Tell a thirty-something male who thinks of himself as a nice guy that, simply by being a male, he contributes to the perpetuation of male hegemony ; you’ll be answered with bewilderment and a vehement denial.
Tell a Green-leaning, nature-loving forty-something who flies regularly to a ski or hiking weekend that she’s among the worst polluters on earth ; you’ll be answered with a guilty shrug.
Tell a Labour-voting sixty-something who was born in the middle class and who acquired a nice loft in a not-yet gentrified neighborhood of London thirty years ago that she is now among the top 1% wealthiest Britons and that when the Tories push tax cuts, they do it for her, too ; you’ll be answered with a confused look, probably followed by a tirade against the rich.1
Preserving one’s self-image
Why we tend to deny the obvious is fairly easy to grasp. A young white male professional does not see himself as an oppressor. Even if he understands that his hiring choices or his friendships at the office, by themselves, contribute to helping other white males at the detriment of others, he is unlikely to accept it as evidence of his participation to a system of domination. To do so would force him to reconsider his perception of self. He sees himself as a nice guy, by opposition to the rapists and Weinsteins of this world ; to admit that he is closer to them that he would like to would rip apart his self-image.
When something does not fit in with the identity we constructed for ourselves, we simply refuse to accept it. Nowhere is that more obvious than with self-proclaimed nature-lovers who use airplanes. A short haul flight (Berlin-Geneva, say) emits as much CO2 per passenger as you would save with a whole year’s worth of recycling.2 Despite this easy-to-do math, few of the tourists whom you meet hiking in the Alps think of themselves as destroyers of nature. On the contrary, they probably look down on those who do not sort their trash or keep their old incandescent light bulbs, even if recycling and replacing light bulbs have very little impact on emissions.
Such denial is not hypocrisy, but a survival mechanism. For a nature lover to make any significant change to her emissions would imply not flying at all and, as a consequence, not being able to see much of the nature she so loves. Moving forward, reducing emissions means having fewer children (by far the most important environment-related choice one makes). Having fewer children easily leads to the next logical step, that one’s very existence contributes to the perpetuation of the systems in opposition to which one’s identity is defined. Denial is what we need to keep living in a sound psychological state.
The willingness to deny
A refusal to acknowledge oppression can also come from a willingness to preserve one’s privileges. Oppression is then being built in identity. In the case of gender-based oppression, it might be true that the majority of men consciously chooses to oppress, seeing female inferiority as a part of their male identity. Men who could not imagine their wife earning more than them or who see sexual violence as a norm to be upheld fall in this category. Rich people who are convinced that their wealth comes solely from their superior abilities do, too.
Some individual might unconsciously deny their status as oppressors to keep their privileges. I would argue that the reason they cannot consciously face their own oppression is that it would destroy their vision of self, bringing us back to the idea of the previous paragraph.
Acceptance can also take the form of empathy, for instance by asking oppressed individuals what can be done to make their plight less intense. This idea is not without problems. First, solutions are likely to be unacceptable to the oppressor (a rich person could help the poor by donating a substantial amount of her wealth, for instance, probably to the point where she would not be rich anymore), in line with the idea exposed above that any actual progress towards less oppression requires to abandon a part of one’s identity. Second, if a solution is acceptable to the oppressor and not enough to change the state of things, denial will again be required to believe that the solution worked. An eco-conscious individual’s recycling efforts fall in this category.
The aristocrat and the citizen
That denial is necessary to preserve one’s image does not mean that nothing can be done to bring our vision of self in line with our convictions. Revolutionary aristocrats provide the perfect example.
In the late 18th century, absolute rule of the monarch over his subject was the norm. Some aristocrats certainly refused to admit that they, as aristocrats, had anything to do with the suffering of the common folk and with their discontent. Others, having read the writers of the Enlightenment, saw that changes were needed. Of course, their rejection of absolutism was not without self-interest, especially in the European colonies. For creole aristocrats, the appeal of the ideas of the Enlightenment was stronger because it provided an ideological basis upon which they could argue for independence.
However, these aristocrats did not call for a reform of absolutism where they would have a little less privileges. They understood that their quality of aristocrats, which influenced everything they had been since birth, was the problem. And instead of not having children or committing suicide, they advocated for an entirely new system, without monarchy, without privileges and without aristocrats. They would stop being aristocrats and become “citizens”.
In 1819, Simón Bolívar, born to an aristocratic family of Caracas, said before the Congress of Angostura, a gathering of revolutionaries, that the need was for “equality to recast men in a single whole” (emphasis mine).3 He made very clear that entirely new concepts were needed for aristocrats to be able to join in the revolution and contribute to overthrowing the monarchic rule. The revolutionaries of Latin America invented the concept of the equality of all citizens of the nation4 (until then, revolutionaries had rarely included old-regime elites in their plans), upon which the nation states of the 19th and 20th century were built.
Religions offer another example of a radical rethinking of identity. When joining a religion, believers often leave behind their old ways and embrace new ones. Christianity, for instance, is famous for appealing to the rich and the hated and the story of Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector who joins Christ, in Luke 19 shows it well.
Finding new self images
Arguments will not help combat denial among those who contribute to systems of domination and pollution. Instead, we need to invent new identities, as South American aristocrats did two centuries ago.
This is not as hopeless as it sounds. Car ownership, for instance, was a key component of the identity of rich young men and women in Europe and in the United States in the second half of the 20th century, and now ceased to be.
We could, for instance, abandon gender as a component of identity. Eye color does not define one’s identity, we don’t treat at people with colored contact lenses as mentally ill, we don’t have separate toilets for blue-eyed and brown-eyed people. And while eye color does not imply a different attitude to one’s body, many conditions do, starting with diabetes ; we don’t force separate bathrooms on them either.
We could try to understand how biking became an element of identity among some of the rich and try to push for a similar change regarding airborne travel. Making bus or train travel cooler than flying sounds far-fetched, but is probably possible.
Such an argument is not, I believe, the same as advocating gender-blindness or wealth-blindness. Such blindnesses are often shorthands for ignoring oppression by stating that, by not acknowledging the traits upon which oppression is based, oppression will disappear. While some aristocrats joined the revolutionary fray to remain on top of the new social order as they were in the old, many did lose everything, including wealth (like Bolívar himself) and life. This, I believe, shows that the new identities they developed meant more than a new dressing for old structures of power.
New denials in sight
These new identities will certainly provoke new, necessary denials of reality from those who adopt them. Human systems are bound to create hierarchies and men and women need to create stories to justify these inequalities.
The equality advocated by the Bolivarian and other revolutionaries was a fiction that needed racism to function5 - maybe not much of an improvement over absolutism. And Christianity created new horrors that might not compare favorably with the Roman institutions they replaced.
This does not mean that we should not try, for I believe that what makes life livable is the conviction that the power structures can be changed for the better.
Cover picture: Karl Völker, Industriebild, 1924.
1. This article assumes that male hegemony over women, pollution of the rich that causes extreme climatic events on others and the power of the wealthy against the poor are three forms of oppression that can be thought of together. There are many reasons, some of them good, why one would refuse to look at them jointly.
2. Wynes, Seth, and Kimberly A. Nicholas. The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Environmental Research Letters 12.7 (2017): 074024.
4. On the importance of Latin America in modern nationalism, see Anderson, Benedict. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso Books, 2006.
5. I wrote about the relationship between liberalism and racism at length in The Humanist Paradox but don’t take my word for it, read Wallerstein, Immanuel. The ideological tensions of capitalism: universalism versus racism and sexism. Race, nation, class: Ambiguous identities (1991): 29-36.