Oppression isn’t magical. The diminishment of human rights is a direct result of prejudice, fear, misunderstanding, and ultimately the individual choices of real people. One lesson of the last century is that movements and campaigns to fight oppression work. Basic rights and liberties have expanded for multiple groups, and there is every reason to think that the progress made thus far continues to empower and instruct citizens to usher in a new era of political equality and widespread recognition of human dignity and universal human rights.
There are many solutions and strategies to combat each of the elements described above, but undergirding the fight against oppression in all its forms is the shared vision of achieving a decent society in which the fundamental rights of individuals are acknowledged and protected. Decency doesn’t mean that everyone in a society is happy or friendly with one another. It simply means that everyone is acknowledged as equally human and deserving of the basic care and treatment that comes with the recognition of fundamental human dignity.
In this context dignity refers to a person’s fundamental right to have rights. Dignity recognizes the innate value of every human; recognizing that each individual embodies profound potential and experiences the full range of human emotions and needs.
This conception of dignity is at the heart of our fight against systemic oppression, and is expressed explicitly in the first line of the UN Declaration of Human Rights:
[The] “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world[.]“
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What’s the difference between being offended and being oppressed?
A. People take offense to many things, including personal insults, perceived rudeness, and differences of opinion on political issues. There are many things that are potentially offensive that are not oppressive. Oppression occurs when people in power limit the ability of others to fulfill their fundamental needs, which include safety, autonomy, connection to others, and the freedom to pursue personal and professional fulfillment. Oppression is offensive, but not everything that is offensive is oppression.
Q. Does oppression occur if the cultural/psychological elements are present but the material elements are not?
A. There are many ways to define oppression, but according to this model, oppression is only present when the material elements are present. The cultural/psychological elements are used to rationalize and obscure the cruelty and immorality involved.
Q. Can oppression occur without the psychological/cultural elements being present?
A. Yes. Our global economic system is huge and complicated, and people regularly support companies and political regimes through their spending or investments. Some of these companies and political regimes implement policies that directly violate human rights and/or harm the environment in ways that lead to widespread suffering. But consumers and investors often have no idea that these abuses are happening, and thus they support oppression while harboring no bigotry and maintaining no distorting mythologies of the people suffering.
Q. How does this model of systemic oppression relate to issues of privilege?
A. Members of dominant group are privileged to be able to pursue their own needs (safety, autonomy, connection, prosperity) without having to navigate systemic obstacles such as housing segregation, job discrimination, or needing to battle against entrenched negative strereotypes and mythologies. This doesn’t mean that individuals in a dominant group won’t have other obstacles or that they will be treated fairly. It just means that the obstacles and injustices they face will not be systemic, and thus they are privileged by comparison.
Q. How does this model of systemic oppression relate to issues of identity?
A. Systemic oppression is an exercise in labeling and classifying individuals into different tiers of citizenship with differing levels of access to rights and protections. People in the dominant group often struggle to recognize the power and privilege of their identity (often because they don’t feel more powerful or more privileged than other people in their day to day lives.) People in the targeted groups must endure negative stereotypes and mythologies in addition to discriminatory policies. Practices that dissect these lies and distortions help to empower the targeted group and can create a cooperative movement to work towards a more humane social and political vision.