First, chill out. I promise I’ll make this make sense. Heck, if you can read this entire essay with an open mind before loading your mouth-canon for a bombardment my way, I’ll even wager you’ll agree with me. Disclosure: I’m not a member of either the Republican or Democratic Parties, but identify as a socially-conscious independent. Now, let’s begin.
Talking about oppression is inevitably a complicated conversation. Oppression itself is a complicated subject, because it connects our individual lived experiences to our shared experience with other members of our social groups, two extremes that are often tough for folks to reconcile. Beyond that, it’s complicated because whenever we talk about oppression we tend to use a lot of jargon and in-group terminology that is inaccessible to people who don’t already have a basic understanding of the subject (irony that is not lost on me).
So let me start by establishing a shared understanding, and making clear the foundation upon which I’m building this argument. I will do my best to use accessible language, or to define the jargon-y terms I use.
I’m using the word oppression, here, to describe the systemic (on a huge — not individual — scale) mistreatment of an entire group of people. Oppression is all about relationships, where we have one group with power (“agent group”) that exercises that power against another group (“target group”). We often think of these in binary complements (e.g., in the US, being white is an agent identity and being a person of color is a target identity). Most of us have both agent and target identities. But some of us are fortunate enough to have been born with a hand full of agent cards, or unfortunate enough to be born with the opposite. This brings us to the product of oppression, privilege, which is the crux of what I will be talking about here.
Privilege, here, is an unearned advantage granted to you simply for having been born with a particular identity. Privilege comes in many forms, but, simply put, for every aspect of your identity that has agent group membership, you have access to resources that are exclusive from members of the complementary target group(s). Determining your own privilege is not as simple as “If I have 4 agent group memberships and 3 target group memberships then I’m +1 privilege!” (though that is an appealingly simple way to look at it). Agent group memberships and target group memberships intersect in complicated ways on the individual level (and outcomes of those intersections vary based on the person and the situation/setting).
Privilege (the type I’m talking about here) only exists as a byproduct of oppression. People who work to end oppression (like me) are working to lessen the potency of identity-based privilege. Ideally, the end goal is a society without oppression, where social group privilege does not exist.
Republicans and Oppression
In the past couple of election cycles, there has been a Republican value that has become the basis for talking points on a variety of hot-button issues: entitlement. Sometimes it’s brought up with the phrase “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps” (re: economy, taxes), other times you might hear it as “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” (re: “food stamps,” government-assisted housing), or sometimes people just call it like it is, “entitlement” (re: healthcare). Here’s Bill O’Reilly calling it like it is, though if you know O’Reilly you likely don’t have to click that link to hear the rhetoric in your head (and yes, O’Reilly is a “registered independent,” but the people he’s talking to, who wave his flag every time he lets out a battle cry, are not).
We get it. You think entitlement is bad. You’ve even managed to turn the word “entitlement” into something of slur. You find it frustrating to think of someone being given something by the government that they didn’t earn, while other people are working hard to barely get by. But if you’re going to have your cake, I suggest you start eating it.
Privilege is the King of all Entitlements. If you are lucky enough to be born with a certain identity — or, even better, a certain set of identities — the entire world is handed to you. Forget the birth control pills some Republicans whine about people being “entitled to” like they are downing bottles of Dom, the food stamp bought feasts of caviar and 23K-gold-drizzled ice cream, or the 200-foot, multi-billion-dollar yachts that Welfare Queens are holding court on. Those hilariously absurd hyperbolic parodies of rage are the literal, lived experiences that actual human beings are entitled to as a result of the identities they were born with.
Now, you might argue, and I know you will, that those things I’ve described aren’t actually entitlements. That the privileges that people get simply for being born White, Rich, Straight, Non-disabled, Christian, and Cisgender Man aren’t actually privilege at all, and that it’s just a funny coincidence that people holding that hand of cards are more likely to run the western world. And I know you want to believe that — you want to believe that if you work hard enough and don’t give up and put in your time then you can eat gold-covered desserts drunk on champagne aboard a Yacht that cost the GDP of small nations. But do you really believe that? I mean really really?
Do you really believe that Warren Buffet is as wealthy as he is solely because of his investment strategy and patience? Or that Rob Walton is the Chairman of Walmart solely because he’s the best person for the job? Or that George W. Bush’s presidency is solely the result of him being the best candidate that election? (and the next one) Or did the fact that Buffet was born having won what he calls the “ovarian lottery,” or that Rob was born the son of Sam, and George W. the Son of George H.W. (Who was the son of Prescott, who was the son of Samuel, who was the son of James… this is getting pretty Lord of the Rings-y, and I’m strangely okay with it) maybe have something (or everything) to do with it? Maybe.
But those are just individuals, right? (“What about Obama?!”) And like I said before, oppression isn’t about individuals (“Dang..”). It’s about group memberships, whether they be agent or target, and the entitlements those memberships grant you.
I would use the same strategy as in that prior paragraph and ask if you really believe that being born White, Straight, Etc. makes you innately better, but I’m afraid to see the answers in the comments on this article. Instead, I’m just going to put this out there as gospel (and you don’t argue with gospel): it doesn’t. We all used to be brown, and if people from different parts of the world keep having sex with each other, we’ll probably end up that way again eventually (Thanks, Obama).
So, if the Republican party is as vehemently against entitlement as their rhetoric indicates, then Republican politicians should be champions of ending oppression. Oppression is a system we’ve created and reinforce — with legislation, socialization, and interpersonal prejudice — that results in the greatest entitlement program in human history.
O’Reilly and other conservative pundits often use the phrases “entitlement culture” or “entitlement society” to depict this terrifying future of American ineptitude. But in reality we’ve never been anything but an entitlement society. It’s only in recent years, with advances in human and civil rights, that we’ve started to curb the rampant entitlement that plagues our history and present, and will continue to plague our future unless we continue to act.
If Republicans want to continue to soap-box against food stamps and healthcare being handed out to people who didn’t earn them, then I will expect the same rage in response to the thousands of palpable, life-shaping privileges people are born with because they happened to be conceived in the right fallopian tube. And if that’s not something you’re willing fight against, then please step down from the anti-entitlement soap-box, because I’m done letting you have your cake and eating it too — no more free lunch from me.