Adam Blatner, M.D.

Presentation to Sun City Psychology Club,  5/14/10; Further revised 6/2/10 
“Oppression” is a term that it invites us to examine more closely the underlying assumptions and dynamics in social systems in which there is (1) an unnecessary gradient of privilege; and (2) a relatively widespread lack of awareness that either the gradient of privilege exists or that it is indeed unnecessary. The challenge of questioning underlying assumptions that may be obsolete, unfair, maladaptive, or problematic applies not just to individuals in analyzing neuroses, but also in wider social and cultural systems—and that includes political, religious, economic, family, and other traditions, norms, and common practices.

Let’s unpack some elements in the definition above. First, there is the question as to what kinds of privilege are or are not necessary. Some types of gradient of privilege are necessary, such as:
   --  rules against young children driving cars or handling loaded weapons. There are many other examples, some of which are more controversial, some not so much:
   – who can have the privilege of relative freedom (in contrast to being in prison or in involuntary psychiatric hospitalization)
   – or the freedom not to attend school?
   – the privilege to practice certain professions, requiring certain degrees, accreditation, Board certification, etc.
   – the freedom to make claims that may or may not be true about certain products, patent medicines, etc.
   – the freedom to commit acts that are deemed illegal or immoral—or the threat of imprisonment or other police-mediated response
   – the freedom to travel over the borders of nations
   – and so forth.

We must acknowledge that there are disputes about some of the issues raised here. What is generally accepted is that it is not necessary that general classes of people be kept from various freedoms because of their membership in that class (e.g., race, religion, gender, age, etc.). That is, present values dictate that we should not bow to prejudice. (Issues about sexual orientation are presently being contested in many regions.)

The second point—the relative unawareness of most people about the unfairness or lack of necessity of the rules—is more contemporary. In the past, oppression tended to be more gross and easy to identify. Many if not most slaves chafed in their role. On the other hand, in the 19th century, many women did not think that the restrictions based on gender were unfair. More recently, many people—both those in the more and less privileged categories—are hardly aware that there is any other way the world can be organized. The status quo is just the way it must be, or so it seems.

This is what excites me about the subject, because what we’re really talking about is consciousness-raising, and “oppression” simply offers an arena for examining a variety of ways that consciousness may need to be raised. The word “may” is also interesting, because as the kinds of situations that might be defined as oppressive increase, so also do objections that some of those situations are not in fact oppressive! It’s not a simple or obvious matter.

Indeed, who is to say what is and is not oppressive? We need to bring our best capacities for critical thinking to bear. The most emotional or the most inclined to sloganeering should not be allowed to prevail, even though there are irrational tendencies to give in to such passions. Nor should we succumb to the counter-arguments that are similarly shallow.

Oppression and Blame

One of the problems with the word, itself, “oppression,” is that it implies an act by the “oppressors” that impinge directly on the “oppressed”—and there is a sense of blameworthy victimizers and blameless victims. The reality is often more complex. Oppression may be quite indirect, mediated by many elements within a complex system. There may also be varying degrees of participation by a few, some, or most of the oppressed in evoking the oppression. (This is note mere victim-blaming because what’s needed is a careful review of the situation and the way the “victim” should or should not be held partially responsible. In some cases, victim-blaming is less appropriate, but possibly not in other situations.)

Indeed, for many kinds of oppression, some or many who are oppressed collude to varying degrees and in various ways with the problem. Silent acceptance is one form of collusion, and anti-social rebellion, race riots, flaunting mainstream social norms, is another way of generating the kind of backlash that reinforces the system.

The problem of blame is that it partakes of an illusion that those who seem to have more authority, status, or political power could change the system if they only would, but the truth is that those people may have no idea how to achieve this. Or they imagine or accurately perceive a great many complications to any suggested changes. Nor is it okay to blame those in political power for lacking the expertise to know how to change certain things. Most people who run for office don’t have ready solutions, but rather they offer to give it a go in trying to work it out. The problems, though, may be far more complex than any wise men know how to “answer.”

(The illusion that there are simple, wise, “right” answers to problems is a popular, pervasive illusion fueled by demagogues and stoked also by an educational system that is based on tests: For twelve to twenty years, if you know the right answers to questions, you are treated as if you are doing the right thing. When you get out in the real world you discover that around 90% of life has little to do with knowing “right” answers.)

There is a middle ground, which, in addition to efforts at consciousness-raising, includes helping the oppressed to help themselves to fight for their needs and rights. This may include local community organization, local politics, regional and national politics, education, and many other elements. The arts may be vehicles for this. (I am attending a Theatre of the Oppressed conference, a network of thousands of programs who explore this very frontier.)

