What is Oppression?

Suppose, for a moment, the world were to agree that a person is oppressed if and when something (such as another person, a government, or a society) causes them to become alienated from themselves.  That is, prevents them from being true to themselves.  If the world understood that to be oppression, then what might be the consequences?

In practice, I think there might be quite a few problems with defining oppression in those terms unless we were to also distinguish between necessary and unnecessary oppression.  Thus, necessary oppression could be defined as oppression that is necessary to prevent one person from unjustly harming another, while unnecessary oppression could be defined as oppression that serves no such purpose.

For instance:  Let’s say that, in stealing from others,  I am in some significant sense being true to myself.  Any person, government, or society that tried to prevent me from stealing would, by our definition of oppression, be oppressing me.  So, if oppression is morally wrong, then I could argue no person, no government, nor any society had a moral right to prevent me from stealing.

On the other hand, if oppression is morally right whenever it is done to prevent one person from unjustly harming another, then in so far as stealing from someone harms them, it is moral for others to prevent me from stealing even though doing so also prevents me from being true to myself.

All of the above seems simple enough, but does it work?  Is it an adequate definition of oppression? If not, then what is oppression?

7 thoughts on “What is Oppression?

  1. Paul, you started your write up with ” if we were to agree..”, so a new rule is born :). People will be endlessly arguing about oppression and leave the fashionable subjects like world peace and human rights 🙂
    Also imagine the plight of psychiatrists!What about attorneys eh?
    I am reminded of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa who said Really there is nothing as complete freedom. Each one has a different length of rope he is tethered to..

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    • I think Ramakrishna makes a good point, Neela. I guess that brings up the issue of to what extent or not our ropes are necessary — or, at least, to what extent we can free ourselves of them. Surely some people are even less free than is necessary.

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  2. I’m confused too. I’m sort of scratching my head trying to understand this true to oneself thing.
    If we systematically peeled off the layers of socialization, would we find a core “self” — or nothing? And if self is already an artificial construct, why would further external influence be oppression?
    If one’s natural personality is schizophrenic or homicidal would it be wrong to alter it? Is core self sacred, or is our greater responsibility to the many; to society?
    But now I’m reiterating your original blog.
    Maybe this ‘true to yourself’ thing is bogus, man!

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    • Hi Sey! Excellent questions!

      I’ve been planning to write a three part post on oppression. This has been the first part, “What is Oppression?” Your questions beautifully anticipate the second part, which I have yet to write, let alone post: “What is it that is being Oppressed?” I aim to address your questions in that second part.

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  3. I think the approach from the other side might be more fruitful:
    Oppression is what actively prevents people from treating others as they themselves would like to be treated.
    In other words: it interferes with the categorical imperative.

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    • That’s an excellent insight, Shirhasirim. Thank you for that!

      At this point, I agree it might be more fruitful to either approach oppression as interfering with the categorical imperative, or as interfering with fundamental rights. Nevertheless, I’m silly enough to want to explore this notion that oppression is oppression of the self a bit more fully — if only for the fun of it. So, I think in my next post, I’m going to work all three views into the post.

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  4. Pingback: Being True to Yourself Despite Praise and Condemnation « Café Philos: an internet café

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