Talking About Oppression

There was an interesting debate a few months back between Joseph Heath and Audrey Yap about what Health called “Me studies”. The issue: what is the best way to study mechanisms of oppression?

Heath cautions against the idea that the oppressed are best suited to study it. Because the oppressed are too close to the thing being studied, and so it clouds their judgment and perception. A consequence is that the oppressed, in the name of enabling the oppressed to speak up, draw boundaries of who can participate in the debate, or what participation is supposed to look like. Heath’s point: these boundaries are inimical to rational debate and critical thinking because it creates the sense that disagreeing with the oppressed person’s philosophical thesis is to support oppression. He says, “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met, who specialize in some form or another of ‘critical studies,’ who are among the worst critical thinkers I’ve met.”

Yap responded by suggesting that we “treat issues of oppression the way we treat many other cases of specialized knowledge in philosophy, like philosophy of science or mathematics.” On this view, there should be boundaries of who can participate and how just as there are in any sub-field of philosophy. A non-oppressed person can’t just chime in on a debate about oppression just as someone who doesn’t know logic can’t chime in on a talk on Godel. The oppressed person, just in virtue of being oppressed, has knowledge that the non-oppressed person doesn’t. So when a non-oppressed person presumes to chime in without due deference, that is a form of reenforcing oppression. Especially because it is the oppressing mechanisms which give the non-oppressed person the leverage to speak up even when the topic is out of their depth.

Both Heath and Yap engage with the issue in a thoughtful way. Still, I think both are missing something significant: namely, the distinction between the oppressed and the non-oppressed no longer makes any sense. To put the point in a pragmatist way: it is a distinction without a practical difference.

I am not saying people aren’t oppressed. Of course they are along the dimensions of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ability, mental health, etc. What I am saying is that people are no longer oppressed by oppressors. For a given person as a member of a group who is oppressed, there isn’t a corresponding person who is the oppressor (setting aside individual cases).

Consider gender. A woman as a woman belongs to an oppressed group. But that doesn’t mean there is a group called “men” who all belong to the oppressor group. Because every single person in the men group can themselves belong to one, or even many, oppressed groups. The men can be gay, non-white, disabled, from a poor background, or can have any number of other under-privileged identities.

The distinction of oppressed and oppressor is a relic of colonial times when whole groups oppressed other groups. This presupposes that the groups have a certain common identity and clear demarcation: the blacks here, the whites there; men at work, women in kitchen, and so on. In this situation certain forms of oppression are tolerated for the sake of overcoming other oppressions.

Was Gandhi mysoginistic or homophobic? These questions were put in the background because there was a presumption (sometimes a carefully cultivated one) that Gandhi was speaking for a community. That is, he was speaking for a community in the traditional sense which incorporated people of many different identities: women, Hindus, Muslims, those deemed lower castes, etc. It is amazing that someone could be in the position of speaking for people of such diverse identities, as if in spite of that diversity there was some core identity they had in common: being Indian as the oppressed as opposed to being British as the oppressor.

That was sixty years ago. What has happened since then is that the oppressed vs oppressor model has been extended beyond communities in the traditional, robust sense of people with diverse identities rooted in a shared bond to communities in the limited, modern sense of people who share an identity.

There are many reasons for this. But the main one is the global dominion of capitalism. People united by an economic system can’t function on the model of oppressed versus oppressor. This is one reason Gandhi played up his anti-capitalist, I-am-just-a-humble-farmer-type identity: to leverage the contrast between urban and rural life to fit it onto, as he saw it, the contrast between India and England. But if both Indians and the British are bound by the same economic structures, and those structures are more fundamental than the national identities, then it is not possible to say the British are oppressing the Indians. You have to find a different way to retain the contrast of communities which can underlie the oppressed versus oppressor dynamic: say, capitalism versus communism, and so on.

In countries like America, where capitalism is mainly unquestioned and too deeply interwoven with daily life, the sense of community in the traditional robust sense has disappeared. Community has become reduced to people who are like you (that is, what you identify with)and so the oppressors are those who are in power and who are not like you (that is, don’t say things to show they identity with the same things you identify).

