Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course


Part of the Problem: Talking about Systemic Oppression

Cartoon via Amptoons.com

Yesterday I shared the following quote with the face-to-face Philosophy 12 group:

Relationships between groups and relationships between groups and social categories, should not be confused with the oppressive behaviour of individuals. A white man may not himself actively participate in oppressive behaviour directed at blacks or women, for example, but he nonetheless benefits from the general oppression of black and women simply because he is a white man. In this sense, all members of dominant and subordinate categories participate in social oppression regardless of their individual attitudes or behaviour. Social oppression becomes institutionalized when its enforcement is so of social life that it is not easily identified as oppression and does not require conscious prejudice or overt acts of discrimination.

As we have recently begun to define the notion of Justice in class as the pursuit of a society that seeks to eliminate discrimination, the above definition provides a troubling circumstance to extricate ourselves from as a society, whether we find ourselves as part of the oppressor or oppressed class. A question resulting from our reading and discussion yesterday that deserves further reflection during our unit may be

Is it possible to benefit from the oppression of [racial minorities, other genders, classes, regions, religions] and not be deemed responsible for such oppression? If it is possible to be ‘innocent’ in such a case, under what conditions does such innocence exist?

These are difficult questions to confront, perhaps even moreso in an affluent suburb with many of the advantages that we enjoy here in North America. However, as events involving police brutality in the United States (something some would argue that we have little right to feel smug about in Canada), or recent revelations about CBC darling Jian Ghomeshi, or at Dalhousie University’s dental school may attest, we can be seen to exist within a violently oppressive culture.

This is a contentious point to make, I realize, and smacks something of the question of how does one convince a fish that it is swimming in water if it is all the fish has ever known? But I would hope that these recent events, and the provocative questions raised by reflecting on institutional oppression create a space to debate and discuss the ramifications of these realities, supposing we can accept that these are in fact realities.

To that end, do you (participant, commenter, or reader of this blog and post) feel that this is in fact a reality? Why or why not?

If you do see this/these events as part of a system of oppression and violence, how ought we proceed toward that “just” life? And is it possible for the beneficiaries of various forms of oppression to fight for not only their own innocence, but the equality and freedom from discrimination of all peoples?

For your further consideration, the original definition of institutional oppression comes from a  longer piece rebutting the contention that “not all men” are responsible for violent manifestations of the patriarchy, by Michael Laxer. You can read that article here.


6 Responses to Part of the Problem: Talking about Systemic Oppression

  1. Jess says:

    To that end, do you feel that this [oppression] is in fact a reality? Why or why not?

    I think that system of oppression that has been built into our society is a reality, if only because we see examples of it everyday. The concept of microaggressions is the best way to describe the issues that Michael Laxer discusses in his article, and it doubles as proof that the systemic oppression that so many people face is real. A while back, after the Isla Vista killings, the trend #YesAllWomen was popular on Twitter, and despite the fact that it’s faded from all thought and memory, I think that it remains relevant, if only because it’s so. incredibly. true.
    There are percentages of women who are victims of sexual assault and rape, and there are percentages for minorities who are imprisoned and the ratios between them and white criminals, but I think that, in this particular case, the only percentage that matters is that 100% of women have experienced some form of ‘minor’ sexual harassment. Be it a side comment or a catcall, the fact that all women are victims is something cannot be swept under the rug of bystanders and men who say that they are not part of the problem. To me, if (more than?) half of the population of the world is a victim of a crime, then that crime should not be allowed to continue.

    • bryanjack says:

      Thanks for this insight, Jess. One of the powerful aspects of opening a dialogue such as this is hearing the stories of people in oppressed communities. And even though we might be inclined to think of ‘oppression’ as something explicit and/or visible like rape, assault, or police brutality, the realization that 100% of women – as you point out: roughly HALF the population everywhere – experience gender discrimination in the form of micro-aggressions, pay inequality, and the threat of larger violence is an unsettling realization (to say the least).

      That said, how would you approach Jeff’s feeling that the “sentiment that you must either be a part of the solution or a part of the problem brings me to think of the phrase ‘you’re either with us, or against us,’ a phrase that only serves to invoke an instant emotional rather than rational thought”?

