Privilege & Oppression, Conflict & Compa...

Privilege & Oppression, Conflict & Compassion

This is an article on conflict and compassion written by Jamie Heckert and myself which originally appeared over on The Sociological Imagination.

The political project of learning to recognise and name patterns of oppression has been, and continues to be, an important one. It has helped us to recognise that our own experiences of pain are not just personal; they are also political. And so we have become involved in social movements responding to these patterns and creating new ones. In this way, learning to name oppression can help to create a sense of connection among those who experience it.

At the same time, we notice that an idea (or ideology) of connection can substitute for the more complex experience of direct connection, of listening to another’s stories and of empathising with another’s pain. Political identity based on oppression can assume that experiences are identical: that all LGBT folk, all workers, all women, or all people of colour will have experienced the same oppression and should have the same politics. Of course, this all falls apart when we notice that everyone is characterised in different ways at different times in different contexts. No one is simply LGBT or a worker, or only a woman or a person of colour. Assumed, rather than directly experienced, connections rapidly fall apart when those who are assumed to be identical point out that they are not. Queer, working-class women and transfolk of colour experience all four of these patterns of oppression in particular ways (and, quite possibly others around ability, age, appearance, education and more). No politics of identity can incorporate so many differences.

Tensions around naming oppressions and recognising such complexities have formed the backdrop of a number of recent conflicts which we have been aware of due to living in the UK and being involved in LGBTQ politics. Some have played themselves out publicly, some more privately via emails and social networking sites. All of these cases have involved members of two marginalised groups, one attempting to name the oppression which the other is (unwittingly?) perpetuating due to their (perceived) privilege. Examples include complaints about trans-exclusion and cisgenderism in lesbian, gay and bisexual spaces (due to labeling of toilets, mono-gender workshops, etc.); criticisms of perceived biphobia in the work of lesbian and gay academics; pointing out the ignorance of structural power relations and imperialist narratives in the polyamory and kink scenes and associated literature; and many concerns about the perceived racism and/or ethnocentrism of gay and queer activists and journalists such as Peter Tatchell, Johann Hari and the organisers of ‘East End Pride’. On a personal level we have found ourselves saddened by the divisions and rifts often resulting from such conflicts. At the same time we recognise the echoes of earlier vital interventions, such as 1960s and 70s black and lesbian feminists pointing out the vastly different experiences within womanhood.

Naming Oppression

In one of the most publicised of the recent cases that we are aware of, Jin Haritaworn with Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem (2008) published an essay entitled ‘Gay Imperialism’ critiquing Peter Tatchell as ‘the central figure’ in conflating Islam and homophobia. Here, Tatchell’s version of naming sexual oppression conflicted with Haritaworn’s (among many others’) naming of intersections of gender, sexual, racial, ethnic and religious oppressions. Tatchell’s response to the critique was defensive. He wrote to the publishers complaining that the book contained lies about him, and stating that he was not racist but anti-racist. The independent feminist publisher responded by publicly apologising and taking the book out of circulation (Raw Nerve Books, 2009). Johanna Rothe (2009) wrote a response to this, calling the act ‘censorship’ and noted the authoritatively defensive tone of the ‘apology and correction’: ‘the statement denounces that the article contains “untruths,” and it proclaims Tatchell “not Islamophobic” and not racist. It quotes brief phrases from “Gay Imperialism” and intersperses them with averments that it is “not” so, or that Tatchell has “never” done this.’

Professors joined the debate. Sara Ahmed (2011) responded to Tatchell’s request to point to the racism in his activism by noting that racism can be subtle and that she saw much to concerns her in his statements and in the letter of apology from Raw Nerve.

Racism in speech, she notes, does not simply depend on the explicit articulation of ideas of racial superiority but often works in ways which mean that such associations do not need to be made explicit. So, for example, politicians might use a qualifier “this is not a war against Islam” and then use repeatedly terms like “Islamic terrorists” which work to associate Islam with terror through the mere proximity of the words: the repetition of that proximity makes the association ‘essential’.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Weeks (2010:16) defended Tatchell, while also acknowledging the complex challenge of addressing sexuality and religion in our conflicted world.

