We live in a charged atmosphere of dichotomy. You either sing paeans till you run out of breath or vituperate incessantly; there is no middle ground for fence sitters. Adhering to the prevalent trend of dichotomizing everything, we have started viewing social issues through the same lens. Apart from oversimplifying extremely complicated issues, such viewpoints can create hindrance to the process of social reform itself, especially when adopted by a considerable fraction of the young generation.
For instance, I was aghast to find image this widely circulated and applauded:
Apparently, chauvinism and feminism are two extremes of the same spectrum. Such a line of thought can also be seen is discussions revolving around racism, casteism etc.
Hence, I think a review is in order to remind us what the movements stand for, why they are necessary and more importantly, what they are not.
First and foremost - sexism, racism and casteism are not about prejudice - and prejudice is bad in general. Categorizing an entire group under one tag is ridiculous and parochial. Labeling all men chauvinists is as wrong as saying all women are inherently weak. But only one of them is prejudiced while the other is sexist (and hence more condemnable).
Sexism, racism, casteism etc. are all acts of systemic oppression. That is, they refer to power structures wherein a particular group of individuals is systemically denied access to resources and disenfranchised from the mainstream, many times because they are methodically convinced their inferiority.
If we consider racism in America (and this can be extended to any other system), it refers to the sociopolitical system that first enslaved and then manipulated African-Americans based on a false notion of racial purity. Racism manifests in the fact that African-Americans are more likely to lose jobs in a recession and more likely to be incarcerated while white middle-aged men control mainstream media and the polity of the nation.
All black men can gather together and shout their lungs out about how all white men are immoral and deceitful, but still the power structure will be majorly tilted in the favor of white men. When white men use the “n-word” however, it has dark undertones of oppression. They represent residual effects of a bygone era when slave-owners referred to their property by that name. And that undertone makes an otherwise prejudicial statement racist.
Now we can see how the image above misses the difference between prejudice and sexism. The man is making a judgment on the inherent inferiority of all women in a certain aspect (in this case driving), while the woman is making a prejudiced statement based on her experiences with men. One is a commonly held view passed down through time while the other differs from individual to individual.
Some thought has to be given to the word systemic as well. Because isolated incidents where some women file false rape cases or when a Muslim becomes CM or when Obama wins an election are often used to invalidate entire movements by claiming that everything is alright. The term 'reverse discrimination' is often used as well (whatever that means). But that couldn't be farther from the truth.
It takes more than a few individuals in key positions to dismantle systems that have been in place for centuries. Furthermore, individuals from oppressed communities often find themselves in an awkward position when they are given reigns of a machinery that is primarily comprised of a privileged class. Hence, it is important to remember that oppressive systems can operate efficiently even when one of the oppressed is a head of the system. Oppression is systemic and individuals are just tools at its disposal.
Let’s all remember feminism, humanism, civil rights movements and many similar movements were not started so that people stopped calling each other names. They represent an ongoing struggle against power structures. We need those movements because power structures are resilient, and we have miles to go before we achieve balance.
And once again, prejudice is not (I mean not, I mean really, really not) equivalent to systemic oppression.