Saturday, September 9, 2017

Identity Politics, Piety, and Grievance

I've been thinking a lot recently about the three topics mentioned above. Specifically, I've been thinking about them with regard to a phrase which is often used in Irish historical discourse: "most oppressed people ever" (sometimes shortened to MOPE).

It describes a real phenomenon in Irish discourse, though it's rarer now than it was in previous decades; the insistence that the Irish people were uniquely afflicted over the centuries, and that our suffering and endurance was greater than that of any other people. Perhaps it would never have been stated so baldly, but I have personal experience of this phenomenon. I've seen how some Irish nationalists would react at the mention of any other nations' sufferings-- defensively, indignantly, as though Irish suffering was somehow being downplayed.

Despite all that, I really dislike the phrase "most oppressed people ever". There's something very sneering and flippant about it. Let's not forget that these sufferings were real-- a million people did die in the Great Famine, for instance.

But more than that, there's something terribly disloyal about the attitude. Favouritism and filial piety seems entirely natural to me. Let's say your father, or some other relative, had failed in some ambition through his own faults, but blamed it on something else-- poor health, or bad luck, or prejudice. Let's say further that there's something to be said for his own theory, although he exaggerates it. Well, it seems brutal and disloyal to me to throw cold water on his pet theory-- even behind his back, even after his death.

Now, I certainly see the dangers of such favouritism, if it goes too far. But, at the same time, I think it's perfectly natural, and that there is something inhuman in its opposite-- a deliberate and calculated rejection of favoritism, even to the point where you become overly critical of your own group.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. I like blacksploitation movies, and I recently watched one on Youtube. (I didn't feel bad about the copyright violation, since it was quite an obscure movie and I doubt I was doing anyone out of money.) Nearly all the comments were from black people, and some of them were verging on racism against white people. It didn't bother me. It seems perfectly natural to me that black Americans should have their own narrative, one which emphasizes their suffering, the adversity they face, and so forth. It's simple loyalty to your group.

I think one important aspect of these exaggerations is that we know they are exaggerations-- deep down, or even consciously. But we exaggerate them for the sake of solidarity, or from the perception that we are redressing a balance, or for some such motive. We may be willing to be more candid at certain times, when it seems called for, and when it won't be used against us.

Personally, I think the real mischief comes when people outside the group begin to encourage these exaggerations, especially when it leads to lambasting your own group. That seems unnatural, perverse, simply wrong. And here, I'm not talking about a health chivalry, or a healthy open-mindedness, or simple graciousness. Yes, all those things should exist. I'm talking about the situation where this becomes a settled policy, a whole new attitude of its own.


  1. I suppose I see it differently. In America I'm rather tired of minority groups saying that they were historically oppressed and therefore deserve X right or that X behavior is justified. It's a grievance group mess in the US and I for one am starting to not care about their complaints. The media just fuels the indignation.

    1. I don't disagree with you at all. I'm just talking about the perspective of the group in question. I think everybody magnifies their group's grievances and it's a healthy and normal form of solidarity and identification-- but expecting wider society to validiate it is too much.