This is adapted from a paper I wrote this spring.

Subject positioning is a relatively new idea in academia, which has relations to critical legal studies, critical race theory, and radical feminism. A concise and accurate definition of subject positioning that all parties can agree on is difficult to give, because of the wide variety of ideas it can encompass. One of the simplest and most concise is given is that it is “…the idea that our membership in various categories in society such as gender, sexual preference, class, ethnicity…both reveals and obscures certain experiences for us.”(Avril Chalmers, “Reading Popular Culture in the Classroom: Putting the Theory Into Practice,” British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, (1 May, 2000).

A common writing technique in subject positioning is storytelling. This is used by Patricia Williams, a legal scholar, in her book, The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Subject positioning often utilizes storytelling, even in legal scholarship, because writers who use this technique believe that “…stories can play a fundamental role in advancing social reform.” They feel that only stories can change society’s core racist, sexist and homophobic structures. Stories are told because they can humanize those who are dehumanized. Williams says she tells stories about herself because she would “…like to write in a way that reveals the intersubjectivity of legal constructions, that forces the reader both to participate in the construction of meaning and to be conscious of that process. Thus, in attempting to fill the gaps in the discourse of commercial exchange, I hope that the gaps in my own writing will be self-consciously filled by the reader, as an act of forced mirroring-invention. To this end, I exploit all sorts of literary devices, including parody, parable, and poetry.”

Storytelling has remained largely the purview of critical legal studies and critical race theory, but instead of trying to find a representative example of subject position style storytelling, I will try to give an example myself, in my own hand. It is atypical for a white male to write a story in the name of subjective positioning, at least in the sense that legal scholars use. However, there are some things that my race, class, age, and personality have exposed me to that others have not perceived.

April 20 was the first anniversary of the Eric Klebold and Dylan Harris spree killing/suicide in Colorado. I remember watching on TV as I talked to my friend Nik over the phone. I had said, “I guarantee to you that by tomorrow they will be blaming this on video games and Dungeons & Dragons.” If I had just thrown in the internet, I could have cleaned up in Las Vegas. As information on the two killers came out into public, it seemed to unfold as if it was scripted, and I realized that Eric and Dylan, even after they were dead, were being treated the way they always had been: derided and dehumanized.

Time magazine put them on the front cover, with a headline calling them ‘monsters.’ Much was made of the fact that they wore black, used the internet a lot, listened to metal, and were just generally different than what the dominant clique at their high school proclaimed to be the status quo. Facts came to light of their lowly status, and of the persecution and abuse they suffered at the hands of their peers, but these were overlooked in favor of lurid proclamations of the dangers of the internet and DOOM.

All this made me very angry. I remember being in junior high school, my isolation from the bulk of my peers, and how I had to integrate myself by violence. Literally. These people I was surrounded by respected force, and I was pushed to the point where I had no other choice. After that, I had to drive down aspects of my personality simply to retain a measure of acceptance. I was the ‘wacky guy,’ different in an acceptable way. I still was not truly a part of the group, and I learned to live with that, to be an outsider. My school was better than most, but it was still a place where I felt so attacked that I had to raise welts on some kid’s neck, and it did not help me from feeling that I was ultimately worthless, and that I must utterly change who I am in order to be accepted. I still don’t know what parts of me are really me, or simply survival mechanisms that I picked up.

When people come from abusive families, and emerge from such trauma as deeply damaged individuals, you sympathize with them, you try to understand them. But when they are abused by their school, you accuse them of not wanting to fit in, of being disciplinary problems, of not being socialized enough. I, fortunately, have enough mental stability, and was at a place better than many others, that I emerged relatively all right. Harris and Klebold did not.They were weaker, and were destroyed. Their destruction affected many people, and not just the families of the victims. As geek profiling becomes more prominent, and computer programs are now used to filter out ‘dangerous’ students, as kids are expelled or suspended because of actions that threaten the status quo of the schools, and creativity and intelligence are crushed in favor of the monoculture.

The fact that they are perceived as middle class white males now makes their dehumanization irrelevant, according to that bastion of free thought and acceptance The Village Voice. Either dehumanized by the popular kids, from jocks to Time magazine, or ignored by the liberals, who you would think would have sympathy to tales of oppression, there are very few places left for these people to go. I was able to escape to a high school that actually accepted differences of many kinds, and now I’m here at Marlboro, a survivor of sorts, but still alienated because of who I am, of what I still know I am. This type of narrative is probably the best way to show people a point of view they have never experienced. You can show someone facts and figures all day, but until you humanize the subject of those facts and figures. That is the whole point of subjective positioning. I would even say that the concept of subjective positioning has existed longer than the term has. In books like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, where the author illustrated the suffering of meatpackers in Chicago, and is one of the most moving stories written as it details how the immigrants dreams are unraveled. Of course, Sinclair is not a Lithuanian immigrant working in a meat-packing plant, and Jurgis Rudkus doesn’t really exist, but the book is based on the first hand observations of Sinclair. Regardless, the book has the same goal as subject positioning: to show a point of view so that someone who does not share it may understand it, and to humanize someone who has been dehumanized. Subject positioning is usually used by some typically oppressed group, such women, blacks, or gays. So why do I write one? Simply because the principles of subject positioning apply to me to, a substantially straight white male. Because beyond my external identity of gender, sexuality and skin color, I am an individual.

