Worth The Fight: The Problem With Denying the Experience of Oppression

I'm going to start this discussion by describing a scenario that would hopefully never happen.

Let's imagine that a person in a wheelchair approaches a set of heavy doors without an automatic control. Let's imagine that this person struggles for a moment with the door and has a difficult time opening it. Let's then imagine that an able-bodied person, walking on two legs, approaches.

"This door is really hard to open from this wheelchair," says Person 1.

Person 2 sneers. "No, it's not. See?" Person 2 then opens the door easily and strides through.

Fortunately, this is a fictional scenario. However, though this is an exaggerated representation, this kind of thing -- let's call it "experience denying" -- happens all the time, to just about any group that happens to experience oppression.

The bottom line is: unless you are part of a group that faces certain hardships, obstacles or discriminations, you cannot understand what it is like for those people.

This seems like an easy enough concept to grasp; yet on a daily basis, I am faced with evidence that some people simply do not get it.

Case in point: I recently saw an image posted on behalf of the #freethenipple movement that showed a topless woman on a beach being arrested and handcuffed because her breasts were on display. The text on the image read, "No female should have to be satisfied with less freedom than any male. No exceptions."

In the comments section beneath the picture, there was an outcry of support from women and men alike. It was a really beautiful thing to see... until I scrolled down and saw a comment left, incidentally, by a man:

"This is the dumbest movement ever. I'd love to see you guys actually give a fuck about something actually worth giving a fuck about. Instead, if a man so much as walks on your shadow, you freak out, saying, "Oh god, oppression! I am a woman -- give me special treatment! I need to show my nipples!" Ridiculous."

It angered me, yet I couldn't help but laugh. Because the mere idea that this person -- this man - thinks he can understand what it's like to be a woman is, frankly, hilarious. It would be like me, a white person, approaching people of color holding #blacklivesmatter signs and saying, "Come on guys, you're being silly - it's not that hard to be black in America."

Know why I can't say that? Why I wouldn't even dream of it? Because I don't know what it's like to be black, because I am not black. Therefore, I have no business even commenting on the experience of being black; I don't know the first thing about it.

But that's exactly what the man mentioned above did with the #freethenipple post. By stating that it's "not worth giving a fuck about," he insinuated that he actually knows what it's like to be a woman and face oppression -- that he's been through the struggle and realized that it's really not that bad.

And that is ridiculous.

Furthermore, his statement about how women want "special treatment" shows that he misunderstands the movement entirely.

Mistaking "equality" for "special treatment" is the hallmark of people who have never needed to fight for equality in the first place.

Obviously this man has never experienced womanhood, or everything that goes along with it. He most likely did not grow up being taught that his body was shameful; a thing to keep hidden away, lest he invite sexual violence upon himself by displaying it. He's probably never been denied birth control at a pharmacy or reproductive care at a clinic because his health and family planning needs are upsetting to someone with religious beliefs. He doesn't have to worry about whether or not he'll be impregnated during a rape, then forced to carry the baby to term. Maybe he's never even been catcalled or sexually harassed - and even if he has, he probably wasn't called a "bitch" or a "prude," or even threatened, when he denied the unwanted advances. And he almost certainly doesn't get paid less than different-gendered people with the same amount of experience who do the same job as him.

In short - as a man, he has no idea what it's like to be a woman.

And, because this is the case for everyone belonging to a mutually exclusive group (which accounts for the vast majority of the population), the same applies for me and what I believe about the experience of being a man. I have no right, for example, to state that it's not difficult for men to win custody of their children in court. I have no right to claim that men are always treated fairly in cases of alimony and child support, or that there's no societal pressure towards males to display machismo and "act like a man." Why? Because I am not a man, I do not have the experience of being a man, and I can in no way know what it is like to be a man.

If the oppressed can exercise this kind of objectivity about the very groups that oppress them, why are there so many oppressors who can't seem to do likewise?

Of course, there are many people who align with a cause simply because they believe it's right, even though they themselves are not directly impacted by it. There are lots of men who fight for equal rights for women; there are straight allies in the LGBT community and white people who believe #blacklivesmatter. Those people understand what it's all about; this article isn't for them.

It is, instead, for the folks out there who see fit to project their singular experience of life on to a whole group of people in drastically different positions. It is for the fundamentalist homophobes who incite people to "pray the gay away," insisting that sexual preference is a choice. It is for the white people in America who think that ending racism equates to giving minorities special treatment. It is for the man who left that ignorant comment about the #freethenipple movement, and all the other people who are saying similar things. For those of you...stop.

Just stop.

You don't know what it's like to be anyone but yourself, and you never will. Furthermore, you're not in a position to say whether or not any fight for social justice is "worth it." It is always worth it. It is worth it because women, and minorities, and homosexuals, and the transgendered or gender-fluid, and the impoverished, and the disabled all deserve to live a life free from oppression and discrimination.

It is worth it because we know what we are worth... even if you don't.