(Part Two)

In my last post, I wrote about social stigma and common explanations for why these things are looked down upon by mainstream, Western society.  Although many of the arguments I provided are accurate representations of how people justify their opinions about things that are often stigmatized, I feel that a better way to examine these taboos is by considering the roles of power, control, and social hierarchies.  For my human rights class, I have been blogging about human rights violations relating to reproductive and sexual rights.  As I have argued many times, establishing control over someone’s body with laws and taboos limits their bodily autonomy, ability to experience (sexual) pleasure, and sense of self.  All of these are fundamental human rights but violations often go ignored if they are considered to be upholding social norms.  After reading Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud, I started to think about how important it is for Western society to maintain order.  This is done in numerous ways, ranging from the mass incarceration of low, class men and women of color to legal restrictions on marriage, etc.  In this post, I will focus on the ways that Western society, specifically in the United States, reinforces a social hierarchy by establishing control over the bodies and identities of the individuals that they want to marginalize in order to maintain an oppressive system of white-supremacist, patriarchy, ultimately benefitting those who are already in power and at the top of the social hierarchy.

In 1961, Freud said, “Present-day civilization makes it plain that it will only permit sexual relationships on the basis of a solitary, indissoluble bond between one man and one woman, and that it does not like sexuality as a source of pleasure in its own rights and is only prepared to tolerate it because there is so far no substitute for it as a means of propagating the human race” (Freud 60).  Although this was written almost fifty years ago, it is still a fairly accurate representation of the way sexuality is treated in modern-day Western society.  Social norms stress heterosexuality, monogamy, and the importance of marriage as an institution.  In this, there is no consideration for LGBT individuals, female sexual pleasure, or polyamory.  However, the social norms in the United States are not an accurate portrayal of sexuality and sexual relationships across cultures, or even within the United States.  Why then, would the United States (government, media, etc.) continue to promote the marginalization of certain groups of people?

In my opinion, this marginalization is a strategic way to promote a political agenda of white supremacy, patriarchy, and the systematic oppression of minority populations.  In On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemical Tract, Frederich Nietzsche provides various explanations for the origins of the words “good” and “evil.”  He says, “On the contrary, it was the ‘good people’ themselves, that is, the noble, powerful, higher-ranking, and higher-thinking people who felt and set themselves and their actions up as good, that is to say, of the first rank, in opposition to everything low, low-minded, common, and vulgar” (Nietzsche 14).  In the case of the United States, the “good people” are those with power; the majority of these powerful individuals are upper-class, white, heterosexual, able-bodied men.  Therefore, these characteristics are considered “good” and all things that are in opposition of these so-called ideals are “bad.”  With these good characteristics come privilege and power.  In order to maintain a hierarchy that reinforces these different levels of power, those at the top marginalize those at the bottom.  This creates a false sense of order in society and is often used to justify inequality and human rights violations.

Once ideas about what good and bad had been established, there needed to be a way in order to keep the newfound system in place.  In the 19th and early-to-mid 20th century, these practices are easily recognizable (ex. slavery).  Today, it may seem as though equality has been achieved in the United States, but this is far from the truth.  Although progress has been made, it is important to understand the flaws of our current system.  Marginalized groups in the United States today include, but are not limited to, women, people of color, LGBT individuals, people with disabilities, religious minorities, etc.  These ideals are reinforced on three different levels: symbolic, institutional, and individual.  Institutional examples include the workforce, the education system, the criminal justice system, and marriage.  Symbolic examples include media representations of individuals of different social groups and the influence of the Christian majority on the government.  Growing up in a society that holds these ideals to be true has detrimental effects on people as individuals.  Examples of this include conformity and repression of inner desires.  In the next few paragraphs of this blog entry, I will provide examples of how each of these groups are targeted.