Of course, I may enjoy some benefits of belonging to this social class of people, but I am far from the power elite in this society. Somehow when I was born, they forgot to give me my membership card which results in my ability to enjoy and profit of the oppression of anyone who isn’t a straight, white male. However, according to some, because I belong, at least in some small way, top the ‘oppressor class,’ any of my suffering is less notable.

To permit me to move back into subject positioning for a moment, this also makes me angry. To create an artificial ‘hierarchy of suffering” is to enter into a debate that not only dehumanizes the subjects, it dehumanizes the debaters. It does not matter if you’re attacked because of your race or because you are ‘different,’ you’re still getting beaten up. People are in pain, and being told to ‘suck it up’ because they are perceived to be part if the oppressor class does nothing to lessen the pain or create a way for stopping it from happening again. In fact, that kind of reasoning is another reason for my telling of my story. Because I am a straight, white male, I automatically inserted into the realms of the oppressor class, despite the fact that I am, in many ways, as much a victim of oppressive institutions as anyone else in this country. Am I a CEO of a major corporation, do I benefit, really benefit, from the oppression of other people, do I have any more advantages than 95% of the population? I myself, due to an accident of birth and upbringing, have more advantages than many other straight white males, who do not even have my small amount of economic class benefits. Are so-called rednecks and hicks (two of the racist and classist slurs that still can be used by anyone towards poor whites,) oppressors too? Yes, they might beat someone up, even with racist motives, but are the terrible conditions they live in their own making? Do they bear the responsibility for their ancestors indentured servitude and back-breaking poverty in ways blacks or women do not?

This is not to degenerate black and female oppression, as I said before, I don’t believe in hierarchies of suffering, but whatever meager benefits these people enjoy for being white sure as hell does not make up for the decades, even centuries of oppression by landlords, and industrialists. Now they are the brunt of jokes made my some wealthy white liberal or wannabe blue-blood, and I don’t see that their situation has changed much in the past century or so. Of course, people like this are often featured in subject positioning stories told by traditional victims, such as the tale concerning C, a law professor being served sour milk in a southern resturant and the SWAT team eventually holding her at gunpoint, as told in Williams' book. Did C have a terrible expirence? Yes. Were her rights violated? Yes. Were the people in her story one-dimensional, dehumanized characters? Just a bunch of bigoted white-folks and an Uncle Tom? Yes. And at the end of the day, does C enjoy a relative life of privilege that, while she may suffer because of the color of her skin, she more or less shares with privileged whites, while the people in her story go back to dead-end lives of waitressing and whatnot? As far as I can tell.

While it can humanize someone who has been dehumanized, it can also dehumanize people perceived as the oppressors. It gives no change for response, for rebuttal, for the other side of the story. Subject positioning is inherently subjective, and to restrict it to only one set of people is to miss its whole point. Various groups within legal academia use subjective positioning, but for the most part, it used as just another tactic to accomplish their own agenda, and they ignore other points of view. Subject Positioning, and related concepts like identity politics were designed to bring out voices that otherwise would not have been heard. However, they’ve been co-opted by people who do not use them in the spirit they were intended, as a method for ALL silenced voices to be heard, not just ones that agree with whatever happens to be publishing that particular book.

There are people, such as Susan Faludi and bell hooks, who understand that just because most of the oppressors have a certain external identity, that does not mean that all of those who have that same external identity are oppressors or benefiting of the oppression.

Unfortunately, the liberal establishment prefers to categorize people, to put them in nice tidy little holes, where some are oppressed, some are oppressors, and that’s that. If you want to create a just society, you cannot base it on one point of view, because then simply have an oligarchy, where the oppressed simply become the oppressors. This doesn’t change anything, just creates some new reasons to beat people up. To create a truly just society, than all perspectives of suffering must be taken into account, empathy must exist for everyone. Liberals pretend they have compassion, but in reality they just like taking the obvious underdogs side, pretending they have a social conscious while ignoring the roots of the oppression, it’s real effects, and the institutions that perpetuate them.

A truly just society will have egalitarian institutions, not ones that simply replace one form of oppression for another. I could be dismissed as another ‘angry white male,’ but to do that would be to simply ignore my argument, and to repeat, by rote, that I can’t possibly be suffering because of my social class. I am angry, though, and a lot of my anger is directed at white liberals. I’m also angry at conservatives, but they don’t even pretend to care, so why should I bother with them? I feel this way not because I’m some neo-right kind of guy, bitching and moaning at all the rights women and {minority|minorities] have, because they sure don’t enough. My point is that liberalism betrayed me, and anyone who really cares about justice. I feel if we let liberalism keep it’s stranglehold on the concept of social justice, then we doomed to the cult of the sacred victim, and we will get nowhere as freedom is destroyed in the name of ‘equality.’ Jim Goad, in The Redneck Manifesto, said it best:

“I'm a recovering liberal. That's what makes me such a slippery eel. If I seem unnecessarily angry with American liberalism, it's because I feel betrayed by it. I'm mad at white liberalism like I'm mad at Christianity - because it's a lie that I once believed in.”

Subject positioning is part of the answer, but it is not the answer, just as racism or misogyny or classism are the whole problem. Empathy must be created, but it must be tempered with reason. When we realize that humanizing one does not mean dehumanizing another, only then can the building of a just society begin.

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