Tag Archives: feminist philosophy

identity guilt and oppression

i just spent a little time reading through joyce trebilcot’s dyke ideas, a “passionate and insightful contribution to lesbian philosophy.”

seeing that a little while ago we had an interesting discussion on guilt here on this blog, her thoughts on “identity guilt” and “official guilt” were particularly interesting.

what i here call identity guilt is implied by definitions of persons that are imposed and hence oppressive: women as defined by men, lesbians as defined by hetereosexuals, people of colour as defined by whites, fat people as defined by non-fat people, etc.

such definitions not only stereotype and degrade those on whom they are imposed, they also, paradoxically, both blame the oppressed for being who we are, thus suggesting that we have the power to change, and imply that we have no power because our condition is innate and immutable.

for example, a traditional patriarchal definition of white women includes the claim that we lack courage.

this was written in the early 90s. while words like “patriarchal” have fallen out of fashion, and it’s become politically very incorrect to assert that “a patriarchal definition of white women includes the claim that we lack courage”, much of what trebilcot says here is still alive and kicking right beneath the surface (viz mike huckabee’s victory yesterday).

but that’s the sociological part of it. i’d like to talk about the psychological insights (which, to be sure, can never be separated from what’s happening in society.)

these oppressive moves, we can also make them on ourselves, and it’s not something limited to being gay. indeed, as we all know, that’s when oppression becomes most effective: when it’s internalized.

as women, we’ve all been there. for example, at some point – also in the 90s, if i recall correctly – the image of the superwoman started emerging. you know, the super-slim, super-healthy, super happy 45-year-old successful lawyer-cum-hockey mom with three kids, two dogs and one sexually completely satisfied husband, the she-god who never tires to redecorate the house, to volunteer at every bake sale, the one who’s always perfectly turned out, even when she goes to her evening class at university, where she’s working on her PhD.

i don’t know many mothers who don’t buy into that image at some level and don’t feel guilty in at least the deeper recesses of their pretty widdle minds when they can’t – surprise – reach that ideal. it’s not an ideal that real mothers came up with, it’s an outside definition, most likely concocted by marketing professionals who know how the power of guilt can be turned into profits.

identity guilt happens when we think we should conform to an outside image and we don’t make the cut. we can easily turn into our own oppressors, and, to use trebilcot’s words, “blame ourselves for being who we are, both suggesting that we have the power to change, and implying that we have no power to change because we are who we are.”

tomorrow i’ll compare this to “official guilt”. let’s see whether we can learn something from the distinction between the two.