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Obsessed with Oppression


Oppression is simultaneously deeply personal and broadly social. Take, for example, American racial slavery. Who would contend that slaves were not oppressed?

At the same time, we may speak about individual slaves experiencing their oppression rather differently. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes to mind, being a novel that expresses both personal responses to slavery and demonstrates the injustice of the institution itself. What has happened to our understanding today? How does it differ from the dual treatment given by the novel?

A definition is not a bad place to start. Merriam-Webster defines “oppression” as “unjust or cruel exercise of authority.” Authority is not merely governmental. The notion of “patriarchy” (and related power structures) allows the extension of oppression to everyday occurrence, hence the increasingly popular Theory of Microaggression. Holding a door, using a metaphor implicating the disabled, or otherwise demonstrating power through language or action, is now fair game. Activists claim to find these injustices on college campuses, on public transit, and in everyday interactions.

It seems the connotation of “oppression” has shifted from the social to the personal. If you feel oppressed or uncomfortable, then you're oppressed. The detachment of oppression from governmental or socio-political authority has left the concept disembodied and open to easy claim. Social forces might lead some to extremes, but not every social taboo is oppressive in the strictest sense. This disembodiment presents a problem, primarily in terms of where we can draw the line. When the use of a term like “lame” or “crippled,” even in a metaphorical context, is oppressive, I can’t help but ask whether we’re broadening the term so as to make it meaningless.

On a personal note, I am an English doctoral student. I work in literature. To deprive authors of their ability to speak in certain terms to make certain points is to deprive man of his artistic potential, to limit how he can talk about the world. To assume that whenever a man holds the door open for a woman he has a sexual expectation is to read his mind. He might (and he’d be wrong), but no one can know that unless he did something more direct. And in that lies the problem. If he were to approach a woman, enter her personal space, and impose himself upon her because he thinks society entitles him to a woman, then we may talk about transgression (and injustice), but is that the same thing as oppression? That would depend on context, but is not a given.

I think claiming oppression in an overly-personal way has cheapened its usefulness and limited how we can talk about the world. It has forced a combination of oppression and discomfort, and it serves no one: liberal, conservative, or otherwise.


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