The trouble with this is obvious: the contrast of the oppressed versus the oppressor has no real traction when, as in the present, every person can count themselves among the oppressed in some sense. Take a white, male academic philosopher tenured at a rich university. Is he one of the oppressors? Can we point to or name the oppressors? No, it is not possible even when pointing to a white, male, R1 tenured philosopher. Those are features they have, but that is different from saying that is who they are, what they identify with as essential to them. Perhaps they identify as disabled, or a Marxist, or a Christian, or an atheist, or gay, or transgender, or in any number of other ways which, from some perspective, puts them in the category of the oppressed fighting the good fight.

There is a great irony here: just at the time when the traditionally oppressed groups are ready to speak up, the traditional distinction between oppressed and oppressor has fallen apart! This is what lends now a desperate, nervous, even angry energy to members of traditionally oppressed groups: they are now ready to fight but there are no people as opponents to fight! Whoever they pick a fight with turns around and says how they are also part of the cause, and they are! The mechanism of oppression is no longer people, but systems and institutional structures. That can be a hard thing to swallow when one is coming to consciousness of one’s oppression and wants to fight back. How do you fight an invisible force?

Here we can see the limitations of both Heath’s and Yap’s points. Heath rightly points out that philosophical discourse must be something universal, something which is open to all people as people. The problem with saying that the oppressed have a special say in the matter is that it clearly presupposes that some people should be quiet in the conversation, that they are not in a position to talk or to contribute. On what grounds can one make such a restriction?

Yap’s proposal is that the grounds for the restriction are that of specialization: the oppressed person has knowledge which the non-oppressed person doesn’t have. Surely this is true in an important sense: a woman in an elevator full of men is bound to be aware of things the men aren’t. But if that knowledge is to be translated into change this model of specialization won’t do. What happens after women get together to understand their oppression? Are they going to say, “Here are our results. So society should be changed in such and such a way”? Who are they going to say this to? Are they going to be heard in a system that is male-dominated? Even more troubling: can the women get together just as women to discover how women are oppressed, while setting aside the myrid other identities they have and along which some have more power than others?

Deep change is bound to happen only through bringing more voices into the conversation; this is one of Yap’s points. And yet that can only happen when we can see that in spite of all the various differences between us as people, there are some core similarities that binds us together as people. We need to get bring more voices together from a space highlighting those core similarities.

I take it this is Heath’s point. It is the space of our core similarities which provides the reflective distance needed to step back from our identities at issues such as gender, race and so on. The trouble with Heath’s argument is that he seems to assume that philosophy as it is currently done in academia constitutes such a space of core similarities. As if we already have a model for what such universal discourse can look like. For instance, that he knows what good critical thinking look like such that he can judge how some many “me studies” people are falling short of it. But how does he know what good critical thinking looks like which isn’t just another way of affirming the status quo?

There is an alternative which both Heath and Yap miss. It is that in the current world what we all have in common as people is that everyone of us belongs in many categories where each of us is oppressed. This is the silver lining of the fact that the traditional distinction between the oppressed and the oppressor is now moot. We are all in it together against, one might say, the system. Literally. Not just one system, but the myriad systems which are our human heritage, and within which we live our lives and which chafe at our growth and freedom as individuals and as groups.

This isn’t to say that since we are all in it together, everyone is equally entitled to the privileges they have. Actually, it means that, strictly speaking, no one is entitled to any privileges precisely because we are all in it together. Some people might have some privileges others don’t, but that is just luck and circumstance. It is not grounded in anything deeper than that. In a world with oppression, there is no meritocracy. Anyone who holds on to their privilege as something they are entitled to is ultimately harming even themselves, because they are failing to see their own myriad ways of being oppressed.

Philosophy is the struggle of the oppressed. And it is universal. Both are true because all of us are oppressed in some dimension – it is our shared human condition. The difficulty is how to hold onto this idea without perpetuating the status quo, without slipping into indifference or apathy. This difficulty is also part of our shared human condition.

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