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How those in power avoid acknowledging your rights.
In Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber coins the term “rights-scolding:”
“There are a million ways to make a human feel unworthy. The United States, so often a pioneer in such areas, has, among other things, perfected a quintessentially American mode of political discourse that consists in lecturing others about what jerks they are to think they have a right to something. Call it ‘rights-scolding.’ Rights-scolding has many forms and manifestations. There is a right-wing version, which centers on excoriating others for thinking the world owes them a living, or owes them medical treatment when they are gravely ill, or maternity leave, or workplace safety, or equal protection under the law. But there is also a left-wing version, which consists of telling people to ‘check their privilege’ when they feel they are entitled to pretty much anything that some poorer or more oppressed person does not have.”
In other words, rights-scolding is when someone “scolds” another for asserting their rights. Right’s scolding often takes the form of suggesting that those asserting their rights have no right to complain because others suffer worse or the rights they are asserting are unreasonable.
I’ve experienced right-scolding in multiple ways. The most common has been the left-wing version Graeber describes, where those with greater privilege attack me and other activists for “trivializing” issues they use for performative status by suggesting that the principles behind those issues might apply to struggles we face.
For example, women in Western societies will often accuse activists against male genital cutting of “trivializing” female genital cutting, by suggesting that the two are comparable or that the principle of bodily autonomy might apply to all people. This is a form of “rights-scolding” where those who have not experienced genital cutting and are not at risk for it will use the suffering of women in other societies to silence those oppressed in their own society.
In my podcast The Path to Children’s Justice, I discussed how white Jewish activists attempted to rights-scold me for suggesting that Intactivists could hold events during COVID if other social justice movements were holding large-scale protests. Again, they used the rights-scolding argument of “trivializing” the #BlackLivesMatter protests by suggesting that the same principle behind allowing those protests during COVID lockdowns would apply to other social justice movements.
As Graeber puts it in his book that introduces this concept: “According to these standards, even if one is beaten over the head by a truncheon and dragged off to jail for no reason, one can only complain about the injustice if one first specifies all the categories of people to which this is more likely to occur.”He goes on to say that “rights-scolding” is a product of the dominant ideology used to prevent those under that ideology from asserting any unacknowledged right.
The purpose of “rights-scolding” isn’t to protect female genital-cutting survivors, #BlackLivesMatter protestors, or whatever group the privileged are using as a prop to beat down the people they oppress. The purpose is to protect the status quo by ensuring no new rights can be asserted. Rights-scolders never follow their scolding with meaningful action to protect the “trivialized.” In fact, those “trivialized” would benefit from the moral principle behind their cause becoming more universal. Rights-scolders aren’t there to protect them. They’re there to protect the system.
Once you know this concept, you’ll see it everywhere. Rights-scolding isn’t a direct attack on that rights asserted are anything other than correct. They take the form of indirect and insidious silencing. Rights-scolders claim those asserting their rights are “insensitive” in the way they protest, that this isn’t the “space” for them to “have that conversation,” or that they are “centering” themselves when they need to center some other more minoritized group. For rights-scolders, there is always some other more oppressed group whose turn those asserting their rights must wait for, whose turn also mysteriously never comes.
This concept is important because it provides language for a common experience. Without it, those asserting their rights have no way to describe what oppressors are doing. They can only describe what they are “not” doing. Ex: “I’m not trivializing those experiences, I just…” This is a deliberate tactic to shift the focus away from the rights asserted to personal attacks on the oppressed. Rather than defend against the insincere accusations of rights-scolders, we should ask: what are the rights-scolders doing when they attack the oppressed this way?
The solution to rights scolding is to reveal the harm the scolders are engaged in. The reason oppressors use rights-scolding is because scolding assumes the moral high ground. One can only “scold” another if they have done something wrong, and the scolder is unholding moral standards. In reality, those asserting their rights have the moral high ground. Scolders only uphold the status quo. If the status quo involves a harmful system, the scolders are complicit in that system. Rather than protecting the oppressed, they are the oppressor and we should respond to rights-scolding the way we would any other oppressor tactic.
Graeber, David. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Simon & Schuster, 2018, p. 127
Graeber, David. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Simon & Schuster, 2018, pp. 127-128