The purpose of this resource is to offer a conceptual vocabulary to understand systemic oppression and to aid in our ability to generate effective strategies to dismantle it.
Table of Contents:
I. Material/Physical Elements
- Separation and Segregation
- Stripping Away or Denying Key Resources and Protections
- Violence and Intimidation
- Murder and Elimination
II. Cultural/Psychological Elements
- Toxic Mythologies and Deep Narratives
- Scapegoating and Conspiracy Theories
- Caricature and Stereotypes
- Denial and Willful Ignorance
Comparing Conceptual Vocabulary Across Disciplines
Medieval time-travelers whisked through a cosmic wormhole to the 21st century would be amazed at the profound transformation of the world. Virtually every system of civilization has radically changed. They would marvel at electric lights and appliances, water filtration plants, sewer systems, effective medicine and vaccines, and a host of other hard-won technologies that have doubled the life expectancy of humans. Compared to the state of our species in every era up to this point, our time-travelers might happily conclude that humans have created a near-perfect world where everyone is free to pursue their own interests and goals, unburdened by poverty, disease, hunger, and violence.
Sadly, we’re not there yet. Famine, plague, and violence are still with us. We have the knowledge, the technologies, and the infrastructure to greatly minimize these threats, but we often fail to cooperate, to educate, and to look beyond our own immediate needs and interests to help others in need.
Given the incredible progress our species has made, it would be nice to feel that we are out of the Dark Ages, but a quick look at the vast scale of suffering and injustice in the world suggests otherwise.
Internationally, 79 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes and livelihoods by political persecution and warfare. To put that number into context, the entire population of the Roman Empire at its peak was around 65 million people, and the population of China (by far the most populous country in the world) in 1950 was around 42.5 million.
In the United States alone, there are over 2 million people incarcerated in a notoriously violent prison system. 20 percent of these prisoners are there for drug offenses. On the other side of the globe, authorities in western China have brutally repressed the Uighur ethnic group. Roughly one million UIghurs have been forced into concentration camps and have endured “surveillance, detention, and social re-engineering” and attempts to shrink the population through enforced birth control, including sterilization.
Our time travellers might infer that they have leapt into a particularly dark moment of history, only to discover that many see this as an era of peace in stark contrast to events in living memory including the Great Famine engineered by Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union (3.9 million deaths), the Holocaust perpetrated by Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party (14 million deaths) and the “Great Leap Forward” policies of Mao Zedong in Communist China, which killed up to 45 million people.
What is Systemic Oppression?
Oppression occurs when people with power limit the ability of others to fulfill their basic human needs. These needs include safety, autonomy, connection to others, and the freedom to pursue personal and professional fulfillment. Systemic oppression occurs when multiple parts of a community are constructed to disadvantage a targeted group for the material and psychological benefit of a dominant group. For the purpose of this guide, “oppression” will imply systemic oppression.
Oppression is ultimately concerned with generating and maintaining material benefits like money, land, and political power exclusively for the dominant group. Systems of oppression are often held together with psychological and cultural elements that rationalize and obscure the cruelty and immorality of denying these resources to others.
It’s important to recognize that in addition to material benefits, oppression fulfills psychological needs for the dominant group. Some people desire power over others. Some fear differences. Some seek a mythological vision of purity. Some construe life on Earth as a zero-sum battle between competing groups. Understanding these complex motivations and assumptions can help us engage in fruitful debate and meaningful civic action. We can dissect the mythologies and expose their ugliness and emptiness. We can replace these toxic belief systems with a more accurate vision of our common humanity that includes our shared needs and values. Ultimately, we can offer a path to a brighter future in which the dignity and value of every individual is reflected in our policies and institutions and we collectively strive to treat one another as we wish to be treated.
Systemic Oppression vs. Systemic Failure
Systemic failure occurs when a community attempts to solve a problem, but the system put in place doesn’t actually work very well. For example, a city with a small fleet of snow plows and road salt could be overwhelmed by a massive blizzard, making the streets impassable. This would likely be an inconvenience for some and a disaster for others, especially those who need urgent medical care. If everyone in the community suffers equally by this sort of calamity, it’s likely that it’s a case of Systemic Failure. When examining Systemic Failure, it’s important to assess if one group is suffering more than others. Is a health care system equally broken for everyone? Is a corrupt police department equally unreliable for everyone? Systemic oppression occurs when systems are designed and operated in a way that intentionally or unintentionally excludes a targeted group.
How to Dismantle Systemic Oppression
You can’t fix a car unless you understand how an engine works. Similarly, we can’t successfully address oppression until we understand the mechanisms involved. Oppression is neither inevitable nor magical. The diminishment of human rights is a direct result of self-interest, prejudice, fear, misunderstanding, and ultimately the individual choices of regular people. Once we recognize and understand the problem, we can learn to fight it effectively.
