…the basic features that define patriarchy as a type of society have barely budged, and the women’s movement has stalled in much the same way that the civil rights movement stalled after the hard-won gains of the 1960s.
Thus far, the mainstream women’s movement has concentrated on the relatively less threatening aspects of the liberal agenda. The primary goal has been to allow women to do what men do in the ways that men do it, whether in science, the professions, business, or government. The more serious challenges to patriarchy have been silenced, maligned, and misunderstood for reasons that aren’t hard to fathom. As difficult as it is to change overtly sexist sensibilities and behavior, it is much harder to raise critical questions about how sexism is embedded in major institutions such as the economy, politics, religion, and the family. It is easier to allow women to assimilate into patriarchal society than to question society itself. It is easier to allow a few women to occupy positions of authority and dominance than to question whether social life should be organized around principles of hierarchy, control, and dominance at all, to allow a few women to reach the heights of the corporate hierarchy rather than question whether people’s needs should depend on an economic system based on dominance, control, and competition. It is easier to allow women to practice law than to question adversarial conflict as a mode for resolving disputes and achieving justice. It has even been easier to admit women to military combat roles than to question the acceptability of warfare and its attendant images of patriarchal masculine power and heroism as instruments of national policy. And it has been easier to elevate and applaud a few women than to confront the cultural misogyny that is never far off, waiting in the wings and available for anyone who wants to use it to bring women down and put them in their place.
From The Gender Knot, 1997, Allan G. Johnson, page 13. (I have an older version of the book...it currently is available in a 3rd edition)
The hierarchies we are all squeezed into (and uphold by our knowing and/or oblivious actions and/or silent complicity) rarely are challenged by the excellent question he asks: "Do we really want a society that is based on dominance and control and the valuing of some lives more than other lives?"
Dr. Johnson doesn't live vegan (from what I've learned about him so far) yet that question he poses is one that addresses the functioning of every system of oppression...including speciesism.
From what I've been able to grasp over the past couple of years is that a tremendous amount of identifying and theorizing and conceptualizing of systems of domination has been accomplished...mostly by black feminists and anti-racist advocates. These systems...which involve all of us, sometimes as oppressors and sometimes as oppressed, are often "normalized" (e.g., 'Tradition') and made invisible.
One of the purposes of normalizing and/or invisibling is to decrease the possibility that these systems are recognized and understood and discussed and debated...and maybe interrupted or dismantled. Heck...if you don't know about something and it is not comprehended (as oppressive) then the likelihood that you'll do anything about it is pretty low.
I was recently in a setting where folks were assigned to groups of four and each group was asked to draw a line representing a continuum and place the various racial groups on that continuum ranging from least valued/powerful to most valued/powerful. All the groups placed black folks on the least powerful side of the line and white folks on the most powerful side with other racial groupings somewhere in between those two extremes.
The most interesting part of the exercise came when a young Native American woman talked about how doing the exercise was very uncomfortable. The discussion revealed that the discomfort came from making visible that which everyone knew (all groups placed blacks on the least powerful side and whites on the most powerful side) but everyone was uneasy with being open about this and talking about it. Breaking the silence triggered discomfort.
That phenomenon of everyone knowing something but not making that knowing open and talking about it exemplifies invisibling. The discomfort of being open and overt about what "everyone knows" is one of the forces used to maintain invisibility and invisibility is one of the prime ways that "everyday" or "normal" oppression maintains its power.
You could do the same sort of exercise by using groups such as sexual orientation or gender or species or ability or age and...it's likely that most of you could predict how those group members would be placed on a continuum of least to most powerful/valued and...it's likely that doing those exercises would result in discomfort or unease. Because...you're breaking the silence...you're interrupting the power of invisibility.
(gender, race, age, etc) are valued less than others and we all "know" that various groups of living beings (humans or other Earthlings) are denied rights and/or restricted in their freedom...or are discouraged or prevented from accessing societal resources and on and on.
We all know these things but we tend to avoid talking about it...discouraged either by our own sense of discomfort and unease or...if we persist in trying to discuss such stuff...we'll often find ourselves discouraged from talking about such shared knowings by other people.That's how invisibility works.
If you're a white person, try talking to another white person about race/racism. I suspect that if your own sense of discomfort doesn't get in your way...you're likely to be end up being encouraged to shut up by the other person. That which we all know but participate in silencing are usually the very aspects of our social structure that are the most odious and harmful.
