Oppression and places to stand with it

31 December 2009 by Jennifer

On the last day of the year, a slightly retrospective flavour exploring one theme of my year.

At the start of 2009, I never guessed how much of it I’d spend on home ed activism. It’s not something I wanted or went looking for; it feels more like something that the universe decided to put in front of me, like it or not, and a case of “choose what you’ve got”.

It was 1995 when I recognised/reclassified myself as bi and jumped into queer politics, and I’ve always lived as approximately female (even though I rarely feel gendered in & of myself). But for whatever reasons (which is probably an article in itself, and certainly including significant amounts of racial/ability/financial/educational privilege), I haven’t generally had an acute visceral feeling of those oppressions like I’ve had this year with the home ed stuff. I’ve been present at times to other people’s fears and hatreds of gay people and other people’s misogyny, but until this year I’d very rarely had the sense of being a tiny inconsequential ant under the big oblivious looming boot of the State.

Section 28

Jill wrote an essay recently about the parallels between Section 28 and the current anti-home-ed legislation plans, and the similarity had occurred to me too. Lying lies, taking advantage of the general public’s ignorance of gayness to misrepresent our real lives and make prejudice look reasonable (to some people). And, in the guise of “protecting children”, in fact betraying them.

(In my opinion, schools still haven’t recovered from how wary teachers were in those years of doing anything to challenge homophobic bullying. My heart goes out to the young lesbian/bi/gay/trans people who survived school in those times – and the ones still in school now.)

But at the time of Section 28, everyone I knew agreed that it was completely wrong! (Or at least, that’s how it seemed.) And even when homophobia and biphobia were very obvious in the world, it mostly felt like “This will get better; the work is being done; prejudice is slowly slowly being overcome”. The Labour Government were less homophobic than Mrs Thatcher’s lot too, so that felt like an improvement. (In fact I often had a sense that they’d be doing even more to help if they didn’t have to take into account the power of the Daily Mail.) So I was always cushioned from despair by a sense that the climate was changing in our favour – as well as by having a strong community around me.

whereas now in 2009 when the Government or the media tell lies about non-school education, I don’t have the same sense that most people “get it” or realise how much misrepresentation is going on. (or indeed how close to their own families the Govt are skating, with their plans for us; the phrase “First they came for the home educators…” has gone through my mind many times in recent months.)

And although it’s true that home ed is widely misrepresented and often thought to be a bit weird, still I don’t get any sense that the Govt is being pushed by public opinion into its present agenda of top-down control and interference; on the contrary, they’ve been doing a pretty effective job of manipulating public opinion by publishing lies.

A new dawn

I still remember how elated I felt when Tony Blair’s government got elected. After Section 28 and the Poll Tax, it seemed like a new dawn. I’d stayed up all night at a friend’s house nearby at a watch-the-election party, and walked home along a nearly-deserted street in the early daylight. And this bloke was coming the other way, no-one I knew, and as we got near each other we both just grinned in sheer delight. Hurrah!

To give them credit, they did bring in the Civil Partnerships legislation; it’s not equality, but it’s enabled some good friends of mine to transform an international relationship into a happy domestic one. Can’t knock that.

But oh Labour. Little did we know. Little did we guess of your titanic databases and micromanagement and ingenious dossiers of misleadingness. On that day of joy and optimism in 1997, this is not what I thought we were getting.


I was reading some books about Buddhism this week. I’d written down a title of Pema Chödrön’s (maybe a recommendation from a friend, can’t remember now) and so ended up looking on that shelf at the library, and found some other interesting things while I was there.

The Buddhists say suffering is part of life – although I didn’t realise till I read these books that the word used for “suffering” could equally be translated as “pervasive unsatisfactoriness”. For some reason that amuses me! and makes more sense as well.

Anyway, so a big theme of Buddhism is how you relate to suffering (or “pervasive unsatisfactoriness”) in all its forms. And one of the things mentioned a few times was how, if you have grief or pain or any other feeling that’s hard for you to be with, one of the ways you can transform it is by thinking of all the other people around the world who are having the same feeling, and sending them loving-kindness. It’s not that that’ll necessarily make you feel better – although it might – it’s that your suffering becomes a channel towards more compassion for, and connection with, other humans.

I like that idea. I like the idea that when I feel despair about the whole situation, I can send love to everyone having the same feelings. There are so many people round the world struggling to make themselves heard in the face of unlistening power over their lives, some in much more terrible circumstances than this.


Actually I had already been doing something a bit similar to that with the home ed stuff. When I’ve awoken at night thinking “This is heading in a bad direction, and the Government isn’t listening to us” or being angry/upset about the lies, every now and again I’ve been remembering to think “This is what it’s like to be oppressed; remember this situation, remember this feeling.” Like a sort of “This will not be wasted if I can learn from it.” And thinking of other oppressed people, and telling myself “You’ve never really known this feeling before, and that’s how privileged you are; well, now you know, and don’t forget.”

A silver lining

An unexpected silver lining for me is that in the last few weeks I seem to have really “got on a roll” with writing for this blog. That’s something else that I hadn’t foreseen at the start of 2009; I’d settled into a rhythm of maybe one post a month or so.

