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People withstand oppression using 3 psychological methods: denial, accommodation, and consent. So if they had but known they were slaves.
Anyone on the receiving end of domination learns early in life to stay in line or risk the consequences. And those consequences only have to be applied once in awhile to be effective. From that point forward the traumatized psyche will police itself.
We have a saying in the battered women’s movement, “One beating a year will keep a woman down” so once in awhile is all it takes. Any show of resistance is met on the continuum that starts with derision, social derision, all the way across to violence, including murder, and that’s how oppression works. We end up consenting.
But resistance does happen, somehow. Despite everything people WILL insist on their humanity.
Here is “tank-man”. I love this. We still don’t know this man’s name, we don’t know if he’s alive, but he did this.
[Male voice from audience: ] No, he was killed.
[Lierre Keith:] He was killed?
[Male voice from audience mumbles something in agreement]
[Lierre Keith:] They’re pretty sure he was killed? ‘Cause he WAS pulled out of the street but they don’t know whether it was by police or whether it was by other citizens who were trying to save him ’cause they were like, “he’s going to get murdered” and so they dragged him out, yeah…
[Man in audience mumbles:] …killed.
[Lierre Keith:]…killed, yeah. It’s a big mystery, we’re not quite sure what happened to him in the end but he said “over my dead body”, that’s quite clear. And frankly that’s what we all need to be doing, right? In one way or another.
The final difference is the approach to justice. With power being invisible on the liberal side, justice is therefore served by adhering to these moral principles that are abstract.
For radicals justice cannot be blind. Domination will only be dismantled by taking away the rights of the powerful and redistributing those rights to the rest of us. So you’re going to have to name the harm and then think up a specific redress and then go ahead and do it.
By having it be blind it means that you’re really only supporting the powers that be that are already in place.
One really great example of this is: there’s a famous sex discrimination case, it was a class action case against Sears and Roebuck. Women came forward, had a whole bunch of stories about how they were being denied promotions, and whatnot, at Sears. This was heard by a federal court. One of the problems was that women weren’t getting maternity leave. They were being discriminated against ’cause they don’t have maternity leave.
The court denied all their claims. For women, this is a huge loss. WalMart is doing the same thing now. It has not changed in 30 years.
The part that gets you always is the federal judge then says, “This is not discrimination against women because if men got pregnant too, they also would not have maternity leave.” This is a federal judge. You could not find a more abstract principle. “If men got pregnant…” Men DON’T get pregnant, that’s the point! That’s WHY it’s discrimination against women.
So here we’ve been using these words like “oppression”. We haven’t defined this yet.
If you did your reading you will have come across Marilyn Frye. [Oppression is] “…a system of interrelated forces and barriers which reduce, immobilize and mold people who belong to a certain group, and effect their subordination to another group.” Now that is radicalism in one elegant sentence. Oppression is not an attitude, it’s about a system of power. And one of the harms of that system is that is creates subordination in that group. It creates that consent in the oppressed.
The image that she uses is the birdcage. If you are a liberal you’re only going to see random bars. They’re not connected into that interrelated set, right? What keeps that bird in that cage is the fact that all those bars work together. It’s the interrelated forces and barriers. So if you’re a liberal, why is that bird in that cage? Oh I don’t know, there’s nothing keeping that bird in that cage. You don’t see the forces and barriers. It either has to be voluntary, “the bird wants to be in that cage”, or it’s natural, “well it’s just in that bird’s nature to be in that cage”.
We’ve got another word here we should talk about which is “subordination”. We’ve got some very smart people who’ve come before us.
This is Andrea Dworkin, Four Elements of Subordination:
Hierarchy: group on top, group on the bottom. Of course the people on the bottom have a lot fewer rights, resources, blah, blah.
Objectification: some human beings are seen as less than human. In whatever way they are used as objects, they are bought and sold as objects, it’s appropriate to treat them as objects.
Submission: so here we go again. You have to submit in order to survive. And this is always the rock and the hard place that you’re up against when you are being oppressed.
You are objectified and because you then have to submit that’s used as proof that you in fact deserved that oppression or you’re somehow made for that oppression, it doesn’t hurt you when you’re oppressed. But in fact it’s really just the only option you’ve got, if essentially, you don’t want to die.
Finally there’s violence: of course committed by the people on top against the people on the bottom. It’s totally natural, in fact, they have a right to do it. It’s when people start fighting up from the bottom that you’ve got trouble.
All 4 of these elements work together to create this hermetically sealed world, psychologically and politically. Where oppression is normalized and is almost as necessary as air for the whole society to function.
Coming to political consciousness is not a painless task. To overcome that denial, the accommodation, the consent, it means facing the everyday normative cruelty
of the society in which you live, in which millions of people are participating in this.
A lot of them get direct benefits from it, others of them get benefits as bystanders. It’s really hard to face that. It’s also really hard to face your own collusion in your own oppression. It’s not a fun moment.
A friend of mine remembers the first person in her family who ever went to college grew up in really extreme poverty and her first year in college she kind of had a mental breakdown and it was over this one sentence:
She said, “I realized there were rich people and there were poor people and there was a relationship between the two”.
That whole year was just coming to grips with that.
Knowledge of oppression starts from some kind of baseline recognition that subordination is always wrong, that oppression always hurts real people, and that we can do something about it. I would submit that knowledge, and the skills that we acquire in analyzing the situation that we’re in can be emotionally freeing, certainly intellectually freeing and ultimately spiritually freeing. It can give us the kind of courage we need to go forward, so, we gotta do it.
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