Adam Blatner

August 25, 2006   (See also another view of this topic more recently re-visited elsewhere on this website.)

Oppression is a term about which I am ambivalent. On the positive side, it refers to a dynamic in society in which we collectively repress and avoid addressing certain issues, social norms, ethical conundrums, economic, religious and political arrangements, and so forth. For me, oppression is a group analog of the individual dynamic of repression. The value of this concept is that it calls for a process of making the implicit explicit, bringing out from the subconscious soup issues that deserve to be identified, analyzed, and re-evaluated. Some examples will be mentioned further on.

On the negative side, oppression is a term that has what I consider to be misleading semantic associations–namely, the implication that there must be a villain, someone who oppresses, and a victim, the relatively innocent oppressed. In some cases this is relatively true, in some cases rather untrue, and worse, it supports a number of trends in our culture that promote a set of ideas about victimhood, such as the general sense that blame should be placed and that the victim is entitled to recompense of some kind. Victimization also implies a relief of responsibility for one’s situation in life. Again, in some cases, this is relatively true, and in some cases rather untrue.

The problem here requires an insistence on semantic analysis and fine discrimination, thinking, however bothersome that activity may seem. The tendency in language is to use generalizations and abstractions not only as a useful tool–which these are sometimes–but also as the servant of a lazy mind, a way of coping by thinking in overly simplistic ways. This is a regression to childishness, thinking either-or, because for young children who are just beginning to get the names of things correctly, simple contrasts are an initial step. The idea of there being shades of grey, or multiple alternatives is too complex for their little minds, and, alas, it seems to stretch the mentality of all too many adults.

A related problem comes with the compensating mechanism of self-deception, in this case, the assumption that both we and our audience knows what we are talking about. Alas, in subtle ways, the actual situation is more like the words of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic, Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, when he says, “When I use a word, it means whatever I want it to mean, no more, no less.”  Although the book on one level presented a somewhat nonsensical world of a little girl’s dream, there were many sharp insights embedded in these pages. One of them is that while most people may not be so conscious of the semantic twists they add to their own use of language–“spin doctors,” professional advertisers, directors of propaganda, and academic professors of semantics or rhetoric excepted, perhaps–, in fact people do misuse words and yet believe that they and others understand perfectly what is meant.

An astute satirical saying I encountered in the 1960s illustrates this: “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure that what you heard is what I meant.”  When I hear people talk about “God,” “freedom,” “aggression,” “truth,” “moral values,” and many other abstractions, I have learned enough to realize that I have very little idea what they in fact mean by these words. I might find myself surprised and dismayed that, for instance, one person’s idea of freedom may be blind to certain aspects of what others might consider freedom.

Returning to the concept of oppression, then. One benefit of this term is that it invites us to sharply analyze any system that might be called oppressive. Is it? If so, in what ways? Generally, I find the common element to be that certain thoughts or ideas are neglected, actively avoided, passively ignored, or perhaps simply haven’t ever occurred to many of the people involved. There were times in history when certain situations were just the way life is, as natural and inevitable as the seasons: Of course women were pretty much just property, and the idea of voting itself was unheard of. When that idea glimmered in the minds of men, the idea that women might also vote seemed literally nonsensical, out of the question. Democracy was also pretty far out as an idea, and religious heresy was an occasion for deeply felt righteous indignation, as if someone were seriously threatening the civil order. Slavery was an accepted fact of life, as was the inferiority of not just the “savage” peoples of the world, but to a lesser yet not insignificant degree, anyone outside the circle of one’s own identification, religion, nation, ethnic group, etc.

As we move into a more mobile world, inter-cultural mixing is inevitable, and artificial barriers to optimal adaptation need to be identified and clarified. Some of the role shifts are still in process, as causes dealing with women’s rights, anti-slavery, anti-prostitution (and the ambiguity of forced prostitution), the status of homosexuals, abortion, and the like are still very much in flux. There are many who sincerely believe that we must not change the status quo.

