opression

A fallacy of privation is when someone argues that an issue isn’t important due to the presence of more pressing problems.  This kind of fallacy is especially prevalent in suburban America where a lot of people tend to have pretty stable lives. Sure, America isn’t perfect.  We have poverty and inequality, but we do a lot better than most, so can we really complain? This line of thinking tends to lead people to claim that someone’s grievances are unjustified because their suffering could be a lot worse.

I think people who usually make claims along these lines are usually well-intentioned.  They feel that people complaining of their “small” grievances (say, the wage gap) trivializes other people’s “massive” grievances (say, constantly fearing for one’s life).  I understand where they are coming from; however, such claims are equally responsible for hindering productive discussion.

Take the following statement as an example: American women can’t complain about oppression of their gender because it’s so much worse in other countries.  I recently observed someone make this statement, and as expected, it created a lot of debate.  However, rather than focusing on how to improve the situation of women, discussion centered about what level of violence or inequality constitutes “oppression.”  Watching the backlash unfold, the following question comes to my mind: does the application of the word oppression really matter more than the fact that oppression is happening somewhere to someone because of their gender or race or religion?

At the end of the day, where or who it is happening to is irrelevant. I could find plenty of statistics that prove that the violence or inequality facing women today is more prevalent in places other than America.  However, the woman who has just been brutally raped doesn’t care if it was statistically less probable that she would be assaulted –  because it still happened.  This same idea can apply to any group that is suffering or oppressed. It doesn’t matter WHERE it is happening.  It matters THAT it is happening.

Saying people shouldn’t complain because it’s worse elsewhere muddles the discourse surrounding these issues a little.  But do these claims really do that much harm? I wouldn’t have asked the rhetorical question if my answer weren’t yes.

First of all, these claims make the problem seem distant, as if they only exist in some far away world, and in turn, make people feel like they aren’t responsible for fixing it.  These claims also undermine people who are trying to draw light to an issue, which justifies naysayers who want to pretend that the said issue isn’t a real problem.

Go back to the example of the oppression of American women.  Saying American women don’t have a right to complain justifies the false notion that no Americans contribute to sexism and that feminists are all crazy zealots who think everything is sexist.  In this way, these claims may undermine the fight against sexism or any other type of oppression.

It’s simple: Don’t be illogical.  Don’t detract from important discussion.  Don’t hinder the fight against oppression.  Don’t tell someone they have no right to complain because “it’s worse somewhere else.”