In this day and age, it seems genuinely difficult to know if you’re oppressed or not. And fair enough too. The world has changed, and we need a quick rule of thumb to evaluate the claims of marginalization many groups now make. This post intends to help all those wondering, “Am I oppressed?”
Oppression is not unique to one society or people group. It’s human nature to form groups, and work towards collective aims. In doing so, other groups are excluded, whether intentionally or not. As Aristotle said, “Man is by nature a social animal” … And by that he meant, of course, that both men and women were social animals, but at that time women were excluded in both language and society… case in point, really.
Western civilization promoted strong social coherence or unity by depicting an ideal, and encouraging members to adhere to it. During colonialism, encouragement for “natives” was mainly via force. The model was forged in Europe’s heartlands, within a crucible of religious, political and cultural encounters, resulting in the modern nation-state.
Strength of society, it was argued, came through people attributing authority and power to the King, and receiving various benefits from him in return – usually security or peace. This ensured people could get on with their very ordinary lives. It resulted in the elevation of one great man…. versus the rest.
So, the characteristics associated with Europe’s ideal King (white, male, Christian, physically strong warrior, sexually virile and thus able to produce enough heirs to withstand plagues and famine, wealthy, educated and well-spoken) were upheld as aspirational. But of course, not everybody could be King.
Frederick II and his subjects, Biblioteca Capitolare, Salerno.
The ideal survived various revisions throughout the centuries. At times no King was available, and so a Queen was instated. Eventually, authority associated with a monarch was conferred upon representative elected leaders, in parliaments. And, despite the breaking down of Christendom, some power was retained by religious leadership. Over time, it was also attributed to the heads of other organizations and business leaders, as our world globalized.
Some enclave communities manged to continue to believe in authoritarianism, or the divine right of God conferred upon the ruling authorities via religious priests, and to assert the role of the man as head of the household. These traditional, hierarchical ideas are usually associated with the more “conservative” end of the political spectrum.
But there is no doubt that this type of society is now directly under pressure through “the politics of difference”. In successive waves, we have seen women, people of colour and those holding various alternative sexual identities assert loudly that they are not served by this status quo. We have seen groups organize, forcing change upon society as they enact their freedoms.
And as the once-marginalized ‘others’ begin to gain economic and cultural space, they assert themselves into the Western narrative as its leaders, rather than subjects. While MLK dreamed of a Black U.S. President, we now cite Barack Obama as reality, with presumably more Black Presidents to come. We will potentially soon have a female in this role, and thus, the term POTUS will no longer evoke its once-dominant image of raw masculine power.
In government, business, and religious institutions there are now multiple ideals in leadership, and no single overarching story to which we all adhere. This is at times frightening for conservatives who want retain the dominant narratives, but are forced to accept comparative losses of power, at the expense of ‘the others’.
Some resent that their right to dominate in boardrooms is limited due to affirmative action legislation promoting women. Some disagree with state involvement in the family via divorce settlements, or feel disgruntled at the amount of minorities coming through universities. They may vehemently disagree with same-sex marriage introduced by states. Many feel angry at even having to change their language that once felt so natural, but is now disputed.
The result is that some vocal white male evangelical religious leaders in the US and Australia have likened themselves to the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, under the Nazi regime. Speaking out against the oppression of the Jews, Bonhoeffer suffered and ultimately died for his convictions. For most, it is a far-fetched analogy. Still, some older, white leaders do indeed feel a very real rage resulting from their loss of power. And some white communities have even announced, “I think we’re being oppressed!”
Let’s be honest, there are limits to this declaration. But it’s hard to know where they are. So, the social theory of oppression is used by researchers to work out who is actually “oppressed”. And I hope mapping out a definition used by many researchers helps you too.
1. First, understanding stereotyping is very important in how we make groups.
The first aspect of this definition relates to the way our brains organize information. Humans are predisposed to short cuts when it comes to identifying groups, and we often condense a group’s aggregate information and place it on an individual. This is called “stereotyping”, caused by a “schema” of associations.
In other words, we are simply unable to remember individual characteristics for every person we meet. So, we rely upon a stereotype to condense the information. We use it to decide whether we share interests, or are threatened by them. We categorize all people into groupings: we assume Italians enjoy tomatoes and make passionate lovers; while Germans are neat, orderly people who prefer beer.
