Notes from underground

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Privilege and prejudice: the dangers of binary opposition

Someone posted this graphic on Facebook this morning, and like many such things it paints a simplistic picture of the world in terms of binary opposition. It portrays a binary opposition between privilege and oppression, and presents them as mutually exclusive.

privilegeIt’s a lie, and a dangerous one.

Believing such a lie can lead to stereotyping, and stereotyping can lead to prejudice, and prejudice can lead to bigotry, and in some cases it can lead to genocide.

Consider, for example, a child born to rich parents.

Such a child is privileged in enjoying adequate food, housing and clothing, and probably gets a better education than most children.

I don’t think one could deny that the child is privileged.

But the child is living in Germany in 1938, and its parents are Jewish. As a result, the child is bullied at school. Can one say that bullying is not a form of oppression, because the child is privileged, and its problems therefore cannot arise from oppression? I find that a difficult concept, a very difficult concept.

Or look at an example closer to home, for South Africans anyway.

Consider Bram Fischer.

In South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s he was a white Afrikaner male, the most privileged class of all in  that period. He was the son of a judge and the grandson of a prime minister, and his wife was the niece of another prime minister. He was a lawyer, one of the most privileged occupations. So there can be no doubt that he was privileged.

He was also a communist, and after the passing of the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950 communists were oppressed in South Africa. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for promoting the aims of communism, and though he escaped he was recaptured and was only released a fortnight before his death, because he was dying.

Bram Fischer was both privileged and oppressed.

Perhaps one reason that such binary opposition concepts are not difficult is media spin. The media love to promote stereotypes, and to put metaphorical black hats and white hats on people.

Perhaps in my old age I’m getting a bee in my bonnet about media spin. Is it actually getting worse, or is it just that I am getting more and more aware of it, and more obsessed by it?

Another example, now that it is an election year in the US, is the stereotyping of “Evangelicals”. We are told that US Evangelicals are divided — they don’t know whether to vote for Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. It seems inconceivable, to the media at least, that US Evangelicals might just possibly vote for someone else. You’ve heard of Islamophobia, but now there seems to be a growing Evangelicalophobia.

If you’ve been conned into believing the media stereotype of Evangelicals, please read this: So What, Then, Is “American Evangelicalism?”

If the media spin has led you to become prejudiced, or even bigoted about Evangelicals, print it out and read it daily until you are cured.

Another example of the binary opposition mentality surfacing is the recent South African debate about racism. There is no doubt that there has been a lot of racism in South Africa — the system of apartheid could not have lasted as long as it did if there hadn’t been racism, at least among white voters.

But I also believe that there is less racism now than there was. I found this article quite interesting, as it seems to indicate that we are less racist than some of our neighbours, as shown in the accompanying map:

racism10

Racism, though diminishing, has been around since before the end of apartheid, and some of the racists are quite vociferous. The white ones have mainly surfaced in the comments sections of online newspapers, where you see them in all their ugliness. The black ones mainly seem to surface on radio talk shows. At least that is where I have mainly encountered them, though if you look and listen carefully you can see that is usually the same people phoning in to the radio station, and the same people commenting on the article today as were commenting last week. They also appear sometimes on social media like Twitter, where I generally become aware of them though the chorus of disapproval of something that one of them has said.

Sometimes reaction against racism tends to promote stereotyping of the “All Xs are racist” or “They’re playing the race card again” kind, and that can lead to more binary opposition thinking. But we don’t have to go down that road. You can find a simple test for your own level or racism here: How racist are you?

Boolean algebra and logic with their simple opposition of True and False can be useful in many fields, such as electronics and computing, but in the field of human behaviour and human characteristics and human relationships, they can lead to some very distorted thinking.

 

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3 thoughts on “Privilege and prejudice: the dangers of binary opposition

  1. Pingback: Evangelicals and Evangelicalophobia | Khanya

  2. Peter on said:

    The idea of being in one privileged group and simultaneously in another is called “intersectionality”. But it doesn’t fit well into slogans or the ever-popular supposedly-devistating one-liner format. And that’s the only format the media seems to like these days.

    • Thanks, I didn’t know it was called “intersectionality”, but it undoubtedly exists.

      People belong to many different groups, and it is possible to belong simultaneously to an oppressed group and a privileged group. Bram Fischer, for example, was privileged even in prison, because white prisoners enjoyed more privileges than black ones, but if he weren’t oppressed he would not have been in prison at all.

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