Oppression as Mental Hygiene

My own interest as a retired psychiatrist is in applying what we have learned in dynamic psychology, developmental psychology, psychotherapy, medicine, and other fields in the service of prevention. It seems to me that a significant factor in the etiology—the cause—of mental illness is widespread ignorance of a range of fairly basic principles. To me it’s analogous to the situation a century ago where many if not most people were ignorant of the basic principles of sanitation and as a result infections that we now recognize as preventable were far more prevalent. Nutrition was another aspect of hygiene: Back then it involved recognizing the need for certain vitamins and minerals in the diet, advocating for fortified food; now it’s challenging tendencies in the system that lead people to overly indulge in junk food. There are psychological principles that are just as basic.

Part of the problem has been that psychology has been imagined to be too individual—people were seen as disturbed as an expression of personal failures or perhaps through blaming parents. Insufficient attention was given to the idea that there are many social norms that folks considered okay but on reflection are deeply stressful. The boundaries between political and personal have blurred: How we plan cities and communities, how we structure the nature of work and education, and continuing patterns of racism, able-ism, age-ism, sexism, and other common biases all have their impact on what used to be seen as personal failings and neuroses.

Thinking in this was recognized by the second generation of psychoanalysts, some of whom recognized that general social norms and economic conditions could be a factor in psychopathology. During the “red scare” in the West, this voice was somewhat suppressed, but emerged again in the later 1960s. Books and articles considering the nature of race relations, the growing voices of feminism, the emergence of Gay Rights, all these and other movements began to raise consciousness about elements in the mainstream that had become intolerable to the oppressed.

Even in psychology and psychiatry voices were raised about forms of psychiatric oppression, such as R. D. Laing in England, or Thomas Szasz in the United States. Such trends have continued to gain energy but, in my opinion, still not enough. We need to recognize that there are a wide range of what is considered normal or okay in education, religion, social planning, economic policy, and so forth that, if examined closely, is not okay. These practices unfairly marginalize certain groups of people. By “marginalize” I mean treat as if they didn’t count; and unfair—well, that’s the question: How shall we deal with deviants from the mainstream?  (This includes gifted children who remain neglected in some public school while limited funds are diverted into special education.)

Ambiguous Oppression

I use these terms to acknowledge that the term oppression has expanded beyond its original meaning that refers to rather gross examples to include more subtle forms and even cases in which it might be argued that what is going on is not oppression at all. The problem is that there are many people only several decades ago who would have argued that the African-American population of the deep Southern USA were not oppressed, but very happy with the rules for social management that were prevalent at the time—if it weren’t for “troublemakers coming in from up north.” So what is and is not to be considered oppression can be and is argued. These arguments need to happen.

Indeed, I discern a pattern: Oppression tends to be unstable over time: First there is a condition in which most of the oppressed accept their oppression—this is just the way things have to be. Then there comes a time in which many people speak up and consciousness has been raised. The condition becomes more of social controversy. Some will still say there’s oppression going on, others will argue that it’s not so. Finally, the condition has shifted, so that oppressive practices become disreputable in mainstream society, perhaps even illegal. This is what happened to slavery.

So, to restate, conditions of oppression require a submission and often tacit acquiescence of a large number of the oppressed. Yet there are waves of protest: Over the last several hundred years rebellions of peasants and middle class against kings and aristocrats was one wave; laws separating church and state, another; laws banning slavery—and even a civil war to back that up—yet another wave. The fight for women’s rights has had numerous advances, and still has many yet to go. Gay rights, the rights of those considered disabled or differently-abled, further civil rights for all sorts of minorities, these were further advances.

More recently attention is being given to such problems as bullying—situations that were “just the way life is” a generation ago—or what counts as sexual harassment. This isn’t just a matter of political correctness, as if we could go back to an era of relative insensitivity. What’s going on is a raising of the bar of expectation that goes with the claims for liberty and justice for all. It’s also a recognition of the growing integration of psychological awareness in the last half-century.

Some say this sensitivity is going too far. I would hesitate to generalize. I suspect some examples can be found to express both sides of the question—which is why I call some types of oppression arguable. The point of all this is that it is worthwhile to talk about these things, to question the norms or underlying assumptions themselves.

The Problem of Blaming

Also, I think it’s necessary to call into question the idea of blame, blame-worthy, and its hidden expectations. Again, this is problematic, because certain activities evoke a desire to hold perpetrators, criminals, wrong-doers, accountable. Not only should they be punished, but to varying degrees we hope to rehabilitate some, and to make examples of others in order to deter further acts of wrong-doing. On the other hand, there are problems with the word and the psychological deed: The main problem is that of assuming that those blamed knew how to do otherwise. We blame the government and legislature or president for not anticipating or fixing widespread problems. It’s as if their running for office expressed an implicit claim that they knew how to fix things, rather than they were willing to participate in attempting to think through and try to if not fix problems, at least ameliorate some of the more flagrant complications.

