“If the catacombs were good enough for the early Christians, then I can survive Obama’s America”
An increasingly common narrative amongst the contemporary American evangelical movement is that of the persecuted Christians. Good men and women whose religious rights are increasingly trampled by a dominant secular, atheist, liberal majority who are trying to bend and subvert their beliefs to their amoral godlessness. The questions of gay marriage or birth control or abortion aren’t matters of protecting the human rights of those with same-sex attractions or the reproductive rights of women, but instead an instance of violating the religious rights of Christians, one of which is apparently the “right” to impose one’s own moral doctrine on everyone else, and to force one’s particular religious ethics into public space and law.
In the more extreme interpretations of this narrative, evangelicals quite literally liken themselves to early Christians, persecuted by the Romans, ready to be tossed to the lions. They imagine that the dominant authority in our culture is a ruthless secular humanism, and that Christians are a small, victimized underdog. Nevermind the remarkable consistency with which the most powerful, wealthy and elite in North America have been Christian, including ALL presidents of the United States to date.
No, Obama is not a muslim.
Let’s turn to MRAs. A dominant feature of the entire mythos that supports this movement, and lends the veneer of “human rights activist” legitimacy to its proponents, is the idea that western culture has, in varying degrees, become dominated by a feminist ideology that benefits women at the expense of men. Many will make dead serious claims about the “gynocracy” that now governs our lives. Men are oppressed by women’s sexuality, by women’s rights, by women’s employment, by women’s capacity to make choices about who they do or do not sleep with, by women’s reproductive rights (which allegedly ignore “fathers’ rights”; it’s not your body going through that process, dudes. You already consensually performed the portion of your own physical involvement. Unless you were raped, your rights were wholly respected), by women’s role in the home, by women’s acceptance of “chivalry” and benevolent sexism, by women’s rejection of “chivalry” and benevolent sexism, and in some claims, even women’s right to vote is regarded as “misandry” and a violation of what men fairly deserve.
There is also a narrative spinning off from this in which it is regarded as an act of injustice, misandry and bigotry for women to regard certain men as “creepy”. The language women (and anyone else, really) use to assert their boundaries of intimacy and prevent harassment or sexual assault has come to be painted as itself a form of “persecution”, classified under the banner of “shaming language” or “shaming tactics”. In some cases, feminist terminology is outright appropriated to prop up this conceptualization of social/sexual dynamics; such as when I was once called out as having no right to describe myself as feminist due to my previous association with Rebecca Watson, who had “slut-shamed” the so-called elevator guy by (quite mildly) admonishing his aggressive and frightening attempts to solicit intimacy.
Slut-shaming, to be clear, is not simply ANY act of shaming someone for an expression of sexuality. It is a very specific means of disaabusing women, men-who-have-sex-with-men (especially if femme), and trans men (if misgendered and conceptualized as women), of the notion that they have a right to express sexual agency AT ALL. A straight man literally cannot be slut-shamed. That is the nature of patriarchy. If you doubt this, show me a significant set of examples of straight men being directly admonished as “sluts / “whores”, in earnest, with no irony. And the assertion of boundaries, the right to say no, is never an act of “slut shaming” or “sex negativity”, regardless of gender (though slut-shaming may coincide with a refusal, of course. Saying “no” is always someone’s right, but saying “no, because…” can be considerably more complex).
Amongst the most terrifying examples of “shaming language” that MRAs describe as an unfair persecution is the very direct, basic, and absolutely necessary phrase “you make me feel afraid”. Seriously.
The commonalities between the narrative of the “persecuted Christian” and the “persecuted men” are hard to ignore.
This extends into race as well. White supremacism is often smuggled into “reasonable” discourse through the concept of “reverse racism”, the idea being that civil rights and racial equality were good things, but they did their job, and have now gone “too far” and on into the direction of creating an inequality from which white people now suffer. This is, naturally, absurd, but the concept is incredibly stubborn. Affirmative Action, for instance, rather than being seen as an attempt to respond to the unfair advantages and privileges conferred on white people by the legacy of wealth and status and nepotism handed down over the generations, an attempt to “level the playing field”, it is regarded as some unfair attempt to “get back” at white men and give minorities an unfair advantage. People of colour who engage in race-related activism are regarded as “angry” and as simply having not “gotten over” various “things our ancestors did”. White people who regard race activism in a positive light are seen as simply masochistic and suffering from an exaggerated sense of guilt, “sins of the father”. Etc.
“Why is there no White Entertainment Television? Why is there no White History Month? Where’s the White Young Achievers Scholarship for MY kids, huh?”
And along with that: “Where the straight pride parade?” (it’s called “traffic”, and it runs 24/7).
The most overt racists and white supremacists, the kind who lots of everyday racists point to as examples of who the “bad guy” is so as to absolve their complacency in the various microaggressions, privileges and power imbalances they benefit from that define daily life for everyone not in the white / cis / straight / male / currently-able-bodied lottery-winners’ club, will directly make threats about what might happen when all the white people in the country (whichever country) finally have “had enough” of being “persecuted” by the other races.
Yes. I am so not kidding.
The mentality, however, is not restricted to Stormfront. It pervades not only evangelicism, MRA thought, white supremacism and various other fringe elements, but is a defining feature of the Tea Party (branding themselves after a small instance of underdog civil disobedience that sparked a revolutionary war- admittedly, a revolution of privileged colonists against the slightly more privileged colonial power, but a revolution nonetheless, which the same “persecuted underdog” vs. “evil empire” motif available for appropriation). And it drives a whole lot of the energy in contemporary Conservatism itself.