  2. jeff says:

    To that end, do you (participant, commenter, or reader of this blog and post) feel that this is in fact a reality? Why or why not?

    Oppression is a reality, but I don’t believe that by simply existing I am perpetuating it. There is definitely more persecution of blacks in the justice system and a lower chance for advancement in careers for women, but just because I am not part of an anti-racism rally, or am combating male dominance doesn’t mean that I’m an active contributor to this oppression. I recognize that as a male, I have access to opportunities that some women may not, but I don’t believe that I am a patriarch just because I do not take action. This sentiment that you must either be a part of the solution or a part of the problem brings me to think of the phrase “you’re either with us, or against us,” a phrase that only serves to invoke an instant emotional rather than rational thought. I believe that this notion that just because I am a male means I am automatically a patriarch if I don’t do anything about it is just this sentiment but rephrased. Just because I’m not an avid feminist doesn’t mean I’m contributing to the patriarchy.

  3. ktay says:

    If you do see this/these events as part of a system of oppression and violence, how ought we proceed toward that “just” life?

    In my opinion, these events are part of the system of oppression that has existed since the beginning of human history. Oppression and discrimination arises from differences, diversity, pride, prejudice and the inherent human notion that one’s race is superior to others. Oppression and discrimination will never be eradicated since it is part of our very human nature; to change or reverse these will involve huge sacrifices. Examples of these would be forcing everyone to be the same so that everyone will accept each other, which would involving oppression of the entire population in order for everyone to feel equal. This is extremely ironic, since oppression would be needed in order to eradicate discrimination.

    There are ways to reduce oppression and discrimination, such as education and encouragement of tolerance and/or acceptance. Education paves the road to open-mindedness, and encouragement would have a ripple effect on the general population. The “just” life can be fulfilled in some ways by having reduced discrimination and oppression, but it would not be fully achievable because to achieve it, we would have to change humanity itself.

  4. angelala says:

    I believe that oppression is a reality. Historically, humans have been discrimating others since forever, whether it’s by skin color, gender, beliefs, personalities, sexual orientation, etc. Frankly, discrimination is always based on a hierarchy.

    For example, on the racial hierarchy, whites are higher than Asians, who are higher than blacks (presumably), so whites dominate and are not subject to racism or discrimination in our society.

    (Possibly offensive onwards; no offense is intended)

    Oppression happens subconsciously. Personally, it’s scary to see a hooded man, but it’s scarier to see s hooded black man. Maybe employers are more hesitant to hire Israelis or Muslims out of fear of terrorism. People disregard or scorn homeless people because they’re ~dirty~ or uneducated. In reality, you have no idea what these people are like or have been through, yet, it’s hard to sympathize with them because you have not been through what they have. In short, it is very very difficult to treat people we supposedly fear or look down upon equally. There will always be people who are scared of Israelis, Muslims; or get an unidentifiable “iffy” feeling about speaking to or befriending blacks, poor, obese, homeless or LGBTQ people.

    Oppression can’t be helped as it heavily pushes out the “survival of the fittest” idea, which exists among all species – of course, humans are no exception. It’s to eat or be eaten.

    Yes, it is possible to benefit from indirect discrimination. When one group of oppression is rejected, you (the “white man”) are able to take their spot (say, for a university or a sports team). What the oppressed group does not get, you are able to receive. Along with this, there is a huge bystander effect that likely can never be fixed mixed into the equation. No, you are not directly discriminating others, and it is not your responsibility to protest for equality and the like, but without doing so, you are adding to the problem because you make it LOOK okay to discriminate others for your own benefit. The cycle needs to be put to an end before any goals can be achieved. However, because of human nature, it is hard to change, and even harder to want to let go of such benefits because we are all selfish by nature.

  5. jbaloc says:

    If you do see this/these events as part of a system of oppression and violence, how ought we proceed toward that “just” life?

    I feel like how our generation is proceeding is satisfactory toward that “just” life. I think, at least in Western civilization that due to globalization that cultures and races are being less and less as something relevant, and I think if course goes on track, we will meet “just” end of living as a society.


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