Peter Tatchell has himself recently been vehemently attacked for precisely those sins – imperialism, racism and Islamophobia – that he has fought against, in a polemical critique of his own recent campaigns against fundamentalist hostility towards homosexuality both in the West and the global South. He has been accused of imposing western standards of sexual rights on an infinitely complex world. And when he sought an apology from the publishers – which they readily gave – for what he saw as a distortion of his views and his record, he was attacked in a fierce cyber-controversy for using his white privilege to censor alternative perspectives.

Now, most of our friends and colleagues have chosen to side with Jin Haritaworn in this conflict and with other critics of racial hierarchies within LGBT politics in other similar conflicts. We can understand why. A great deal of violence by states, corporations and individuals is justified by a belief in the superiority of certain versions of whiteness and masculinity over their Others. This includes, but is not limited to, war, environmental racism, sexual violence and economic exploitation. It also includes prioritising the intellectual over at the emotional. We wish to address this last point with a call for mutual compassion.

This is complex and emotive territory. In this brief article we want to consider our own preferred strategy for addressing such conflicts (‘compassionate communication’), and to interrogate its strengths and limitations, as well as the strengths and limitations of an alternative strategy (‘naming oppression’). Our aim is to raise questions and to chart where we are currently at in our own – often uncertain and uncomfortable – journeys in relation to these issues. Clearly these strategies are not mutually exclusive, but rather there is much to be learned from bringing them into an ongoing dialogue.

Compassionate Communication

Our preference in these kinds of conflicts, in general, has been to ask how such conflicts grow and how they might be resolved. We appreciate the strategy of naming oppression for reminding us that the personal is also political. Our intention is to remember that the political is also personal.

We come to this as people who have practised, thought, and written about conflict, and who have some ideas, informed mainly by social constructionism, Buddhist philosophy (Barker & Stanley, forthcoming 2012), queer/anarchism (Heckert, 2010a, 2010b) & nonviolent communication (NVC) (Rosenberg, 2003), about what we regard as an ethical and effective way of approaching conflict. Also, we have engaged with issues of identity and the cultural histories of marginalisation and oppression for non-normativity, with which we can find ourselves identifying.

Our position on conflict resolution has, thus far, been as follows: that pretty much whatever the conflict, it is likely that both (or all) parties involved believe (more or less) that they are right and that the other party is wrong. Also, they may well be exaggerating their rightness and the other’s wrongness in order to defend against their own frightening self-judgments (i.e., labelling themselves as wrong, stupid, cruel, or abusive). Each statement that one party has made to the other – feeling it to be balanced and reasonable – has been understood by the other as being an over-reaction and aggressive, generally because it has evoked in them past and/or recent experiences of hurt or poor treatment. They have responded in a way that they believe to be measured, given the perceived attack, but again the other party has perceived this response as over-the-top and deliberately provocative. Thus the conflict has escalated. We certainly notice this pattern in the conflict mentioned previously.

In terms of conflict resolution, on the basis of this we would generally suggest the following strategy:

Each person or group goes away from the conflict and:

  1. Listens to themselves with empathy. (How do I feel? What emotions pass through? How does my body react? What tightens? Can I let it release? What do I think I need that I’m not getting in this situation? Do I really need that right now? Could I be okay without getting it?)
  2. Honestly and kindly reflects on memories and experiences that they bring to the situation which may be affecting their appraisal of it. (Ah, this situation does remind me of other situations which means my buttons are being pushed even harder!)
  3. Imagines the various possible reasons for the other person/group’s behaviour – in a similarly compassionate way – so that they recognise the multitude of possibilities instead of assuming that it is because the other person/group just is bad, wrong, or stupid.

Each person/group then returns to the other and:

  1. Takes some time to get to know each other as full human beings – what they are all about, separate to this particular issue.
  2. Really listens to them when they explain why the issue is important to them, what they think about it, and what their uncertainties are.
  3. Is courageous enough to also honestly explain why it is important to them, what they think about it, and what their uncertainties are.
  4. Works together to find a way forward which acknowledges both people’s humanity and ability to get attached to a certain version of how things really are. This could be anything from realising they are on the same page after all, to one person shifting, to finding a compromise position, to realising that they do hold on to different beliefs and values on this point (in which case some degree of separation, agreeing to differ, and living with the tension is probably necessary).

