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Compare and Contrast

December 10, 2007

I’ve been following the latest Dan Savage debacle in the fatosphere with great interest. Honestly, I’ve never been a big fan of Savage. At times he can be absolutely hilarious, but he also does that ‘keeping it real’ thing where he says awful assholish things that confirm the worst about people and their relationships and then just shrugs and claims that he’s just being painfully honest. Really, it reminds me of people who go on and on about how they ‘refuse’ to be PC like it’s some brave choice when all they’re doing is spouting tired stereotypes and prejudices.

So I’m not really interested in the advice he gave (or didn’t really give) to anyone. What I want to talk about is the controversy that happened when Rachel at the F-Word dared to compare anti-fat rhetoric with anti-gay rhetoric.It’s always a tricky thing to compare oppressions. Even if you fit into multiple oppressed groups, you run the risk of offending and alienating people. It’s a problem that animal right’s activists run into constantly because to compare animal’s oppression to anything else is to compare people to animals which makes people very mad.* And there’s no way to bridge this gap b/c people who advocate for animal rights don’t believe that animals are inferior so there’s no reason to be offended when compared to them and the rest of society… disagrees.

And really there’s only one way to guarantee that no one will take offense when you compare the oppression of two distinct groups: surround yourself with people who already agree with you.Seriously, there is no way to not offend people with these comparisons. GLBT activists have run into it when they compare the struggle for black civil rights with gay rights. Even when gay people of color have made the same comparison, people have objected. And you know, the gay community has mostly responded to this by pointing out that a lot of what fuels the outrage is simple homophobia. People object because gays are icky and they choose to do awful icky things and what they do has nothing in common with the struggle of ‘real’ oppressed groups.

And that’s what I hear in a lot of the objections to the comparison of fat rights and gay rights. No one can say that of course (well, some can, but most don’t) and so people, instead of taking the comparison as it was meant, delve into all the ways that being gay and being fat diverge and use this as proof of the ridiculousness of the comparison. As if oppressions have to run a perfectly parallel track to each other in order to have points of comparison. I wonder if these people would accept the same objections to the comparison of homophobia and racism? I doubt it.

However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any problems with comparing oppressions. You run the risk of minimizing parts of an oppressed group’s experiences in order to make the comparison fit better. And the discussion inevitably becomes a forum on the differences/similarites between oppressed peoples.

The better thing, I think, is just to focus on the oppressors and their motivations. Point out that anti-fat rhetoric is based around the notion of fat as a choice, of mistaken assumptions about fat people’s lifestyles, psychological and physical health; point out that attempts to turn fat people into thin people almost never work and require people to live unhappy lives where they have to fight themselves constantly; point out that people hide behind concerns about health and society to draw attention away from the disgust that motivates them. People will see the parallels or they won’t, but they won’t feel as if you’re coopting their experience to add validity to your claims and they won’t feel their oppression is being minimized in order to make a point. It might sound like I’m advocating for a less honest approach, but really I’m not. I’m advocating letting people draw their own conclusions instead of putting them on the defensive.

Or go ahead and make the comparison. Just don’t be surprised when people are offended.

*Fuck PETA. Seriously, I’m not talking about any of their attention-seeking campaigns.

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3 Comments
  1. December 10, 2007 6:47 pm

    The better thing, I think, is just to focus on the oppressors and their motivations.

    Absolutely. I think that’s where all the usefulness of these analogies comes from, and it does seem to get lost when the discussions get heated.

    Or go ahead and make the comparison. Just don’t be surprised when people are offended.

    Also very wise.

  2. wriggles permalink
    December 14, 2007 6:33 pm

    ‘Just focus on the oppressors and their motivations’.

    What are their motivations? Good luck in finding them, if you don’t get really really bored first!

  3. wriggles permalink
    December 14, 2007 7:23 pm

    You minimize suffering when you make inappropriate comparisons. The comparison between the failure rate of ex-gay and dieting being the same is obvious, people that say fat people suffer the same as gays are obviously talking nonsense, but I don’t think that was the point.

    Everyone makes links and comparisons it the way we make sense of the world. It has to be thought out, but I think it was the people that got offended that introduced the competitive oppression theme I can’t help thinking it’s a case of projection.

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