The women’s rights movement in the United States began in the late 1800’s, focusing on the right to vote.  Since then, much progress has been made in regards to eradicating gender inequality, but sexism and inequality are still very prevalent.  Here are some examples.  The wage gap between men and women is still very large: on average, women makes seventy-eight cents to the dollar for what men make.  Women are encouraged to take their husband’s last name, but it is practically unheard of for a man to do the same.  The Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee men and women equal rights under the Constitution, has not yet been approved; it was first proposed in 1923.  Although women now make up the majority of the workforce, they are still disproportionately responsible for housework and child care.  The media encourages women to be sexy, but not sexual, and often blames women who are victims of sexual assault.  The list goes on and on.  Often, these types of inequality are justified with the idea that men and women are innately different because of biological sex.  As I have written about in past blogs, I do not agree with this statement.  I feel that we are socialized to believe that this is true so that we are not dissatisfied when we realize our rights, as women, are being compromised.  For example, people often use the argument that women are not as strong as men to justify why they make up such a small percentage of the armed forces; some even go so far as to say that women should not hold high positions within government because their PMS would cause them to make irrational decisions (Click here to read an excerpt from a conversation between Bill O’ Reilly and Marc Rudov about women running for office).  I feel that these explanations are provided because it is the only way to “justify” such inequality.  Men and women are equally capable of doing the same things; individuals are best fit for certain things, regardless of their sex and/or gender.  The feminist movement continues to fight for equality, but often experience great backlash.  If women were to finally be recognized as equal, men would no longer be considered superior.  Their privilege would be gone and their social status would fall.  In order to hold on to this power, ideas about female inferiority need to be embedded in the minds of all people.

This chart documents the increase in the population in jail, prison, on parole, and on probation in the United States since 1980.

Before the women’s movement ever got started in the United States, the civil rights movement had already begun.  The first major victory was the abolition of slavery, but many more obstacles would be thrown onto the path to equality.  The law today does recognize all people as equal, regardless of race, but there are ways that the systematic oppression of men and women of color continues today.  For example, the criminal justice system has been known to target individuals of color.  1 in 9 African American men are currently incarcerated in U.S. prisons.  The majority of prisoners are non-violent offenders: over 50 percent of males and over 90 percent of females.  From my understanding, prisoners are supposed to be for people who pose a threat to themselves or society?  If this is the case, there is no reason to incarcerate non-violent offenders.  So why is it that the prison population is disproportionately people of color, if this same group of people only makes up a minority in the country’s overall population?  I feel that the mass incarceration of people of color is a systematic strategy to reinforce white supremacist values.  The prison system is owned by a few private owners, who are wealthy, white, men (surprise)!  Prisoners are a source of cheap labor and these owners capitalize off of them.  It is also interesting to note that over half of prisoners are considered mentally ill.  All of these points add up to the greater picture: by incarcerating people that society deems “bad,” the powerful individuals are able to exert control over those that are below them on the social hierarchy.  In prison, their rights are violated and they lose their voice in society.  (To learn more about how this impacts voting, click here).  By putting these select populations in prisons, it reinforces the idea that certain groups are superior to others.  How are people going to succeed if their rights are constantly being stripped away from them?  Obviously, the answer is that they will not succeed, and that is exactly the point of this!  Institutionalized prejudice perpetuates an endless cycle of social problems, but it is not considered problematic because it does not have a negative effect on those with power.

Another way in which institutions in the United States maintain inequality is by blurring the line between church and state.  As I have written about numerous times, this is a huge problem.  Imposing the religious values of the majority religious group in the United States onto others is a violation of the constitutional right to freedom of religion.  It appears that this right is only applicable in certain settings, because Christian values often determine the way laws are formed.  I have written about this in regards to abortion, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc.  Now, I want to discuss this and how it affects people’s rights to love and marry.  Up until the 1960’s, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder; up until 2003, sodomy was considered a criminal offense. Although both of these examples are no longer applicable, homophobia is still present in other forms.  Today in class, Victoria brought up a great example of this.  An anti-discrimination policy was recently passed in Virginia and specified what would be recognized under this policy.  Sexual orientation was left out on purpose; just in case there was some confusion, “Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli Jr. a letter to public colleges and universities advising them that state law prohibits ‘a college or university from including ‘sexual orientation,’ gender identity,’ ‘gender expression’ … as a protected class within it’s non-discrimination policy.'”  This blatantly discriminates against LGBT students and justifies discrimination based on the aforementioned things.  Here, inequality is justified by law, which provides an interesting contrast to my previous examples.  Challenging heteronormativity would pose a threat to marriage as an institution, and ultimately the influence of the Christian majority on the government; power dynamics and privilege would then be skewed.  By creating laws that justify discrimination and inequality, the powerful avoid this situation and protect their privilege.

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