Limitations of, and questions for, compassionate communication:

The real danger in this approach, as highlighted by many of those putting forward a more ‘naming oppression’ position, is that it may serve to diminish, erase, or silence experiences of oppression or marginalisation (in which people’s voices are already diminished, erased or silenced). If the initial conflict involved discrimination, X-phobia or X-normativity, then does the equalising ‘we are all human and prone to managing conflict badly’ approach dismiss the existence of such power hierarchies and oppressive acts?

Is giving each person an equal platform to listen, and be listened to, insufficient when one person or group has had so much less of a voice in the past than the other? If we start from a position of unequal power, do we have to further empower one party rather than assuming mutual humanness and any kind of level playing field? And if one party was seemingly discriminatory – from a position of greater privilege – then can’t it simply be stated that they were more in the wrong, however much the process of escalation, miscommunication and faulty appraisals may have been in play?

(Of course, we might question these questions. Is power something that someone has or doesn’t have? Or is it a way of moving, of relating, of doing that can be done in different ways in each moment? How attached to abstractions of identity or hierarchy do we want to be? How might we help ourselves and each other let go of abstractions and habits of power?)

There is also the extremely difficult question of where we position ourselves when the conflict is between other people or groups and we are called upon – or feel we would like to act as – mediators or advisers about potential ways of engaging. It is possible that – perhaps particularly if we are seen to share the privileged position of the ‘more powerful’ party – any attempt by us to help resolve the conflict can act as a further act of dismissal, rejection, or oppression of the ‘wronged’ party. And it is possible that it may stem from our own discomforts, and function to deny a very real experience of marginalisation and oppression. Instead perhaps we might sit with the uncomfortable fact of discrimination and prejudice and potentially also support the person who feels mistreated in this way, and/or call the other person on their discriminatory practices (which they are most likely denying), or even make other people aware of them.

‘Compassion’ or ‘conflict resolution’ can be used as a cover story. Are we drawn to resolution in order to avoid acknowledging (and to maintain) our own (for example, white) privilege? Do we simply find it painful to watch potential allies fighting and want peace? When does desire to resolve conflict stems from compassion and an ethical hope to decrease discrimination and conflict through mutual understanding, and when does it stems from cowardice and a defensiveness about our own possible privileges and problematic prejudices?

Potentials of critical compassionate communication: Reflecting upon being marginalised and upon being accused of marginalising others

Perhaps one way forward lies through further self-reflective practices which focus explicitly on such matters. It could be helpful for all people, in all positions in such situations, to spend some time describing and interrogating their experiences both when they feel marginalised and excluded and when they, themselves, are accused of marginalising and excluding others. Again, this is part of a compassionate opening to how it might be for those on the other ‘side’ of the conflict, and – more pragmatically – to consideration of what might work best in terms of changing the behaviours which we find so problematic.

This is an uncomfortable practice. It requires recognising that we all have the capacity to be victim and perpetrator, to be hurt by – and to hurt – others, to open up and to close down. But in recognising these capacities in ourselves it can become easier to understand that they are also present in others.

The people we are accusing of marginalisation or prejudice are neither singular nor fixed, and they will resist being fixed by us, just as we are resisting being fixed ourselves. The way that they are behaving now is not all that they are, nor all that they will ever be. We can see that if we look to their actions in the past, many of which we may have applauded. Their defensiveness and lashing out is likely very similar to our own response when we are accused of things that run counter to our self-presentation (but which we may well fear may be lurking underneath). We can ask ourselves what enabled us to shift and move when we ourselves felt trapped and stuck in the horror that what we were being accused of might be true. We can catch ourselves when tempted to use strategies that will shut others down or make communication more difficult, such as drawing on theories they are unfamiliar with, intellectualising, or requiring them to read materials we know that they will find inaccessible.

