structure of power lies in this same system. Hence, by extension, a history of how women’s bodies in the American context can tell us a great deal about relations between men and women in the history of American society as well as where hegemony is concentrated in American society.

What is disturbing about this history is the extent to which women’s bodies have undergone a series of dehumanizing depictions throughout American history. Weitz, for example, mentions the associations of the female body with witchcraft in American history: this itself is based on a sexualized portrayal of the woman’s body as symbolizing a dangerous sexuality, rooted in the Biblical accounts of Eve. The woman’s body is thus something dangerous, threatening to patriarchy, and therefore must be controlled.

Furthermore, in American history the male-female distinction was very prominent in regards to rights: American women were considered legally almost on the extent of property. Here, the woman is reduced only to her material body; furthermore, this body is something to be controlled. This is even further evidenced in the lack of African-American women’s rights: the rape of an African-American woman was something not even considered worthy to be punished, as Weitz notes.

Since this discrimination and marginalization is based on a reduction of womanhood to a woman’s body, Weitz notes that one of the key fronts in the feminist movement has been trying to overcome the patriarchy’s idea of what a woman’s body should be. This is above all defined in terms of emphasis on outer appearance as the highest value of womanhood: feminists therefore try to combat this through a re-claiming of woman’s autonomy in regards to their body, from rejecting male-dominated norms of what constitutes feminine beauty, as well as right to choose movements arising from the abortion issue. The history of women’s bodies in America is thus one of an attempt to control the female body and furthermore define the female according to male-generated notion of what is this female body’s place and function in American society.

4. The history of disability rights and contrasting disability discrimination in American and abroad can be viewed as continuous with the struggle for marginalized groups outside of the dominant paradigm to assert their equal rights. Part of this struggle, following Wendell’s argument, is to understand the biological and social components of disability. There is of course a biological aspect to disability: the body does not function in a “normal” manner. But the history of discrimination and rights can be understood as the extent to which this “normality” is forced upon those with disabilities: they become marginalized in this process. The struggle for disability rights is a struggle to challenge these definitions of what is “normal”: they are therefore attempts to re-define our “social” constructions of “biological” facts. This at once leads to a crucial point: that we can socially approach biologically facts in different ways, which means that the biological does not determine the social. With this realization, the fight for disability rights against the discrimination against those with disabilities is possible.

This change on the socially constructed level is clearly defined by an example Wendell gives about the type of social programs granted to non-disabled and disabled people. For example, as Wendell writes, when non-disabled people are given various types of aid through various types of social programs, such as education, scholarships, skill improvement programs, etc., society tends to think about this in a positive manner, as improving itself. But when aid is given to a disabled person, it is often thought that this is a drain on society. The point is that both are social programs intended to help the members of this society: the social construction of disability is when a difference in these two forms of aid is drawn and is thus discriminatory. In contrast, the possibility for disabled rights lies in understanding the social nature of these constructions and challenging them.

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