What Does Iris Young Actually Say About Oppression?

In my previous post I pointed out that a Medium “article” commonly cited by exclusionists looks more like it was written by a rushed undergrad who cut and pasted their paper together hoping the prof wouldn’t notice than a serious article. In the “article” the author cited Iris Young’s “Five Faces of Oppression” not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times so it might be worth a quick look at why this thirty year old paper is so important and how it relates to the topic of ace exclusion.

First things first, who is Iris Young? Turns out she’s a pretty big deal. “Five Faces of Oppression” (pdf link) is just one of many, many publications she wrote on political and feminist theory. But for today we’re just going to be looking at the Five Faces paper.

“Justice should refer not only to distribution, but also to the institutional conditions necessary for the development and exercise of individual capacities and collective communication and cooperation.”

Iris Young “Five Faces of Oppression”

I’m going to cheat a little bit and use a reverse-engineering technique to pick out the important parts of the paper and keep the the technical language to a bare minimum. Papers are a method that academics use to talk to each other so they’re not really written with the general public in mind. I personally haven’t taken any sociology or political science classes so a lot of the technical stuff is going to go over my head.

That sentence I yanked out and threw into quotes is Young’s thesis statement. That sentence is the cornerstone that the rest of the paper is build around. What Young is saying that “justice” is more than just dishing out just desserts Batman-style; She’s proposing the idea that moral justice is also about laying the legal and political the ground work for a fair and “just” society. The way to do that is through “collective communication and cooperation” as well as personal development. So, how do we do that? That’s what the rest of the paper is going to explain.

Right from the get-go Young recognizes that “oppression” is a controversial term because it’s an imprecise term. The activist groups coming out of the 60s and 70s are talking about social inequality in whole new way and people are starting to listen. Part of that is advancements in technology and communication like feminist groups writing and printing and distributing newspapers out of home basements. As more and more homes could afford televisions more and more people could see the police brutality targeting civil rights protesters. Sound familiar? The digital age and social media continues to push the boundaries of communication in ways nobody could predicted.

“Social theories that construct oppression as a unified phenomenon usually either leave out groups that even the theorists think are oppressed or leave out important ways in which groups are oppressed.”

Iris Young “Five Faces of Oppression”

Whoever said “asexuals aren’t oppressed” it certainly wasn’t Iris Young. Is there some other paper on oppression with the same name I should be looking at? What Young is actually saying is that oppression is not going to look the same across the board. Young actually lists out some oppressed groups.

“My starting point is reflection on the conditions of groups said by these movements to be oppressed: among others women, Blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and other Spanish-speaking Americans, American Indians, Jews, lesbians, gay men, Arabs, Asians, old people, working-class people, and the physically and mentally disabled. I aim to systematize the meaning of the concept of oppression as used by these diverse political movements…”

Iris Young “Five Faces of Oppression”

Young’s list includes working class people, the elderly and the disabled, but doesn’t include trans folks or bisexuals so it’s safe to say it’s not a complete list, but she did try to cover as many groups as she could. The ace exclustionists I’ve had the misfortune to stumble upon insist a singular definition of oppression both exists and is necessary, but it would seem Young disagrees. In the paper young is actually advising against a unified singular definition of oppression. What Young’s paper is trying to accomplish is she is presenting a model that she hopes is broad and inclusive enough to give people a more precise common language of “oppression” than the standard dictionary definition in the hopes that people will recognize specific warning signs so they can better organize and organize faster AND form coalitions of different activist groups working towards the common goal of social justice. Exclusionists misquoting Young’s paper to “prove” that “asexuals aren’t oppressed” are working in direct opposition of that goal. I cannot tell you how many Tweets I see of ace exlusionists saying that they don’t want their “oppressors” in their spaces.

Twitter Screenshot: “i care that my literal oppressors are let into the space made to fight against them”

Young argues against the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy because it’s a blatant oversimplification of how activist groups are describing oppression.

What ace exclusionists are probably doing is just Googling whatever is convenient without actually checking if what their citing is in agreement with what what they’re saying. There is one thing in the paper that’s probably causing it to pop up on exclustionist radar. Young disagrees with the practice of splitting oppression into super specific labels like ableism, ageism, aphobia, lesbophobia etc… She’s trying offer an alternative model that identifies oppression by the type of oppression instead of who the victim is. It’s a neat idea, but obviously it didn’t catch on because we’re still using the specific labels. The problem with that is, as Young predicted, some people try to use labeling as a tool to discredit/ignore other groups’ claims of oppression:

Twitter Screenshot: “misattributed misogyny”
Twitter Screenshot: “What rights do you think are being denied?”

So, what is “Five Faces of Oppression” really about? Young admits that oppression is complicated, it’s layered with texture, history, and hidden meaning that changes depending who you’re talking about. Young actually argues against a single, stringent definition because that would actually hinder activists’ efforts. After reading the paper I personally haven’t found anything in it that supports ace exclusion from LGBTQ community or suggests that aces aren’t oppressed like acephobes like to claim the paper does.

This would normally be point where I remind you to go take a look at Young’s paper via the PDF link I provided if you wanted to read it and decide for yourself because there’s obviously a LOT I left out for the sake of brevity, but let’s be honest why would you? Ace exclusionists obviously haven’t.

Update: I managed to locate a PDF study guide for “Five Faces of Oppression” while looking for rebuttals to the paper. It looks like Young’s Five Faces paper is used as an introductory teaching tool and that’s why so many people have heard of it and it’s available for public access. The study guide covers some of the areas I’ve missed and might be a handy link to save just in case. And if anyone is interested I have found some additional reading that looks interesting.


One thought on “What Does Iris Young Actually Say About Oppression?

  1. Pingback: Linkspam: July 17th, 2020 | The Asexual Agenda

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