Similarly, when we are the ones being accused, or called upon to mediate, we can notice in ourselves perhaps our aversion to conflict, the attraction to quickly close it down in ways which may leave important things unsaid or shift the blame, our defensiveness and fears that some problematic inner truth about ourselves may be laid bare if we continue to engage. We can encourage ourselves to remember the last such conflict when we ourselves were feeling excluded, marginalised and oppressed, and how important it was then for us to have a voice, to have our rage recognised, and to be listened to. We can also recognise the tendency to present a veneer of X-blindness as a strategy for covering up any X-ism or X-normativity that is inevitably a part of us, given the difficulty letting go of the cultural norms we’ve been raised to believe are simply truth.


Perhaps the greatest opportunity afforded by conflicts within marginalised groups is that fact that we will all have occupied different positions at different times. At these intersections we all benefit from certain privileges and we all can be excluded and silenced by certain oppressions, many of which may not be visible or even very well understood to ourselves. We may also sometimes find that our privileges are the things we feel vulnerable, raw and uncertain about, or that our oppressions are the things about which feel stronger and more sure.

Exploring our own experiences of marginalisation can help us to connect with what we, ourselves are likely to be doing when we are dealing with others who are marginalised in ways which are less familiar to us (e.g. not noticing their experiences, not seeing our own identities because they are ‘the norm’, assuming these are just individual struggles and issues, wishing to flatten out differences and focus on connections, fearing the loss of friends if we speak of our own X-normativity or X-ism).

Exploring our own experiences of marginalising others can help us to connect with how others feel when they are accused of such things (e.g. dreading the truth in what has been said, feeling unrecognised for all the work we do in other areas, feeling overwhelmed by the time and energy it would take to properly learn about yet another thing and to put anti-discriminatory practices in place, feeling anxiety over engaging at all due to fear of saying or doing ‘the wrong thing’ and being revealed in this way).

Such strategies involve taking the risk of learning to speak more openly, to listen more gently, so hopefully the danger of further silencing and exclusion is reduced. Also we are required to recognise the uncertainties and complexities of such situations, and this runs counter to simplistic attempts to wrap things up neatly and to close them down. Finally, as we learn to slow down and to observe the ways in which societal discourses flow through us in the quick response that springs to our lips, or our tight resistance to yet another X-phobic remark, we may find ourselves turning less to the current embodiment of the discourse in this individual or group, but to the wider forces at play and flowing through them. We may be able to be more forgiving of ourselves and others, rather than tightening in guilt and/or self-righteousness, and to find ways towards unexpected alliances and collective action (Okun, 2009/10).



  • Ahmed, S. (2010). ‘Problematic Proximities: Or Why Critiques of Gay Imperialism Matter’, Race Revolt 5. [Accessed 29 March 2011] A revised version appears in Feminist Legal Studies 19(2):119-132.
  • Barker, M. & Stanley, S. (forthcoming, 2012). ‘Mindfulness: Implications for Critical Social Psychologies’, Social and Personality Psychology Compass.
  • Heckert, J. (2010a). “Intimacy with Strangers/Intimacy with Self: Queer Experiences of Social Research.” In K. Browne and C. Nash (eds.) Queering Methods and Methodologies: Queer Theory and Social Science Research. Farnham: Ashgate.
  • Heckert, J. (2010b) “Listening, Caring, Becoming: Anarchism As an Ethics of Direct Relationships”. In B. Franks and M. Wilson (eds.) Anarchism and Moral Philosophy. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Okun, T. (1009/10). From white-racist to white-anti-racist: the lifelong journey. [Accessed 10 April 2011]
  • Raw Nerve Books (2009). ‘Peter Tatchell: Apology and Correction’ [Accessed 29 March 2011]
  • Rosenberg, M. B. (2003). Nonviolent communication: A language of life. Encinitas, California: PuddleDancer Press.
  • Rothe, Johanna (2009). ‘Out of Place, Out of Print: On the Censorship of the First Queerness/Raciality Collection in Britain ‘ [Accessed 29 March 2011]
  • Weeks, J. Making the Human Gesture: History, Sexuality and Social Justice. History Workshop Journal 70:5-20.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).