The language of oppression has arisen most often as part of the political and social bias that views the plight of the poor as a result of an intrinsically unfairly-biased socio-economic and class / status system. It has some roots in Marxism, a sense that inequalities–especially gross inequalities–in income are not intrinsically fair. We’re talking about a world where it’s not just a matter of rewarding hard work and talent by granting some people 20% or 200% or even 2000 times more money than those “less deserving,” but where gradients go beyond those limits! Suggestions that the divide between the haves and have-nots may have become too extreme tend to be discounted as mere class warfare, and serious thoughts about the overlap of ethics and economics are avoided. Whatever the outcome of the occasional (and all too infrequent) debates about the issue may be, my point is that we should not be afraid to at least engage our thinking. The concept of oppression serves to establish a category for questioning trends, established norms, and other collective arrangements.

Here are some other themes that may or may not be considered forms of oppression:
  – women’s fashions that render them unusually cold, immodest, exposed, uncomfortable (i.e., high-heeled shoes, constricting undergarments), and so forth
  – men’s fashions that similarly render them uncomfortable
 – fashions that require an unusual expenditure of money and time to maintain, regarding clothes, cosmetics, hair styles, etc.
  – corporal punishment of children
  – smoking and especially having second-hand smoke invade one’s personal space
  – a casual attitude to drinking and driving, only recently, with a concerted effort by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, beginning to change. In many regions, DWI (driving while intoxicated), if imposed on a “good ol’ boy,” results in just a figurative “slap on the wrist” rather than a socially sanctioned serious consequence
   – sexual harassment of women, bullying of the weak or of homosexuals, racial slurs, overt prejudice
   – artificial barriers and unrealistic negative expectations and/or limitations on the differently abled
   – denial of the differently abled, expecting and demanding their performing along with the mainstream
    – standards of “cool” that lead to addictions–especially regarding tobacco, now becoming a worldwide health threat– or sexual activity–ditto with AIDS– and so forth.
    – the ease and intensity of “junk food” and the power of “the market” to generate short term profits in the midst of an epidemic of obesity and diabetes, not to mention other more subtle health effects
     – the popularity of loud music and threats to hearing, noise pollution, light pollution, and other fashions
      – the mind-numbing or overly-specialized mind-activating power of not only drugs, but television, video games, and other highly-addictive stimuli
Should these be considered forms of oppression? Even that question is debatable. (My bias is “yes,” based on my definition of oppression as a sort of collective avoidance of evaluative thinking.)

My point in noting these, and recognizing that many others also might be brought to mind, is that there is not always an obvious exploiting class. There do tend to be those who benefit more and those who suffer more within oppressive systems, but often those who benefit, the privileged, are by no means the main forces in maintaining these systems!


I consider oppression to be a more system-wide, more secularized form of the sociological and anthropological concept of “taboo,” a term used around the Eighteenth Century by (I think) Captain Cook, in taking some terms from some islanders around Tahiti to describe certain categories of physical items or social behaviors that were ritually dangerous. In the Jewish religion, the Bible laid out a variety of foods and practices that were “unclean,” and questions of ritual purity also became incorporated into Christian and Islamic culture.

For a time, charging interest–usury–was considered religiously unacceptable in Christian cultures, and it was left to the Jews to be the “unclean” money-lenders. Around the time of the Renaissance, though, these standards shifted–it became clear that financing various capitalist adventures was too important to be stigmatized: Usury became part of Western capitalism, and now is being practiced by major corporations at rates that were a few generations ago only associated with crime racketeers! Where is the outrage?

So what is oppression, what is taboo? Perhaps it is time to actively engage in addressing these questions, recognizing that the tendency to take things off the table derives from subconscious forces of laziness, greed, and other “deadly sins.” The effort to make the unconscious more conscious so we can think more clearly not only carries forward one of the underlying themes of psychoanalysis, but also brings forward the dictum of Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher: “Know thyself.”  This refers not only to introspection, as if who we are lies within the vault of our separate craniums, but also to a collective introspection, a recognition that who we are also includes a holistic assessment of all our social, cultural, economic, political, legal, educational, and even linguistic arrangements!

Your comments on the above will be appreciated. Perhaps I can deepen and extend this paper. Email to me: