Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Asserting the right to feel offended

MY, what a furious reaction my fellow Dominion Post columnist Rosemary McLeod provoked with her recent column about transgender people. (Boy, I hope I’ve got the nomenclature right here. Terminology is such a minefield these days – get something even slightly wrong and you’re likely to wake up to the chanting of a noisy picket line at your gate.)

In McLeod’s case, 50 people calling themselves “Queer Avengers” protested outside the Dominion Post offices claiming the paper was guilty of something called transphobia. Fairfax's Stuff website was bombarded with demands for the columnist’s dismissal and accusations of “hate speech” – a coded term for anything that upsets the over-sensitive.

This illustrates one of the more intriguing phenomena of our age. Never in human history have so many people willingly identified as members of disadvantaged or oppressed minorities.

History is replete with terrible oppression, mostly racial or religious. But Jews, black people, Christians and other victims of historic oppression – and I mean oppression on a grand scale, the sort that results in genocide and slavery – didn’t choose that fate. Neither did they seek to draw attention to themselves. On the contrary, they tried to go about their daily lives without being noticed. To become too visible was to invite the heavy hand of persecution.

Only in my lifetime have people voluntarily assumed, and even aggressively asserted, “outsider” status. This they display with defiant pride, daring others to offend them or question their assertion of special rights. This is a luxury afforded by a broadly tolerant, liberal society.

As progress has gradually been made in the truly epochal battles against oppression and discrimination (for example, against blacks, Jews and women), so the action has shifted to ever-smaller and more obscure minority groups, each demanding recognition of its special needs or even its very existence. Some of the most vocal of these groups represent tiny minorities that no one had heard of until relatively recently. Perhaps they’re making up for lost time.

This is sometimes referred to as the cult of victimism, in which people define themselves according to the degree by which they feel an indifferent society mistreats or excludes them. It overlaps with the phenomenon known as identity politics, whereby people see themselves not as belonging to a broad and diverse community with generally shared values and objectives, but as members of a disadvantaged minority that must mobilise around a set of political goals aimed at improving their own status. This almost invariably involves antagonism toward society’s mainstream, which is seen as the enemy.

In the case of the Queer Avengers demanding retribution against the oppressive Rosemary McLeod, I wonder whether they’ve paused to consider that her right to upset them, and their right to protest outside the Dominion Post in response, are two sides of the same coin. Both are conferred by a society that tolerates diversity and dissent. Imperil one right and you imperil both.

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