On coming in third in the oppression olympics

Some groups and individuals are marginalized in ways that others are not. Some groups are overall more marginalized than others. Some individual people are overall more marginalized than others. Often, it depends heavily on context (including where you live, what you’re doing, and what the people you interact with regularly care about. Among other things). 

For instance: Some people are perceived as mentally incompetent, and may be at risk of being put under guardianship and deprived of adult rights. Some people are perceived as threatening, and may be at risk of being imprisoned or killed by the police. Some people face neither risk. Some people face both. The degree to which someone is in danger depends on a number of things, including which marginalized groups they are part of. 

And once it’s actually happened to someone, they’re someone it happened to — regardless of how likely it seemed that it would happen to someone like them. And these are just two examples — there is a lot of injustice in the world, and there are any number of other examples.

It’s important to be able to talk about this. If we only approach justice from one angle, we will probably overlook things that we haven’t experienced personally. If we assume that everyone is facing the same thing, we can very easily end up disregarding the needs of those who are in the most danger. No one is immune to this; when injustice doesn’t affect you or someone you care about personally, and doesn’t make the news in a way you can understand, it’s natural to remain unaware that it’s happening. It can help to cultivate in yourself awareness that others experience things you don’t and that you won’t always know what those things are. And that some people know things that you don’t know.

It’s very difficult to talk about these differences productively. It can often end up devolving into a contest over who is the most oppressed, or whose oppression is the most real, or who is suffering enough to matter. This is counterproductive, because even one form of injustice is too much. Whether someone comes in first, second, or third in the oppression olympics — or barely seems to even qualify — no one should face injustice. We don’t need to fight over who is the most dehumanized or the most deserving of justice. It’s much better to focus on what the problems are, what’s causing them, and what can be done.

It’s also hard to talk about the problems with oppression olympics. Sometimes people say “don’t play oppression olympics,” and mean “I don’t want to hear about any forms of injustice that I’m not already fighting.” That sort of dismissiveness does a lot of harm. People who are being harmed are often treated like they don’t matter;  people with legitimate criticisms are often ignored. It can be excruciating to face up to what you’ve missed in your work to make things better. It’s also vital.

Some people and groups really are oppressed in ways that others are not. Some people and groups really are subjects to worse things than others. When we refuse to face up to this reality, people get hurt badly. These differences matter, and the truth about them needs to be speakable. Not all injustice is equal, but it is all important. Even one form of injustice is too many. When people work towards justice, their work is important even though it does not address everything, There are a lot of problems that need to be addressed, and lot of people work that needs to be done. Mistakes matter; so do accomplishments. We can all take things seriously, learn from people who know things we don’t, and keep building.