Friday, 22 May 2015

On People Who Know Their Place

As the voting on compulsory sub fusc draws to a close (see my opinion here) and revision stress reaches fever pitch, I thought I would take a quick moment to comment both on a broader trend when it comes to discussing oppression and inequality: people who know their place.

When it comes to women and feminism, plenty of men are more than happy to say why feminism is pointless, unfounded, misleading and destructive from plenty of places I would rather not link to. When the opportunity arises, however, people love to draw attention to the women who shun feminism and seek the warm embrace of patriarchal protection and tradition. The social media frenzy around the Women Against Feminism Tumblr was bigger than anything a man has written on the subject. The sheer number of op-eds and thinkpieces about Margaret Thatcher's relationship with the "Women's Lib" movement shows that this idea is not a new one. People defending traditional power structures love to point to the "oppressed" who like where they are and would rather things didn't change. After all the talk from social justice types about making the voices of the oppressed heard, there's no better way of making them squirm than giving those oppressed voices a platform from which to say the opposite of what they want to hear.

This kind of thing comes up in just about every debate about power and social groups. In America, Bill Cosby was so big in the 1980s in no small part because he, a black man, told other black men they should be more like white people. He told them to pull their pants up, get jobs and not listen to that terrible rap music, turning Cosby into a figure of moral authority. Similarly, prominent black men like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and a variety of Republican presidential candidates (currently Ben Carson) are given platforms from which to espouse the ideals of tradition, self-reliance, nuclear families and decorum.

I bring all of this up because one constant feature of the "Save Sub Fusc" campaign has been testimonies from (mainly) working class and (occasionally) mentally ill students about how great sub fusc is. Nothing gets more attention, publicity or likes than a student from a poor or troubled background who feels a huge sense of pride in donning a gown and white tie. Maybe they never thought they would finish school. Maybe their parents cried when they saw the pictures because no one in their family had ever been to university. Either way, the power of these stories is undeniable and the intent is clear, but it's hard to see their publicity and adulation as anything but a wilful misunderstanding of how systematic and structural oppression works.

Apart from the fact that state school students who are OK with sub fusc are more likely to have applied (i.e. there is selection bias), no one would deny that people often like things you wouldn't expect them to. There are more than a few state school and LGTBQ students in OUCA (Oxford University Conservative Association), but that doesn't mean by definition that the society does not have an issue with the representation of class or sexuality. Sure, plenty of people who were on free school meals will end up high earners, but if it's 3 times easier for someone from a private school, that's hardly fair. The people who wish to keep sub fusc are either aware that Oxford's reputation as formal and obsessed with tradition does ward off potential candidates or have somehow convinced themselves that it doesn't. Though it can be hard to tell, I believe it is a bit of both. Like the vast majority of Oxford students, I like wearing sub fusc and its fun when other people wear it. For many, that has meant a long and concerted campaign to prove, both to themselves and others, that they are not bad people for wanting to keep things the way they are at the expense of the less well off. Sadly, it looks like they have been successful.

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