I was reasonably content with that, but it wasn’t quite how I’d originally envisaged the blog. Part of the original point of it was so that not so much of my daily online writing would happen in ephemeral contexts where neither I nor anyone else would be likely ever to re-read it (such as in comments on someone else’s friends-locked post).

But what I noticed was that even when I had the blog, I was still doing most of my writing in other places. What I hadn’t taken into account was the degree to which my writing is in response to other people’s. Often what I was writing was an answer to someone else. And then its natural home was in the thread with the other person’s writing, and not here. And if I posted here, I thought “people reading here won’t have the context, so it won’t be as good”. So in fact not a lot had changed.

Somehow in the last few months, and especially the last few weeks, I’ve stopped worrying about that. I’ve had things to say, I’ve wanted to use the blog to publish them, and I’ve switched my default position to “I will write, and people will get it, or they won’t”. I mean, I’m never oblivious of my audience’s various points of view – that’s partly why it takes me so long to write things – but I’m trusting that the people reading here will either have enough background context already to make sense of things, or be able to make a reasonable guess, or learn it as they go along.

So I feel like some kind of change has been catalysed there in my relationship to the blog, and I’m thinking there’s a good chance that I’ll continue to publish more even after the wave of urgency/intensity passes which is associated with the current Bill. If my writing takes another channel, that’s fine too, but I like the idea of cranking out more of it, one way or another.

Sustainable activism

Something else I found a while back (and have already shared with a few people) is this extract from a speech by Linda Bacon. She’s an advocate of “Health at every size“, and wrote a book of that name. You can find the whole speech at her web site.

I forget how I happened upon this speech exactly, but it might have been via Charlotte Cooper’s blog Obesity Timebomb (which I recommend b.t.w.). But anyway, it has some wise things in it about sustainable activism.

It may just be that we don’t eradicate fat oppression. I’d like to have faith in the inevitability of justice being done, of good triumphing evil, but I need to be honest here and acknowledge that I’m just not confident that’s going to happen. The civil rights movement based on race began long ago, and while some of the more explicit forms of racism are less tolerated, racism still permeates our psyches.

But before you get down on me for pessimism, I challenge you to look at it in a different way, because it can be very liberating to reframe it. Maybe the point isn’t victory, as much as we would like to see that done. Maybe the real issue is that through the effort to achieve freedom and equality we get our humanity.

Desmond Tutu offered this advice as rationale for the work of a freedom fighter: “You don’t do the things you do because others will necessarily join you in doing them, nor because they will ultimately prove successful. You do the things you do because the things you do are right.”

I don’t know the future of fat rights. I don’t know whether anything I do, or write, or teach, will make a difference. But I do it, write it, teach it anyway, because it’s the right thing to do. And as uncertain as the outcome may be, the outcome of silence is clear. Change doesn’t happen if you don’t try. And given the choice between the uncertainty of taking action and the certainty of non-action, I opt for trying. It allows me to sleep at night and it gives me hope.

Letting go of the preoccupation with outcome, even while we fight for it, makes us more effective. If you require payoff, you’ll burn out quickly. But if you are committed to the struggle, you can keep on keeping on. Even when you don’t “win,” there is fulfillment in your involvement in something worthwhile.

So here’s the final advice I’d like to leave you with. Your primary source of power lies within you. Strive for integrity. Your value system has to come from you, not just something you’ve absorbed from your culture. Exorcise the oppressor’s values lodged in your psyche.

This is not an easy task I am recommending. It is tough sifting out what’s legitimately right and good and in the best interest of you and our community, and ridding yourself of the ugliness of fatism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and all the other toxins in our environment. Have compassion for yourself throughout your journey. Recognize that it may be a destination you never get to, but it is the journey that is important.

Remember that those that have power currently are really quite vulnerable. Their power depends on the obedience of others. The military cannot be sustained if the soldiers refuse to fight. And each soldier that opts out weakens the troop. Your individual journey is important. When you take pride in your beautiful body, you opt out of the war. It will have its impact. Clichéd as it may be, Ghandi was right: we need to be the change we wish to see in the world.

Here, have an index…
Top of page
Section 28
A new dawn
A silver lining
Sustainable activism

4 thoughts on “Oppression and places to stand with it”

  1. ‘I don’t get any sense that the Govt is being pushed by public opinion into its present agenda of top-down control and interference’ i accord with that 100%; i can only see business as behind these intrusions; turning us all into identifiable types who are constructed for the convenience of markets. and i agree again with your words, ‘I don’t have the same sense that most people ‘get it”. i feel exactly the same, and am still wondering how to get ideas across. blogs help, i’m sure of that.

  2. Thanks for this, Jennifer, and thank you for keeping on keeping on, this year. It’s been a real help to me to know you were out there.

  3. “oh Labour. Little did we know. Little did we guess of your titanic databases and micromanagement and ingenious dossiers of misleadingness. On that day of joy and optimism in 1997, this is not what I thought we were getting.”

    *nods nods nods nods nods*

    thanks for summing this up so neatly :)
    and yay for Buddhism and Pema Chödrön- I think that might have been my recommendation as I always have a Pema Chödrön book on the go…

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