Social Psychology: Lecture 6:

Adam Blatner, M.D.

Presentation on March 2, 2015 to Senior University Georgetown 
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

At present, this lecture will be more about milder forms of oppression, about issues that involve empowerment, and more specifically, confronting entitlement, systems of privilege and marginalization. It's worth looking up both the terms and the images associated with those terms on the internet via web-search engines such as Google.

Certainly there are significant oppressions happening today, imposed by governments and other power groups. I won't deny that, but my focus today is on types of milder oppression that need to be recognized, named, confronted and opposed. These still riddle our culture! Indeed, in some circles they are norms---people feel fully entitled to hold prejudicial attitudes.

The Psychology of Oppression

Part of the dynamic arises from the way the mind can fool itself. If there is a sense of being the good guy, benign, seeking some socially noble value, this works to obscure the fact that one is trampling the dignity of others. "We" do "it" for "their own good." Another part of the dynamic is that everybody (i.e, us, the in-group, our neighbors) agrees with us---very reassuring. This is being nibbled away in an era of mass communications: It becomes clearer that everyone does NOT agree with us. What???

Another problem is that this discussion is an outgrowth of democracy, but democracy isn't built into our spiritual traditions---theocracy is. And that elevates those who claim to have God on their side to a level of freedom to conquer and be arbitrary. For millennia Emperors and conquerors did their thing with no feeling that they needed to justify their activity, and then more recently, with the flimsiest of excuses. Only recently has the act of violent agression become identified as evil, and today's politics reflect the entitlement of some groups to impose their will on others by force and violence. But such things are becoming less "respectable."

Meanwhile, coutner-pressures arise and what we then have is a revolution of rising expectations. Minorities, ethnic, religious, racial, national, sexual, gender, and so forth are all daring to claim their "rights,"---and the idea that such people have rights is again a somewhat new thing. Still, that's what's up, and it's good for you to know about these trends.

Some Terms

Marginalization involves the act of relegating to the margins any category we don't want to even think about in terms of having their own dignity. They are of no account. Part of anti-oppression activity is reasserting the rights of these marginalized communities. African-Americans, Gays and Lesbians, and others are resisting marginalization.

Empowerment involves the taking on of social power---it's sort of the opposite of oppression

Entitlement refers to the mental attitude that assumes that one is entitled to one's privileges.

Privilege is also a sense that one is entitled to one's privileges, generally concerning ree access to various social benefits. It's a good thing to look up categories of: White Privilege; Male Privilege; Christian Privilege; Heterosexual Privilege, and other types of privilege!

Oppression Can Be Gross or Subtle

One can be denied education, jobs, healthcare due to race, religion, gender, sexuality, etc. One can legally be imprisioned or executed. One can be perscuted for daring to object to these social norms. But personal preferences are not oppressive in themselves. So what we are aiming at are more subtle types, mentioned in the figure to the right:

This talk is to highlight consciousness of the various activities that are mildly but definitely oppressive. They imply that those who are oppressing---possibly peers, for example---are unaware of their privilege; feel entitled to their behavior, are unaware of their bias and marginalization of those they disdain. What I aim for is their help in stopping their mild oppressive and hoping they'll shift to becoming more interested in empowering those they once oppressed.

Types of Oppression

 The matrix of oppression involves many targets:

In the 1940s prejudice against Jews and Roman Catholics became not-okay. Then in the 1950s racial segregation (mainly against Blacks---er, African-Americans spread. In the 1960s feminism began to be more widespread and protests about prejudice and the social oppression of Blacks became national issues. The 1970s saw feminism become more prominent, and other liberation movements began, such as Maggie Kuhn's "grey panthers. The beginning of rights for Gays and Lesbians began, and it continued to mushroom and steamroll from there. Now all sorts of minorities are demanding their rights and focusing on ways these are being if not denied, then inhibited.

In the 21st century, trans-gender, other peoples of color, ability, and other categories sought freedom from subtle oppressions, marginalization, and disempowerment. We live in an era of rising expectations, and the internet helps other groups to recognize they have sufficient numbers that they too may seek to challenge oppression.

