oppression is material


So I want to talk for a minute about my writing on geek culture and why I think it’s relevant to the questions of racism and sexism and similar problems.

I write, too often, about how frustrated I am with the self-definition of geeks/nerds/whatever as marginalized. I think that these claims are untrue, failing to acknowledge how culture has changed, and also that they have unfortunate consequences. For one thing, it turns success into a kind of failure; self-identified geeks should be happy with how culture has changed to accept their beloved media! Instead, lingering on their self-definition as oppressed leaves them unable to enjoy success. Worse, when we are caught up in our own pain, we tend to ignore our own bad behavior, and as GamerGate demonstrates, some (some!) geeks and nerds can be very poorly behaved indeed. Anyway. Like I said: you’ve heard this from me before. For now, I just want to focus on an extreme-but-common reaction, which is to compare the “oppression” of geek culture to the oppressions of race and gender and the like.

I sometimes get responses that I think are really key to understanding bigger questions of politics. First, there’s analogy to blackness and racial inequality. “Would you tell a black person their oppression isn’t real?” I get this one on Twitter all the time. I find it, as you’d imagine, very offensive. There’s another, better answer, but it makes a similar mistake: “Yes, I recognize that our beloved media properties are taking over the world of pop culture, but I still feel like an outsider. The widespread adoption of sci fi/fantasy/comic books/video games/etc. hasn’t made me forget feeling like a loser for so long. I still feel oppressed.” This is a much better thing to say, and yet I think it misses the point in an important way: oppression is material, not a feeling, not a state of mind.

When I point out that sci fi books get major awards, when I remind people that a fantasy movie won Best Picture, when I demonstrate that the most buzzed about shows on TV are about comic book characters, when I prove that academia has fallen in love with geek culture, when I point to Rotten Tomatoes or year-end best of lists, when I cite enormous sales or ratings figures, I’m trying to bring evidence to a conversation that is so often evidence-free. I’m trying to ground the discussion in reality. When someone analogizes the emotional pain of being a geek with the oppression of being black, they are failing to see the material reality of racism, its depth, its empirical reality, its destruction. This is really important: that is not me saying that the emotional pain isn’t real. I feel for people who self-identify as geeks and nerds and who feel lonely and insulted. It’s the responsibility of good people to try and make the world a less lonely and insulting place. But that does not make geeks and nerds oppressed. And that feeling doesn’t, and can’t, undermine the evidence-based case that our culture industry has embraced their beloved franchises. I am not blowing smoke when I say that I empathize with you guys. I have been surrounded by geeks and nerds my whole life, they’re in my family, they’re my dear friends. I want to contribute to erasing stigma that people feel. But that is fundamentally about confronting a set of emotions that, I believe, are out of step with reality. The experience of oppression, for people of color and women and trans people and other, is reality. Geeks feeling marginalized and unhappy is a problem, but it isn’t a political problem.

And this also gets to misunderstandings with my conservative and libertarian followers. Because I am willing (perhaps overeager) to critique the rhetorical, analytical, and political tactics of people on the broad left, I often get people on the right praising and sharing my work. And that’s cool. But it has led to this basic misunderstanding: that my purpose is to be “reasonable” in some ill-defined sense, rather than to make constructive points about types of left-wing engagement I find unhelpful, untrue, or unfair. Often, this criticism stems from the same assumption that oppression is material. Look at my criticism of microaggression discussions. When people spend endless time seeking out microaggressions , there’s a sense in which that’s simply a poor use of resources, an energy- and time-suck that searches for molehills when we’re surrounded by mountains. But it also risks a basic misunderstanding about what oppression is; it contributes to the sense that racism/sexism/etc. are problems of mind or of language, when in fact they are structural facets of our society.

That is the nature of my criticism, not a disagreement about whether racism or sexism are broadly real. Whether you find the term “white supremacy” useful or not, the evidence should lead you to acknowledge that an immense number of metrics demonstrate that white people on average benefit from structural advantages over people of color. Even if you find the term “patriarchy” annoying, you have to recognize the overwhelming evidence that the average woman faces a level of inequality, injustice, and oppression that the average man does not. We collect evidence about the world in a responsible way, we look at that evidence, and we draw conclusions from it. And when it comes to people of color, to women, to poor people, to queer people, I find the evidence that they experience deep and persistent injustice indisputable.

So on microaggressions, of course I believe that people from marginalized groups face petty insults and casual undermining in their social lives. But I happen to think that the best way to address these problems is, first, to work to eliminate the economic, judicial, political, and other material conditions of oppression, and second, to tell people “don’t be an asshole.” If you eliminate the structural oppression, the emotional and social problems will stop having so much bite. You can then confront them the way you confront other bad social behavior. I sometimes get accused of being a “it’s not about race” economic-reductionist socialist, but I’ve never said that and don’t believe that. I just think that the best frame to attack racism and sexism is through attacking their material dimension. In that I follow not just Marx and other white men but many women and people of color. Like, say, the Black Panthers.

Sometimes conservatives say to me, “you’re so reasonable about call-out culture and identity politics. Why do you support [for example] affirmative action? Don’t you think there’s a time when black people won’t need affirmative action?” And I do, indeed, think that there will come a time in our society when we don’t need to pursue new structural fixes to racism. Unlike some people, I don’t see racial privilege as an immutable fact of life; it it was, what would be the point of trying to fix it? Someday, the black/white income gap may be nonexistent, rather than huge. Someday, the black/white wealth gap may be nonexistent, rather than huge. Someday, the black/white education gap may close. Someday, black people may no longer be jailed at vastly higher rates. Someday, black people may no longer be subject to serial murder by the police. Likewise, someday I believe we’ll reach equity between the sexes. Someday, women may be proportionally represented in political bodies. Someday, women may enjoy as much economic security as men. Someday, women may no longer be subject to domestic violence. I believe in that world; it’s the world we’re trying to reach someday, after all. But the evidence tells us that day isn’t today, or tomorrow, or next week, or next year, and probably isn’t coming in my lifetime. That is what the evidence tells us, what our best understanding of material reality tells us.

What looks to some like a strange collection of left- and right-wing commitments is, for me, a perfectly coherent ideology. I could be wrong, about everything, easily. But none of these supposed contradictions really are. They’re just an artifact of my rejection of the progressive embrace of language, symbols, and mental hygiene over the brick and mortar of incarceration rates, income gaps, and quality of life. Because the facts are on our side. They always were.