Sex-obsessed gay guys, privileged white males, and the fallacy of division

2013-03-11 13:26

I was, at one point, derided for attempting to explain intersectionality (the awareness that people might be “privileged” in one category, but “opppressed” in another) to someone who was, I was informed, an autistic female person of color, and thus presumably aware of it. But given that I was explaining it in response to an allegation that white males cannot comprehend oppression, I somehow suspect the awareness had not quite percolated through to application.

There is a widespread understanding that, since women and minorities are oppressed, white males do not experience oppression. At least in the US, it is generally true that no one is oppressed particularly for being white or male. (There may be exceptions, but we can ignore them for the purposes of this point.) But, at the same time, obviously some are oppressed; they might be gay, or trans, or autistic, or in any of a number of other categories which are actually subject to oppression. And people who talk about this stuff a lot certainly know that. So why do they keep forgetting it? Why do they keep assuming that any white male is necessarily unaware of what it is like to be oppressed?

Allow me a moment of digression. One of the reasons many people are so vehemently opposed to gay rights is that they think gays are disgustingly sex-obsessed. I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that gay people are particularly more sex-obsessed than straight people, and honestly I doubt I’ve ever met gay people who think about gay sex as much as the folks at Focus on the Family appear to. But this belief is common enough to inspire the question: Where does this come from?

I think the answer is simple: It’s the fallacy of division. If the category “gay people” is defined entirely by sexual orientation, then presumably the members of that category are defined by sexual orientation. These are people whose defining trait is their sex lives; that would make them pretty sex-obsessed. And as long as you are thinking about them in terms of their group membership alone, you have no other traits to consider that might make them seem different. (Kahneman refers to this as the “what you see is all there is” error; since you only have one piece of information about these people, it is presumed to be the most important piece of information.)

And once you have that notion in mind, the problem of the always-privileged white males is explained; if all you know about them is that they are in two privileged categories, and you don’t know about any other categories, there’s nothing telling you that any given member of the category is in any particular oppressed category, and there’s certainly a possibility that some aren’t in any oppressed category we know of. And there might be some who are oppressed, but we don’t know how many, or which ones. Simplest answer is that white males are not oppressed.

This is precisely as true as the theory that gay males are obsessed with and defined by their sex lives, and appeals to the mind for the same reasons.

Peter Seebach