Whew...invisibling is insidiously and amazingly effective. Of course oppressive structures are much more complex than I've addressed here and there are other factors that maintain them in addition to invisibility...but invisibling is something that most of us engage in and therefore we can access it and challenge it ourselves...if we so choose.
Do be aware though...that oppression is potent stuff and when it is challenged strongly enough it will reveal itself in all its awfulness.
Oppression is, in the end, maintained by violence or threat of violence and challenging it always carries the potential to evoke that usually hidden aspect. Breaking silence around those who are invested in maintaining oppression can be risky in ways that go beyond personal discomfort. It can be dangerous because it might be met with ostracism, avoidance or...at the ultimate extreme...physical violence.
Dr. Johnson is writing about the oppressive structure called patriarchy and it is especially difficult to grapple with...in part because of the aspect of it that's shown in this graphic.
That intimate association makes disentangling the factors involved in patriarchy (and sexism) really really confusing and tricky.
The graphic below lets us know that intimate association isn't the only aspect of patriarchal oppression that is convoluted and complex.
One of the ways to lose yourself when trying to comprehend oppression is to not consider historical factors and/or identity aspects. Each group targeted by oppression has its own unique history and...none of these groups are monolithic...by that I mean each member of a particular group will have their own unique experience of how oppression plays out in their life and among the factors that will influence how they experience that oppression will be their ethnic and/or racial grouping.
There is no woman who exists who is not also assigned to a racial group...just like there is no member of a racial group who isn't assigned to some sex group...(as well as being in some class and being of a certain age and some particular ability level, etc.) hence...it can be profoundly misleading to think about oppression as a single factor sort of thing (think intersectionality).
Now...there's no way in hell I have the capacity to keep all these factors in mind simultaneously, therefore I often think in shortcuts or by using words like "woman" that actually always encompass other aspects of lived experience (like race, age, class, history, etc.). But...if I lose sight of the fact that I'm using a shortcut word that collapses together lots of other important factors...that's when confusion and lousy thinking sits in. And...I do plenty of that...but...hopefully less than I used to.
This sort of "forgetting" is something that happened to what is sometimes called the 2nd wave of the feminist movement. It "forgot" some factors and inadvertently fell into mostly only theorizing about and advocating for...white middle class heterosexual women. It was trying to oppose oppression and stumbled into being a source of oppression itself...by silencing and ignoring the experiences of women who weren't raced as white and/or who weren't middle class and/or who weren't heterosexual.
What is called Black Feminism challenged 2nd wave feminism and triggered a tremendous amount of re-thinking and re-conceptualizing about the various ways that oppression works. It is within the Black Feminist tradition that the notion of intersectionality arose and intersectionality is probably one of the most potent theoretical tools ever in terms of being able to make visible many of the dynamics of the operation of oppression. If you want to become more familiar with the one of the origins of the Black Feminist movement...you can read the most excellent Combahee River Collective Statement here.
See what I mean about this stuff being complex?
But...the great thing about all this is that it might make my head hurt to try to wrap my mind around it...yet it doesn't injure my spirit...in fact it often lifts and liberates that part of me. That's totally different than what oppression does...to everyone...oppression injures the spirits of both those who oppress and it injures the spirits (and often the bodies too) of those who are targeted by oppression. It isn't good for anyone even though it might be seductive to think so (thinking that it is good for the oppressors is one of the seriously insidious and dangerous aspects of it).
And you thought this was simple, right? All ya gotta do is save the animals, right?
Nope, sorry, it's a lot tougher than that. Oppression has been operating in a whole bunch of ways for a whole bunch of centuries...that's not an accident. This stuff called oppression is tough to figure it out and to effectively stop it...we gotta figure it out.
I'll end this thing (I didn't intend to write this much) by quoting a wonderful dedication I ran across in a book about feminism. The title of the book is "We Were Feminists Once" by Andi Zeisler.
The dedication reads: "To my sweet Harvey -- May your generation be the one that finally figures this shit out."
Is that not nifty? I hope Harvey's generation gets it done...in the meantime it is incumbent on all of us to struggle with trying to figure it out and to interrupt oppression where we can...while being aware that oppression has persisted, in part, because often efforts to oppose it resulted in recreating oppression elsewhere. This is really really nasty and insidious stuff.