But even if this stereotyping function gives us the right information about the group, it can give us completely wrong information about individuals. It is possible to have an Italian who is allergic to tomatoes, or a German person who is disastrously messy.
2. Increasing interaction with groups means stronger stereotypes
The more cross-cultural engagement we have in society, say via social media, the more our stereotyping function goes into hyper drive. We continue to associate groups with their preferences and actions, and an individual member who does not share these is still “tarred with the same brush”. This is not always fair, but it is not necessarily oppression.
3. Voluntary groups are more fair.
Some stereotypes we make for ourselves. We may enjoy crafts and therefore become known amongst friends as ‘a knitter’. This might cause people to associate you curling up with a book by the fire. Or, someone might think of Mrs Molly Weasley from Harry Potter, or assume you have ten cats. These are unfortunate associations, and may be untrue, but they are not oppression.
Neither are associations which produce negative reactions because of actions groups can and should be held responsible for. For example if you state, “I’m a biker”, and people assume you are selling illicit weapons or drugs and you dislike this, you have two options. The first is to brand your biker gang as different from other biker gangs that do illegal activities, or the second is to leave the biker life altogether. You can do this at any time.
4. Non-voluntary groups are less fair.
But some associations cannot be dropped very easily. And therefore, it is harder to prevent the consequences. These are stereotypes that come from characteristics we can’t or that we find difficult to change. For example, where you are born, the colour of your skin, your gender, and some aspects of culture.
This ability once assisted survival. For example, stereotyping was highly useful if you were standing on the English coastline in medieval times and you saw a Viking ship. The assumption could be made that the big man wearing a Viking helmet wanted to pillage your city. And even if this particular Viking had no interest in looting but sought a quality conversation on a Spring evening and perhaps a tour of the castle library, villagers would still have an instant rush of adrenaline at the sight of him. And, should the innocent Viking receive the blunt edge of the village army, he might feel oppressed, but would not actually be oppressed by the villager’s assumptions about him. Many other ships had come before, and pilaged. We could however, say that the reponse was unfortunate. And, we could even say it was unjust.
Where it is particularly unjust is when a stereotype is associated with a group is entirely false, and they cannot un-identify with it. A person with Down Syndrome may find it difficult to change stranger’s impressions about their abilities, which link them due to their appearance. If the assumptions are true for most Downs Syndrome people, but are untrue for this Downs Syndrome person, we can call still this unjust.
5. Oppression is a “fundamental injustice”.
The social scientist Ann Cudd in her book Analyzing Oppression defines oppression as the “fundamental injustice of social institutions” (Cudd 2006, 26). She identifies four necessary conditions to qualify as “oppression”:
1) actual harm must have occurred either physically or emotionally
2) to a clearly defined social group (the oppressed)
2) while another gains privilege over them (the oppressors);
3) this privileged group must use coercion to maintain power (Cudd 2006, 35).
So if a group was trafficked as slaves, sold to plantation owners and whipped mercilessly, that would be actual harm. Say we identified that group as “African Americans”. Then, we linked certain privileges that people with white skin received, as opposed to this group. And, say police were still killing Black men on the streets, gunning them down without a fair trial – well, we could say definitively, yes, that African Americans in the USA are oppressed.
So, when asking yourself “Am I oppressed?” you can now ask four questions:
Q: what real harm has occurred?
Q: to what group has this harm been incurred?
Q: what privilege has been gained by the group which has caused this?
Q: How do the group use coercion to maintain their power?
In the case of a conservative Christian white male, we can say with quite a lot of certainty that no real harm has occurred to this group. Some privilege or advantage has been lost. Sure, certain individuals may point to an experience of real harm, and maybe even have been martyred for the faith. But there is no one group that wields coercive power over white conservative Christian males. They still, on average, hold more power than any other group in the Western world.
Phew! So you can breathe a sigh of relief.
If you’re a white Christian male religious leader, you’re not oppressed.
And this means we can also let go of any correlations with Bonhoeffer, who by standing with an oppressed group (the Jews) and rejecting their treatment at the hands of the Nazis, suffered an unjust death…. Unless of course, you’re standing with an oppressed people group against an oppressive force. In that instance, sure, you may have a case.