Call me naïve, but until about a year ago, I thought that oppression was on its way out. I knew that there was still a long way to go, of course, but I genuinely believed that the world was heading in the right direction, with more people looking forward to the day that oppression could be called a thing of the past.
But then two major world events occurred in 2016 that brought my views sharply into perspective. On 23rd June, the citizens and Commonwealth residents of my resident country, Britain, voted for this great nation to leave the European Union. Then, on 8th November, the citizens of the United States elected Donald Trump to become their 45th President.
It is clear from the backlash surrounding these events that large portions of the population are deeply unhappy about their outcomes, and while the outrage has been voiced, so too have differing opinions for why the people voted the way they did. Personally I think it is far too simplistic to say that either Brexit or The TrumpocalypseTM happened for any one reason, but both reflect something that I had not believed to exist: a widely held desire to bring back past oppression.
This desire is probably not overt. I doubt that Trump himself wakes up in the morning and thinks ‘Now for another day of oppressing!’ I think most Brexiters and Trump supporters (the majority of whom were white, over 45 years old, as well as male and straight in the case of the Trump supporters) voted for the return of a world that, in their nostalgic minds, is much ‘better’ than the world we live in now. What these voters either a) do not realise, or b) do not care about, is that the world they see as ‘better’ is also the world that subjected literally everybody else to greater oppression.
And it looks like instances of oppression are on the rise once more. As well as numerous official, governmental acts of oppression, such as Trump’s Muslim ban, UK Prime Minister Teresa May’s assurance that Brexit deals will focus majorly on restricting immigration, and Trump’s moves to repeal the Affordable Care Act; there have also been less official, but no less significant, acts of oppression, like more instances of racist hate crimes in Britain and the US, the appointment of well-known anti-LGBT politicians in Trump’s cabinet (most notably Vice-President Mike Pence), and the constant media attention and coverage being awarded to the President; a man who doesn’t even attempt to hide his sexist, ableist, and racist behaviour. With oppression on its way up, the need to resist it has become more important than ever.
At the risk of stating the obvious, resisting oppression is not an easy thing to do. Oppression (or, more specifically, social oppression), happens when a certain societal group or groups holds power over everybody else by being exclusively in control of social institutions, laws, and norms. It is only by holding this power that the oppressors are able to mistreat, exploit, and further lower the social standing of the other groups, while enjoying heightened privileges themselves (whether they are consciously aware of it or not). To resist oppression means to fight against those with the power, meaning that the resisters are at an immediate disadvantage.
Most of the traits that determine the societal groups into which people belong are related, in some way, to our bodies. The oppressors are those people whose bodies meet all of the criteria the oppressive system deems ‘acceptable’. In our society, these people are straight, white, able-bodied men (although there are other criteria that can also be applied), and this has remained unchanged for centuries. Efforts made by oppression resisters in the past and present have done a lot to narrow the gaps between the different groups, particularly in the last 100 years or so, but straight white able-bodied males are still the people who hold the most power and enjoy the most freedom. Every other societal group experiences restrictions to their freedom, thanks to societal norms that have been established by the oppressors. What resisters of oppression are essentially aiming to do is break down and redefine these societal norms.
To be able to do this, the resisters must believe that the societal norm in question needs to be broken down. The best way to explain this is to look toward the past. One of the most well-known examples of oppression being successfully resisted lies with women’s suffrage movements at the turn of the 20th Century. These women felt that they should not be denied the right to vote just because they were women. This was seen as ludicrous, because it went against the established societal norm at the time. Indeed, most people (men and women alike) thought that women lacked the even temperament needed to have a say in who runs their countries. But the suffrage movements were determined to succeed, and they were eventually able to break down that societal norm, leading to the right to vote that women in our society enjoy today. All of that started with one sincere, radical belief shared by a small number of people.
Looking back on women’s suffrage now, it seems bizarre to think there was a time when women could not vote and most of society thought that acceptable. Yet this is no different from the hundreds of instances of oppression we face today. One such instance is the practice among some health insurance providers of deciding how much a customer is charged for their insurance based on their weight. Raising the cost of health insurance restricts the number of people able to afford it, so a fatter person has fewer choices and less freedom than the equivalent thin person.
The oppressive society in which we live believes that all fat people take terrible care of themselves, and that they therefore do not deserve as many health insurance options. Some people (myself included) see this belief for the nonsense that it is, but because hatred towards fat people is such a well-ingrained societal norm, most people, including many of the fat people who are being oppressed, find this restriction perfectly acceptable. In other words, most people do not think this is an instance of oppression. Their body shame (whether that be shame for their own bodies or shame directed towards other people’s bodies) is what prevents them from thinking they are being oppressed, thereby stopping them from resisting the oppression.
More Radical Reads: Why a Vote for Donald Trump is a Vote for Body Terrorism
Body shame is one of the most valuable tools oppression has in its arsenal. If we look at ours and other people’s bodies with shame, we will not fight for those bodies to be treated fairly, because we will not believe those bodies (and, therefore, they) deserve to be treated fairly. And so the oppressive system wins. It is impossible to resist a system that treats certain people like they are lesser people for the bodies they live in, if we view their bodies as something lesser. This is true regardless of the body or bodies in question.
We cannot fight a system that says transgender people should not be allowed to use the bathroom they feel most accurately represents their gender, for example, if we view the transgender body as less male or less female than the cisgender body. We cannot challenge the accepted idea that mental illness is not a ‘real’ illness if we also think that people with mental illnesses should just ‘get over it’. We cannot claim that non-white people are just as beautiful as white people if we look at non-white bodies and say that they would be more beautiful if their skin were lighter. There are plenty of other examples that I could also mention.
So how do we counteract the body shame we might be feeling towards ourselves and others? The answer lies in radical body love. If body shame is what stops people from resisting oppression, radical body love is what will facilitate our resistance.
The women’s suffrage movements were fueled by the love those women had for their female bodies and their belief that they deserved to be treated with respect. Now it is our turn to flood ours and others’ bodies with as much love as we can muster. Because being able to resist oppression in this post-Brexit, Trump-leading world is more than merely desirable – it is absolutely essential.