Adam Blatner, M.D., T.E.P.

(Paper presented at the Pedagogy & the Theatre of the Oppressed Conference
( ), 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 becomes part of the group process.
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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 easy.

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 “oppression”?
  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 these questions?

For Further Questions:  email to