It isn’t even alien to the left, or to feminism and the queer rights movement, where trans women are regarded as evil patriarchal oppressors by some highly vocal elements of feminism and as an angry fringe “appropriating” the gay rights movement by many of the more powerful cis elements of the barely-held-together queer community, where non-op, queer and visibly gender variant trans women, and non-binary transitioners, are regarded as “stealing” trans rights away from the “real” trans women. And don’t even get me started on the poor, brutalized “cis scum” and the horrible imposition of having to learn all those ever so COMPLICATED pronouns.
And of course there are the small victimized underdogs fighting against Big Pharma for the “rights” of children to be denied potentially life-saving vaccines, when they’re in no position to offer or deny consent.
The TERFs, the HBSers, the transphobic cis gay men, the conservatives, the tea party, the white supremacists, “the white race”, straight people, men, Christians… these are all the “real victims”. We’re the real oppressors.
Oh, right, I almost forget to mention: FTBullies.
Somewhere, on the cube-shaped Bizarro homeworld of Htrae, amongst it’s ocean-shaped continents, this stuff is all a very real phenomenon.
I’ve heard it argued many times that this phenomenon, the constant insistence of those in power, struggling to stay in power, that they are “persecuted” by the efforts of disenfranchised groups to claim equal footing is a simple appropriation of what they see as an enemy tactic. The claim runs that feminism, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and so on positioned themselves as the underdogs and victims and this successfully wooed the sympathies of the media and public, leading to the achievement of their goals, and Conservatives cynically regarded this as a “tactic” or PR movement, and adopted it for their own ends.
I do not believe that’s true.
I can absolutely believe that somewhere in some little Conservative think tank, conservative strategists and media figures like Karl Rove or Ann Coulter or Karen Kersten have indeed developed cynical plans for constructing and appropriating public narratives. And I absolutely believe that they’ve deliberately used their arms in the media, that Fox News, to directly sell such narratives to the American public. Yes.
But it’s not the think tanks that believe the narratives or give them their momentum. The think tanks aren’t the voting public, and certainly aren’t A Voice For Men or Stormfront. MRAs and White Supremacists fiercely believe in the literal reality of their fictions. They actually feel that they’re persecuted by women and people of colour.
And you can’t sell someone a lie that they don’t want to believe, anyway.
These narratives, as said, are also pervasive well beyond Conservatism. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about movement atheism and its overlaps with things like mens’ rights activism, and the intensity with which the “persecuted atheist” narrative is clung to, maintained, beloved, packaged and repackaged and told over and over again. If an atheist blogger really wants hits, they don’t go for controversy: they find or write or exaggerate a news story about Christians picking on atheists, or violating their rights. Like that whole gelato thing last year. How does that relate?
The sense I get is that people, relative to their privilege, are often very desperate to regard themselves as victims and underdogs, and that this is something that occurs on its own, regardless of the precise social, cultural or political context. It certainly occurs often enough, and with enough consistency and recognizable patterns, as to regard it as something that isn’t limited to particular circumstances.
I wonder if it’s connected to the whole cognitive dissonance that surrounds the recognition of privilege itself. People routinely become very defensive when the subject of their privilege is brought up. And I understand that. I still often get defensive when my own privileges are directly addressed. It’s not something that’s at all easy for people to look at and think about.
I think there’s a sort of basic cognitive… thingy… that underlies that. Generally speaking, we want to believe that all the good things we have in our lives are earned, and that all the bad things in our lives aren’t our fault at all. When it comes to other people, whatever good things they have that we don’t was just because of luck, and whatever bad things in their lives we don’t have to deal with were deserved. At the same time as allowing us to avoid guilt or anxieties over our relative position in life, this kind of distorted thinking (which is ridiculously common, and hard to overcome) also keeps us from having to face the chaotic, uncontrollable nature of the world: that life isn’t fair, consequences aren’t predictable, and sometimes people just get things they don’t deserve, good or bad.
These cognitive distortions obviously run directly counter to an individual’s ability to recognize social privilege, but when applied to a situation in which another party is trying to overcome social disadvantages and undue that privilege… well… that creates a situation in which you’re apt to perceive yourself as being treated unfairly. Someone who is trying to unfairly break free of the negative consequences of their own actions, and take away all your rightly-earned advantages in the process. Presto: the “we’re the real victims” mentality in a nutshell.
The sad thing, though, about the way that these kind of highly destructive, highly pervasive social phenomena can stem from very basic cognitive distortions is that it casts a rather pessimistic outlook for being able to address and overcome them. If it were simply a manufactured narrative disseminated through Fox News, a reasonable conclusion drawn from falsified information, it would be as simple as disseminating new narratives and providing people with the actual facts (though the sad thing? The facts that men have more power than women, that white people have more social power, that Christianity isn’t a persecuted minority religion, they’re already obvious. People just have reasons to ignore them). When it’s a result of how our brains work in order to cope with the world… well… we can’t just change our brains, can we? Things get a lot more complex.
It would be nice to believe it’s just a fabricated narrative. But facing what’s really there instead of what we’d like to see is one of the most important things keeping us from becoming just another faction in a big make-believe game of “oppressors vs. victims”.