THE SEMANTICS OF OPPRESSION
(Paper presented at the Pedagogy & the Theatre of the Oppressed
Adam Blatner, M.D., T.E.P.
( www.ptoweb.org ), Austin,
Texas, June 5, 2010) Also, another webpage offers the supplement to the
workshop on the use of Morenian
Methods to Expand the Flexibility of TO Practitioners.
Click on Papers (above) for other
articles about oppression.
When Boal opened to the Rainbow of Desire as a way of expanding the
idea of oppression to include the “cop in the head,” he may have
inadvertently opened the door to an arena of significant ambiguity. As
PTO practices expand beyond its earlier targets of political and
economic types of oppression, groups come up with issues that are
unclear as to whether oppression is an accurate description of the
process within the system. Practitioners who are aware of this dynamic
may become more flexible in being able to deal with audience or group
members who challenge aspects of the valuation or rationale of various
social norms, and such challenges and their responses then
part of the group process.
Semantics deals with how a word means, and especially focuses on the
power of that word or phrase to evoke emotional resonances. For many
non-trivial words, people really mean very different things, or
associate to different things, and the same word can feel wonderful,
noble, or negative or even (smile) “oppressive.”
There’s also the way a word evolves in its meaning. A century ago the
word oppression generally referred to the tyrannical and authoritarian
behavior of kings and the inquisition. Then the word expanded to
include the general category of slavery as an institution, and also the
general idea of the subjugation of women. Some words evolve like that.
For example, the word, “evolution” once referred only to a biological
theory and has since expanded to refer to a progressive history, so
that one can speak of the evolution of the computer. In this century,
the concept of oppression has expanded, especially around the
mid-century and beyond, associated with the excesses of capitalism and
many aspects of colonialism. More recently, attention has been given to
system-level patterns of oppression, various forms of racism, other
patterns of bias, economic inequity and exploitation.
Semantics reflects a dynamic process in social psychology and culture
as much as linguistics, so that there is no final definition of a word,
no meaning that is likely to gain a universal agreement. This is eve
more applicable to words that are involved in controversy. Some imagine
a word like oppression supports policies or political orientations they
don’t like. These people may claim the word means something quite
different from what those who think the word should be understood in a
more positive light. Thus, we shouldn’t assume that it will be easy to
rationally argue for your preferred interpretation, because semantics
recognizes that the deeper meaning or set of associations to a word
does not in fact operate at a rational level of mind.
With this disclaimer in mind, I have nevertheless found that I needed
to construct my own provisional definition of oppression, and it
involves two related themes: First, oppression involves an
unnecessary gradient of privilege. There are a number of necessary
gradients, so that, for example, babies even more than young children
cannot be granted the privilege of driving cars. What gets interesting
is the fuzzy boundary areas, the arguments as to what is and is not
necessary in a social system at a certain point in history.
The second element is what really interests me, though: This gradient
of privilege operates outside of the awareness of many if not most
people in the system. They might say things like, “What’s wrong with
the way things are? That’s just the way it goes. It’s always been this
way. What problem?” In most forms of oppression, the biggest challenge
is just raising consciousness to the point of recognizing that there is
a problem and that it could be different, and that it should be
different, and that we can act to change things. This is by no means
Part of the problem is helping people to find a voice. Again there are
two elements. First, there’s fear: Folks don’t want to make trouble;
they tend to go along with tradition and social expectations and
unconsciously avoid what seems to be taboo. People are aware of how
violently oppressive the powers that be could be. The second point,
though, is important: Often people are not at all clear on what we must
accept and what can and should be changed. They have mixed feelings and
often these interfere with their knowing what to say.
In tomorrow’s workshop
I will describe ways that psychodramatic methods
can help TO in helping people find their own voice about what
might be oppressive situations. The psychodramatic technique of
doubling, for example, can help people find ways to put their mixed
feelings into words. They get to compare things: “You mean there are
some cultures or part of the country where this isn’t the way things
are? You mean there was a time when it wasn’t this way? How could I
even imagine things being different?” And the more people compare notes
and begin to rouse themselves from their states of acceptance—also
known as the slave mentality—well, there’s a certain point where
oppression begins to turn into controversy, and in some cases, some
types of oppression in the past now have become disreputable.
Another way words evolve is that as abstract categories, with
increasing use, they come to include more sub-types. For example, the
concept of infection in medicine first applied to bacteria and then was
extended to include viruses. Let’s consider the possibility that the
word oppression is now being used to describe situations in which the
dynamic doesn’t originate from the seemingly more powerful, but rather
from peers or even those who seem to have lower status—i.e., from the
“bottom” up. Are trends in fashion, or expressions of bullying
oppressive? What about more gentle forms of teasing, and where does one
draw the line? And what about the way people who are oppressed as a
class will end up generating their own inner status gradients so that
some tend to look down on others for various reasons.
One of the more pressing problems for this word—and one that bothered
me, I confess—is the association of the term with the general sense of
blame and, by extension, victimization—the “oppressor” and the
“oppressed.” Augusto Boal softened this a bit by formulating his
theories of the Rainbow of Desire. Often the oppressor then becomes
part of our own mind, mixed with desires and often unrealistic
expectations. Victimization is a very complicated state of mind, easily
bordering on excuse making, blaming, and the expectation of rescue,
revenge, reparation—anything but a vow to re-own responsibility for
one’s own destiny. It takes a bit of work to get to that right balance.
So I have both negative and positive associations to the term. I’m
uncomfortable with the way the word and the way it is used can so
easily be used to veer into directions that hinder rather than enhance
responsibility. On the other hand, I like the word because it speaks to
a dynamic that is the collective equivalent of the dynamic of
repression in the individual psyche. It’s a word that to me calls out
for a compensatory effort at consciousness raising, for critical
thinking and finding a voice, for social action and cultural
criticism—and these on the whole are positive things to do.
In preparing the chapter for my anthology I learned that the joker is
often not to be considered a facilitator of the action, because the
problem is by no means easy. The joker, I learned, often should be
viewed as a difficult-ator, the opposite of a facilitator—not because
the joker makes things difficult, but because he or she exposes the
ways that situations are in fact complex and therefore difficult.
I hope my presentation today has served to do likewise for the multiple
facets, meanings, and implications of the continued expansion and
cultural functions of the idea and word, oppression.
In summary, some questions to be asked might include the following:
1. What is and is not included within the category of
2. What might be examples of issues about which people might
differ as to whether what was going on was or was not oppression? (As a
warm-up, consider the items mentioned on another webpage.
3. What are some of the larger issues that can help clarify
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