I'm in an elder age group, even though I've been privileged in many other ways. So gradually I'm learning to appreciate bias.

Privilege is an unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social grou;

Peggy McIntosh in 1989 wrote about privilege and started the ball rolling: White Privilege, Middle Class Privilege, Male Privilege, Heterosexual Privilege, Christian Privilege, Neurotypical, and other types. The concept of privilege became a meme---a concept that catches on. Note: (1) Privilege is not visible in everyday life. (2) Nobody talks about it. (3) Privilege is not recognized in legal doctrine. (4) It creates gaps in legal reasoning. Becoming aware of privilege should not be viewed as a burden or source of guilt, but rather an opportunity to learn and be responsible so that we may work toward a more just and inclusive world. People are beginning to add other elements such as socially acceptable body size, being a native speaker of English, being temporarily able-bodied, etc.


The "oppression" against women has been going on for millennia. It's a humanistic issue: Freed from the burdens of

pregnancy, breast-feed, and between and among the kids, take care of the home, women can do much more. Yet men---some young men---not all---still believe in the right to rape---to have intercourse based on physical power and intimidation, This chart to the left is sobering:

What gets generated is a cycle of oppression. The point of this slide to the right is that the cycle of oppression notes that those who show symptoms of mental illness are not necessarily crazy in themselves.

When all about you are acting crazy, caught up in myths of sanity as we run an insane culture, you'd be crazy not to be a little crazy in a crazy world.

So this chart on the right is not all aimed at individual psychopathology. As a psychiatrist, I've come round to this way of thinking. Cultures can make you believe crazy things not only about scapegoats, as the Nazis did with the German people about the Jews, but also even without centralized control evolve norms that can make people feel bad about themselves!

Spiritual Privilege

I thought I'd throw in this item, because we'll see much more of it in the coming years: "Spiritual Privilege." Some folks hardly think twice about their entitlement to re-construct their philosophy of life, their spirituality! I was spoiled this way by living on the West Coast where these practices are common in certain wider communities: We felt no guilt about exploring a variety of churches or religious traditions, some derived from India, China, or other locations. We felt entitled to experiment with some of their practices, and felt no fear of being persecuted for doing this. We felt free to discuss such explorations with friends. Having lived elsewhere in the USA, I now realize that most folks don't feel free in these ways, although increasing numbers of our children or grandchildren do.


These are responses that tend to throw off the rails all but the more articulate and educated of minority advocates. The unconscious mind comes up with a variety of rationalizations and modes of speaking that preserve its integrity, and beliefs and biases change slowly. Knowing about this may help you adjust to the strategies the mind uses to avoid grappling directly with its own prejudices.  

Another group of responses seem like apologies (-->), but really they are pseudo-

apologies. The other person really is not interested in correcting perceptions or opinions, but just doesn't want to deal with the hassle of conflict.

The point here is to recognize the variety of unconscious maneuvers that operate in the dynamics of worldview maintenance or consciousness-raising.

Internalized Oppression

The real challenge is to uplift us all by becoming more aware of oppression. We all have inherited the past, and the past has been caught up with ranking and sustaining rank according to status. Of late, there's been a shift from family and wealth and entitlements associated with these to merit. But even merit can lead to systems of status. The worst part of oppression is that it can be internalized. Whole groups of people, African-Americans, Women, Homosexuals, the differently-abled, the aged, can unconsciously buy into the standards of the majority. People growing older can go to great lengths trying to appear young. Being mature and allowing one's age to be apparent is an emerging trend, but most folks are afraid to assert themselves this way.

So the following two slides from the talk are important and I include them here:

In summary, I close with two quotes: Soujourner Truth, a former slave, women's rights advocate, and Methodist minister said, "If women want any rights more than they's got, why don't they just take them and not be talking about it?!"

And the other of unknown origin: May Divine Spirit forever continue to comfort---and disturb---you.

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