Persecution Complex

Hanna Rosin has a rather thought-provoking article at Slate.com. For the record, no I do not know much about Rosin's positions on issues - including feminism. I am not an avid reader of "Double X," and I do not have a huge stake in the feminism debate, other than the fact that I think all individuals ought to enjoy equal rights and non-discriminatory treatment as a matter of good, ethical conduct.

Rosin suggests that there is no longer much of a "patriarchy." She tackles (bravely, in my opinion) difficult truths about the feminist movement and suggests (my words, not hers) that there is a bit of a persecution problem among modern feminists. Rosin seems to feel that many feminists are so accustomed to feeling persecuted that they cannot seem to see how much progress has been made on the sexual equality front.

I think this point is obvious enough to those of us who have observed a great deal of feminist ideology at work in the academic and political spheres, but who have never really been a part of academia or politics. That is, when you spend most of your time studying "the patriarchy" as a matter of intellectual pursuit, then of course you will feel that it exists; for the rest of us, equality has been improving for decades now, and continues to do so. Rosin's taking the opportunity to acknowledge that the old guard of chauvinist patriarchs has expired is a refreshing dose of perspective and hindsight.

Many people in the comments section of the article, however, were indignant. They reflected the feelings of the more (shall we say?) extreme feminists discussed in Rosin's article, who feel that the patriarchy is alive and kicking and still making life difficult for feminists.

One such commenter made the point that people "also" suggest that racism has disappeared now that the US has elected a black president.

The inclusion of that point got me thinking about the pain we all feel. Those of us who have suffered racism feel entitled to be vitriolic about it (including, perhaps, myself). Sociologists have long noticed the trend that people tend to be most outspoken on issues the more headway they seem to be making. I suspect this is a type of cheer-leading, or belief signalling. Eliezer Yudkowsky at LessWrong.com might call this "belief as attire." But people don't just want to be part of a team. They usually want to be part of the winning team. So when it becomes obvious that the losing team really is losing, those who were not yet part of the winning team likely jump aboard the trolley and signal their allegiance loudly, so that the rest of us can be made aware that they are, indeed, one of the winners.

But the real trouble with having a persecution complex is that it poisons one's ability to have a genuine relationship with another person.

Suppose Smith is a member of a visible minority and Jones is not. Suppose Smith and Jones have a budding friendship. If Smith has a hypervigilance toward persecution, she might initially reject Jones' kindness out of distrust of Jones' motives. If she overcomes this, then the next step will not be friendship, but fear of pity: Perhaps Jones merely wants to be friends with Smith out of pity for Smith's "condition" as a visible minority. If she overcomes that, Smith might next take to the idea that Jones merely wants to be friends with Smith in order to quell her (Jones') own guilt about Smith's persecution.

In short, there is always the specter of persecution hanging in the back of Smith's mind. Does Jones truly value their friendship, or does it simply involve the pernicious psychology of racial imbalance?

If we consider this to be a valid question, then there is no escape. The belief that others are out to get you is entirely non-falsifiable. There is no piece of evidence, no example of human behavior, no objective standard by which to negate the possibility that any relationship between two people doesn't involve some repressed, subconscious ulterior motive tied to inequality.

Thus, as soon as we adopt persecution as the true world view, meaning once we decide that all of human history can be filtered through the lens of "patriarchy" or "racism" or "class conflict" then it is no longer possible to view anything, no matter how small or isolated an example it might be, through anything other than that horrible, distorted lens.

Persecution complexes poison the well completely. Whether these perspectives are true is, I suppose, a matter for reasonable people to debate. However, it is unclear to me what the endpoint is. The goal of a special interest is to advance the interests of a particular group. That's tangible, that's measurable, that can be gauged.

But the goal of a persecuted class is to be free from persecution. It looks almost impossible to define what "free from persecution" actually looks like. It's easy to define at the extreme, but as we advance further toward a more egalitarian society, we have reached fuzzy boundaries that seem to boil down to personal perspective. If you feel persecuted, then you are persecuted.

Interestingly enough, that doesn't apply to the perpetrators. You don't get to be deemed innocent, even if you genuinely believe that you are. You need society to tell you whether or not you are innocent, and more often than not, you're guilty. It sounds like religion, doesn't it?