The first step to understanding oppression is to recognize that it is fuelled by the self-interest of people with power. Powerful people may choose to help others and work to reform the systems that they benefit from. But they are likely to support the status quo that protects their good fortune and privilege. They may also deny that oppression exists, they may believe that oppression is justified, or they may fear that a new system will put them in economic or physical danger. It is rare for people to willingly give up power and material benefits. Though some can be persuaded through moral arguments, it is more likely that powerful people will work to end oppression only when they believe it is in their self-interest to do so.
We must also understand that, unlike plague and famine, oppression is rooted in and sustained by human psychology and culture. This means every individual has to do the work to recognize the biases, lack of knowledge, and lapses in critical thinking that keep oppressive systems in place. This is challenging for everyone, but it can be especially difficult for people in the dominant group as they are less likely to see and feel the weight of oppressive policies.
Systems of oppression are complex. We struggle to access key information and to see how multiple economic, social, and environmental factors connect. Every community is a massive jigsaw puzzle and it’s hard to see how everything fits together. Understanding complexity is hard, but it is well within our capacity. We are aided greatly by good scholarship, reliable journalism, and transparency in business and government. Once we understand the pillars of power upholding oppressive systems, we can develop effective strategies to bring them down.
Ultimately, everyone will benefit from a more compassionate, equitable society, but to get there we have to do the hard work of understanding how oppression works, how to change the equation of self interest for people in power, and to create a better society in which violations of human rights are battled with the same energy and cooperation that drives our fight against disease and hunger.
This guide will offer ideas of how to address each element of oppression in turn. Because oppression is a complex problem, it will require a multitude of complex solutions. We can dismantle oppression by sustaining multiple strategies on multiple levels for a long period of time. It is common to feel overwhelmed and dispirited when one issue is addressed only to see a hundred more that require time and attention, but that’s the nature of fighting complex problems. Progress is possible, but the timeline is rarely as emotionally satisfying as we would like.
To keep ourselves aware of the value of our fight against oppression, we should celebrate the massive leaps forward that have occurred thanks to dedicated human rights activists throughout history. They helped bring about the abolish slavery, won women’s suffrage, and established the UN Declaration of Human Rights as a powerful tool of international politics and trade. There has also been a steady stream of progress that has slowly but steadily improved the lives of millions of people, including increased access to sanitation and quality health care, a slow expansion of educational opportunities, and numerous laws protecting workers. Being aware of progress is as important as being aware of oppression. If we don’t have hope that change is possible, fighting oppression can feel like a hollow effort.
Once oppression has taken root, it is hard to dislodge. Like a parasite, it becomes part of the society and grows stronger or weaker based on how much the society feeds it. Every society is different, but the parasite of oppression operates along well-worn patterns that we can analyze and disrupt. Like a team of doctors, we have many treatments to deal with the parasite, but it’s never clear which remedy will work most effectively, so our best bet is to move carefully, try them all, and continue to develop new ideas to meet the demands of the moment.
A Blueprint For Fighting Oppression
- Forge and foster a philosophical depth and universalist belief system (Ubuntu, Beloved Community, Satyagraha)
- Empower the oppressed and build resilience
- Strengthen community ties
- Create a culture of moral solidarity across lines traditionally dividing social groups
- Strengthen narratives of personal and social value
- Create a culture of “empowered suffering” in which sacrifices for the cause are recognized and imbued with meaning
- Diagram the nature of the oppressive system so people can both navigate it safety and generate effective strategies to dismantle it
- Weaken the pillars of power of the oppressor
- Weaken the system of belief that justifies or rationalizes oppression
- Weaken the financial incentives for continuing oppression
- Weaken the social incentives for continuing oppression
- Expose the scope and scale of oppression, especially to those who might otherwise never see it
- Strengthen the opposition within the oppressor’s political system
- Weaken the historical narratives and mythologies that justify or rationalize oppression
In general, the ideas to fight oppression will follow a general pattern:
- Ignorance must be replaced by knowledge.
- Foolishness and recklessness must be replaced by intelligence and critical thinking.
- Tribalism (where we only take care of an inner-circle of group members) must be replaced by universalism and rational altruism (which expands the moral obligations to our “circle of us” to include everyone).
- The mentality of dominance and the status afforded to dominant behaviors must be replaced by a different currency of status that values generosity and wisdom.
- The deeply-rooted desire for revenge must be replaced by demands for systems of justice that leave the community stronger, not weaker.
- The dehumanization and diminishment of people must be replaced by the recognition of universal human dignity.