First off lets define what I mean by passive oppression. I am referring to those instances of bigotry that people unaffected by the oppression don’t see as problematic. These actions are usually brushed off with a “oh I didn’t mean it that way” or “It was Just a joke, lighten up”. The thing that makes passive oppression so insidious is that people don’t take it seriously and the ideas that they perpetuate get normalized and robs the people affected of being able to define what is and isn’t harmful to them.
Perhaps one of the most common forms of passive oppression is how euphemisms or words that describe either a psychiatric diagnosis or a person with a psychiatric diagnosis are more commonly used to describe things or social situations that are in fact entirely unrelated to mental illness. This is most frequently used in negative connotations but it is not uncommon to hear defenses that the terms were being used positively.
This was most recently highlighted by HBO show host John Oliver when he condemned the practice in a segment on his show Last Week Tonight.
The point is easy to see in the context of how people with psychiatric diagnoses are unfairly stigmatized in relation to acts of violence. But what happens when is occurs in the the cute and fuzzy realm of celebrating Christmas?
This Huffington Post piece talks about how Target is experiencing some backlash for selling a sweater that reads “OCD Obsessive Christmas Disorder”. Some people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the condition that the sweater is referencing are justifiably unimpressed with how the co-opting of the Acronym and clear reference to the diagnosis, minimizes their experiences.
This is where the “we didn’t mean it like that” mentality rears its ugly head. As Target has released a faux apology and refused to stop selling the sweaters.
For the most part the Huffington Post does a decent job of covering the controversy, they share the voices of those impacted and then share Target’s response. Were the article gets sketchy is in the last two sentences.
Between this and the Starbucks Christmas cups controversy, it looks like the holidays are off to a rocky start.
So what do you think? Is this sweater offensive? Or are people being too sensitive? Sound off in the comments below.
I’ll seal with the last sentence first. Simply by inviting people to debate whether people have the right to feel offended by the sweater is deeply problematic. It effectively polices people who particularly in this case are already marginalized by invalidating their right to have and express genuine emotions.
The issue that truly minimizes the effect of passive oppression here though is how the article ends by connecting this issue with the “controversy” of how the Star Bucks Christmas cup that isn’t Christmasy enough for some people.
I bring this up not to shame those who are offended by the cup. I won’t police people’s reactions to things (even though I have an opinion on it). The big issue here is not to debate whether Christianity is under attack and whether Christians are oppressed in North America, they’re not (don’t believe me? read this take-down by an actual Christian on why this Star Bucks situation is ridiculous) but rather to place the debate around the Target Sweater and the Christmas cups in the same frame.
Regardless of which side of the cup debate you are on it is hard to deny that the most common reaction to the issue is one of derision and mockery. By placing the sweater debate in that context it is basically saying the offense over it is unwarranted.
That framing in conjunction with the invitation to debate whether the offense is an over-reaction effectively minimizes the issue the article was bringing attention to.
Add to that the fact that it isn’t hard to argue that Star Bucks is not oppressing Christians by having a still clearly Christmas themed cup (consider the time frame in which it is available and the colours which are clearly associated with Christmas). The conclusion to the Huffington Post article is basically an invitation to disregard the entirely different situation involving target. People with psychiatric diagnoses are much more objectively oppressed in society.
So while I won’t tell people how they can or cannot feel on either issue. In the case of Target I will say that if you are not a person with a DSM diagnosis, your opinion doesn’t matter and you absolutely don’t get to say whether someone is over-reacting to something that does actually affect them.