(It seems to me that people also have unrealistic expectations of God to ameliorate their problems—or as Janice Joplin sings the satirical song, “God, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz.” They also feel entitled to blame and hold accountable as near-omnipotent any physician who is unable to ensure an optimal cure or the delivery of a healthy baby. Is this a type of oppression by the weak in collusion with lawyers?)

So the problem of blame and the shifting and abdication of responsibility is big, because it supports the sense of entitlement to not feel obliged to participate in the working out of the problem. How can helpless victims be expected to think and negotiate? The oppressors should make it better! This kind of thinking is foolish and counter-productive, as it denies the reality that in most kinds of oppression, the oppressed collude in a wide variety of ways.

It’s hard to say that lest I be accused of victim-blaming, but the truth is mixed: In some cases victims are largely or completely blameless and helpless. On the other hand, in many cases only if those victimized participate in consciousness raising and self-empowerment, reclaiming their voice and their right to collectively advocate for their rights, and learning the skills that would be involved in these acts, can the process of critiquing, negotiating, and modifying or dissolving an oppressive situation be achieved.

Nor is it only a matter of skill. There are interesting benefits in complex roles. In the popular Dilbert cartoon strip, the employees are oppressed by a clueless manager who overestimates his ability manage; while some of the employees, such as Dilbert’s associate, Wally, collude in this dysfunctional dynamic by being flagrantly passive-aggressive, sabotaging the mission by evading responsibility and work. While these strategems are amusing, they also hint at the symbiotic process of different players in a low-consciousness system. Some who seem oppressed in some ways get back and get their own advantage in other ways within this system.

Who Oppresses Who (m*)? Some Ambiguities

Regarding the way the word “oppression” is problematic, it seems to partake of the realm of blame and victimization. It’s as if there has to be a bad guy and a good guy, a mean oppressor and a helpless victim. Alas, this was in fact all too true in many circumstances, especially regarding the grosser types of oppression, such as the tyranny of petty kings, the cruelty of slavery, exploitative colonists, the practices of the owners of large tracts of land and their low pay for workers, violent repression of any perceived subversion, and the like. Because of this  “oppression,” has often be used to describe social practices in the past that are now considered obsolete, misguided, and perhaps even wicked. Some of these forms continue today, including such types as widespread persecutions based on race, tribe, or religion—common in Africa;  torture, and horrible forms of executions; sexual trafficking and slavery—written up in recent magazines and operating in the USA; fear-based religion; racism; the subjugation of women; the exploitation of indigenous populations; continuing laws that impinge on the civil rights of homosexuals; various unnecessary laws and practices regarding age-ism and abilit-ism, and so forh..

Then there are more subtle oppressions, associated, for example with the mindless over-valuation of technology and science, allowing for the torture of animals in the service of research, even for the manufacture of cosmetics. This is also being questioned and that questioning in turn is challenged. Powerful companies have a significant vested interest in denying that there’s anything wrong with the policies that are coming under attack, and I am not sure that every attack is really justified. There are honest ambiguities in social policy.

However, as a term becomes used, it tends to broaden to include other sub-categories that may be recognized as partaking of similar characteristics. This is part of cultural evolution. For example, the condition known as autism (in its classical form) tends to afflict only a small percentage of those who may be diagnosable as the more inclusive category of “autism spectrum disorders.” Another word that’s evolved from its original use is role, which derived from the rolled-up parchment used by early actors in dramas, and has expanded to refer to any function within a complex system, such as the role of methane in the ecology of the atmosphere. Even the term, evolution, has itself evolved to include the development of a variety of fields of activity, a sensibility that diverges from a way of thinking of large phenomena such as civilization or humanity’s consciousness as stable or unchanging.

So, too, oppression has expanded beyond the grosser forms and may be discerned in the finer patterns of racism, sexism, age-ism, and other types of both conscious and unconscious prejudice. I’ve become interested in these milder and also more pervasive forms of oppression. Once one recognizes the pattern, some of its elements are discernable in a wide variety of phenomena. Indeed, one might even argue whether it is appropriate to apply the term in this or that situation.

For example, who, after all, is entitled to label various situations as oppressive? Is pornography oppressive, or prostitution? Some say yes, some say no. How much does the fashion industry oppress women and how much does it serve them? When does pandering to a foolish fashion become recognized as innocent—as when gambling businesses claim the right to serve the recreational needs of their customers—and when is it recognized as equally blameworthy in the collusive establishment of norms that serve to oppress those who don’t want to live by those standards or who can’t afford to spend the money to maintain those standards of physical attractiveness?

Also, is the word “oppression” to be used when it’s not clear who is supporting the so-called oppressive processes? What happens when the oppressors and the oppressed almost are the same people? Do dressmakers—often poor—oppress those who buy their too-immodest or constricting or otherwise problematic styles? Looking around for someone to blame becomes problematic, often quite impossible.

