How Oppression Works

If the goal is liberation, “Who is Oppressed?” is not a particularly productive question, as even the most powerful of people can display that they, too, harbor some form of oppression, usually legible in acts of petulance. Righteous indignation, despite their power. Blistering red in the face, they yell “Victim!” repeatedly, any time accountability is expected or requested of them, they believe they suffered an injustice. (Usually, these blustery blowhards argue that such an instance illustrates a scheme of coordinated attacks against them, which they, giving a name to in order to make real, append with the suffix “-gate” to suggest just how very malicious this scheme is in scope and scale.)

Let’s make no mistake, these people do suffer from oppression — the oppression of the mind, held prisoner by the very forces they rely upon for their power: namely, ignorance and complicity.

Perhaps a more useful question is to consider how oppression works. And, specifically, how oppression works to prevent and stifle freedom. This is a question that Simone de Beauvoir addresses in The Ethics of Ambiguity.

from Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity.

There is a strategy of the oppressor that entails proclaiming their own oppression as soon as those who they oppress express some level of freedom. (“YOU homos can get married, now? Now, I am oppressed!”) This happens variously — the examples parsed from recent US history indicate just how broad and pervasive this strategy is:

Take the signatories of the Harper’s letter, — published, privileged, and critically respected, they are concerned about limitations to their freedom through requests for accountability and recognition of their privileged social status.

Or take the people who wail white tears about having to wear masks to prevent the transmission of coronavirus during a global pandemic. 

Or how about JK Rowling and her TERFcomplices, who argue that their womanhood is being threatened merely by the existence of trans women.

Or what about all those straight-marrieds crying that gay people have ruined not only the institution of marriage but their very own straights’ marriages simply by getting gay married themselves.

Or what about those anti-women advocates who project voice (and, therefore, personhood) onto fetuses as a way to limit the lives of people actually alive and breathing in the world, as an effort to control women by territorializing and claiming possession of their bodies.

The examples are endless. And it is through such declarations of oppression that the oppressors endeavor to stifle the freedom of those who crave it the most, who demand and deserve their liberation in recognition of their humanity.

So, here is the takeaway: If someone’s freedom is causing you to panic, to feel like you are being oppressed, ask yourself why that is. Why does someone else’s freedom make you feel oppressed? And, is it really oppression that you are experiencing?