Sunday, November 11, 2007

Robert Jensen on Oppression

How do we explain the fact that most people's stated philosophical and theological systems are rooted in concepts of justice, equality, and the inherent dignity of all people, yet we allow violence, exploitation, and oppression to flourish? Only a small percentage of people in any given society are truly sociopaths, engaging in cruel and oppressive behavior openly and with relish. Feminism helped me understand the complex process, which tends to work like this:

--The systems and structures in which we live are hierarchical.
--Hierarchical systems and structures deliver to those in the dominant class certain privileges, pleasures, and material benefits.
--People are typically hesitant to give up such privileges, pleasures, and benefits.
--But, those benefits clearly come at the expense of those in the subordinated class.
--Given the widespread acceptance of basic notions of equality and human rights, the existence of hierarchy has to be justified in some way other than crass self-interest.
--One of the most persuasive arguments for systems of domination and subordination is that they are "natural."

So, oppressive systems work hard to make it appear that the hierarchy -- and the disparity in power and resources that flow from hierarchy -- is natural and, therefore, beyond modification. If men are naturally smarter and stronger than women, then patriarchy is inevitable and justifiable. If white people are naturally smarter and more virtuous than people of color, then white supremacy is inevitable and justifiable. If rich people are naturally smarter and harder working than poor people, then economic injustice is inevitable and justifiable. And, if human beings have special status in the universe, justified either on theological or biological grounds, then humans' right to extract from the rest of Creation whatever they like is inevitable and justifiable.

For unjust hierarchies, and the illegitimate authority that is exercised in them, maintaining their own naturalness is essential. Not surprisingly, people in the dominant class exercising the power gravitate easily to such a view. And because of their power to control key story-telling institutions (especially education and mass communication), those in the dominant class can fashion a story about the world that leads some portion of the people in the subordinate class to internalize the ideology.

For me, feminism gave me a way to see through not only male dominance, but all the systems of illegitimate authority. I saw the fundamental strategy they held in common, and saw that if we could more into a space in which we were true to our stated ideals, we would reject those systems as anti-human. All these systems cause suffering beyond the telling. All of them must be resisted. The connections between them must be understood.

I thought this was a brilliantly succinct summary of how systems of oppression, dominance, and hegemony maintain themselves. He is also very good at connecting different forms of oppression, showing how they are all interrelated... racism, patriarchy, capitalism, and this ecological nightmare. Read the rest of "King of the Hill"

Also, on white privilege, read Jensen's comment on this blog post


godammitkitty said...

That was excellent--thanks!

Dark Daughta said...

I followed the link to the blog post on white supremacy and had to come right back.

I think this is linked to the comment you left on my blog about the ways that those who understand themselves as political categorize useful information.

As I've written repeatedly, one expression of hierarchy which often goes uncritiqued is the idea that people who have gone through the corporate complex known as academia are uniquely positioned to give insights on all matter of issues including oppression and hierarchy.

Sadly their positioning as thinkers who reference the money they've paid and the status they expect to be offered via the typing of letters after their names, locates them inside an old hierchical stronghold which many, even those who critique oppression fail to question or disturb.

One possible way of disturbing this dynamic would be by offering authoritative voices of people who don't necessarily have letters after their names or who don't court elite status by always putting the letters after their names.

doug newton said...

"because of their power to control key story-telling institutions (especially education and mass communication), those in the dominant class can fashion a story about the world that leads some portion of the people in the subordinate class to internalize the ideology. "
I don't believe that educational institutions and mass communications are touting white male domination and haven't for quite some time now.
When my two sons find themselves disadvantaged by affirmative action programs I could say they are victims of systems of oppression, dominance, and hegemony maintaining themselves. I don't though, I just tell them to suck it up and get on with it.
Any good capitalist will exploit the best workers without regard for race or gender

benjibopper said...

agreed, this is a fantastic summary.

Chet Scoville said...

Yes, that's a very elegant summation of how ideologies work.