The key according to my definition lets the oppressors off the hook of easy blame: Often those who may be adjudged to be oppressors don’t think of themselves that way. Sure, there is the caricature of Hitler and other tyrants who are portrayed in movies with no other motivation than the enjoyment of power, world domination—often these folks also enjoy simple sadistic cruelty–even to their own minions. But in fact many of the great evildoers in reality thought of themselves as doing good, at least within the circle of caring they knew, for the values they upheld. Those outside that circle deserved their exploitation for various reasons. Some were an “inferior race,” and some betrayed their depravity by refusing to become sufficiently pious and subservient to the then-dominant ideology (i.e, missionaries backed up by soldiers and weapons). More often, though, those adjudged oppressors think of themselves as pretty nice folks and would feel unjustly condemned by the word.

The goal, though, is not simple blame, because the oppressors rarely can change the system by themselves. If people want a king, they set up a subject-mentality: (The Bible has a lovely passage, 1 Samuel 8: 4-19, in which the emerging Israelites ask for a king to be appointed and the old prophet Samuel warns them what kings do. On the other hand, one could as well argue that this passage is embedded in a bit of propaganda asserting the higher prerogatives of God—interpreted of course by the clergy—a plea for the primacy of theocracy—recognizing of course that the Bible was written by scribes who were in term subject to the high clergy!)

Interestingly, we are at a time in which the two tendencies—to delegate authority to others and / or to demand “freedom” to be one’s own authority—seem to be in an interesting battle, with certain people in different roles advocating different positions without being aware of their self-contradiction.


What attracts me to the concept of oppression is that it is a broader cultural field for the more general application of the idea of consciousness-raising. I’m trying to transcend the idea that consciousness-raising is solely the moral obligation of the individual, to be sought by personal effort, or perhaps through one-to-one therapy or counseling. There’s family work, there is group work, and there are broader activities that seek to transform consciousness in the wider society. Theatre, movies, lecturers in school classrooms, magazine articles, books, public speakers—the whole enterprise of rhetoric, as well as the sphere of open politics, all attends to this general goal.

Sometimes there are efforts to raise consciousness about two conflicting types of issues: Do embryos or fetuses have rights or feelings, or should women be given the freedom to determine what they want to do with and for what is part of their bodies. As the King of Siam (played by Yul Brinner, remember?) in the 1950s movie, the King and I, says: “Is a puzzlement.”

The point I want to make is that oppression is a word that calls for consciousness raising on a wider cultural level. Just as people use personal defense mechanisms to avoid uncomfortable awarenesses, so aggregates of people use a variety of taboos and peer pressure, and sometimes political or coercive intimidation to ensure that certain ranges of thinking remain within the boundaries of conventionality. In this respect, a number of fields relate: Identification of interpersonal and small group manipulations, popular mythology, propaganda analysis and various commonly used rhetorical devices (in advertising or politics), religious orthodoxy and challenges of liberal theology, semantics and communications studies, depth psychology and social psychology, various types of studies of critical thinking, and so forth. (These fields hardly existed a century ago: What is emerging is a category called “meta-cognition,” thinking about the way we think, a multi-faceted field.)  So “oppression” is a word that’s meant to bring some focus to the relevant socio-psycho-dynamics.


Anderson, Sharon K. & Middleton, Valerie A.  (Eds.) (2005).  Explorations in privilege, oppression and diversity.  Belmont, CA: Brooks / Cole / Cenage.

Cudd, Ann E. (2006). Analyzing oppression. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Gil, David G. (1998). Confronting injustice and oppression. New York: Columbia University Press

Harvey, J. (1999). Civilized oppression. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Nieto, Leticia. (2010). Look behind you: using anti-oppression models to inform a protagonists’s psychodrama. In E. Leveton (Ed.), Healing collective trauma using sociodrama and drama therapy. New York: Springer.

Nuessel, Frank. (1992). The semiotics of ageism. Toronto: University of Toronto

Podgorecki, Adam. (1993). Social oppression. Westport, CT: Greenwood. Aspects of Oppression

Sullivan, John; Burns, Mecca; & Paterson, Doug. (2007). Theatre of the Oppressed (Chapter 21). In A. Blatner (Ed.), Interactive and improvisational drama: varieties of applied theatre and performance. Omaha, NE: iUniverse.

Van Wormer, Katherine S. (2004). Confronting oppression, restoring justice: from policy analysis to social action. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education

See related articles: 1. An earlier version of this paper written a few years ago.
                              2. Further varieties of subtle oppression.
                              3. Workshop on applying Morenian Methods to Enhance the Flexibility of Theatre of the Oppressed Practitioners
                              4. Semantics of Oppression

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