What is Oppression?
According to Google’s dictionary oppression is “prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or exercise of authority”. It requires several things.
Power and Prejudice
The people of the world are organised into groups. There are all sorts of groups which are there for all sorts of reasons. Some groups are huge, and some are tiny. Some groups have lots of power and some have little or none. Big groups usually have more power than small groups, but some small groups wield large amounts of power. For instance, the richest eight men in the world own half of the world’s wealth. Think about that for a moment and you will see this gives them a huge amount of power. For oppression to happen there must be a powerful, dominant or “agent group” who are more privileged than a less powerful or marginalised “target group”. Remember those two terms; they come up a lot when discussing oppression.
Oppression is all about two things: power and prejudice. What this means is that if you don’t fit into the views or beliefs of a powerful agent group then you may become a target for oppression. It doesn’t mean that you will be oppressed, just that you are more likely to be. It depends on the beliefs of the agent group.
For instance, in North America and Europe white men make up the biggest agent group. They hold the most power. If, for some strange reason, white men suddenly decided that women with blonde hair were all evil women who had too much power and money, then women with blonde hair would become a target group. Often oppression will start out with individuals or small, localised groups from the agent group bullying individuals from the target group. Blonde women would suffer more abuse and violence. If the white men got away with it, similar minded people in other places would start bullying individuals from the blonde women target group in their area, and gradually it would escalate. The mindset which makes this happen is called prejudice. Usually there is no real evidence to cause prejudice, and prejudice is what causes oppression. If enough people in the society at large, either willingly or unwillingly, allow the white male agent group to get away with this oppression then it can lead to society as a whole oppressing the target group. Governments may then pass laws which, for instance, ban blonde women from getting jobs. This is an example of “institutional oppression”. If a blonde woman wants to get a job she will have to pretend that she isn’t blonde and dye her hair brown. She then has to live with the fear of being found out and she knows that bad things will happen to her if that happens. That is part of oppression. If the white men at her work realise that she is blonde she will be sacked. Losing her job and having to live in poverty would be another part of the oppression against blonde women. To stop blonde women pretending to be brunettes the government would pass laws to send them to prison. (If you think this example is silly then substitute Jews for blonde women and this is exactly what happened in Nazi Germany in the nineteen thirties and forties).
Most of the time , in democratic countries, governments accept that not everyone will agree with them and they agree to disagree. The group or party that gets the most votes at election time will form a government and the smaller groups or parties, who got fewer votes, form the opposition. It is accepted that at the next election it may be the smaller parties will get more votes and can form the government. This process tends to stop too many extreme views getting power. The problem is that if people’s views become more extreme there is a danger that the parties they vote for will take on board oppressive policies and make laws which are oppressive. By the time people realise what has happened the ruling party or its supporters have become prepared to use violence, or the threat of violence to help them gain more power. They often target distinct racial or religious groups and blame them for society’s problems. They rule by making anyone who doesn’t agree with them afraid. This is how the Nazis took power in Germany in the 1930’s.
Ism and Phobia
Ism is now a word, not just a suffix, but when talking about oppression it is usually added on to the end of a word which means a way of thinking that puts one group of people above another. Sexism usually regards men as more privileged than women, and fascism regards one race or religion as superior to another. There are many different isms. There is a less common alternative to ism and that is phobia. Phobias, when talking about oppression, are often linked to a religious or moral view that something is immoral or unclean or contrary to the religion’s teaching. Homophobia, the fear or hatred of homosexual people, is one of the best known of these.
By taking one or two attributes of a person and applying them to a whole group you form a stereotype. Currently in Britain there is an awful stereotype which portrays all Muslims as terrorists. This is despite the fact that there are around two and a half million people who identify as Muslim in the UK, most of whom believe that Islam and terrorism are totally incompatible.
The rise of the right
Writing at the beginning of 2019 many countries are seeing a rise in the number of people voting for right wing populist parties or policies. They claim to represent the will of the people. Usually they have racist and sexist views, and they find target groups who they blame for all the problems in society. The target group may be a cultural elite or an ethnic or religious minority. It may be immigrants, migrant workers or refugees, or people they see as sick, such as disabled people or LGBTQ+1 people. Or it may be women who they think are getting too much power, or any combination of these groups. Where people belong to more than one target group this is called intersectionality, and intersectional groups are more likely to be on the receiving end of oppression. So, in the UK, a Muslim disabled woman is more likely to be on the receiving end of one form of oppression or other than a white disabled man.
What agent groups want to do with the target group depends on the particular agent group in question. It may range from verbal and physical assault to imprisonment, enforced medical treatment, or even extermination. In Nazi Germany, Hitler’s National Socialist party’s ultimate aim was to exterminate anyone who was not of “pure blood” or “Arian” as they called themselves. They started by murdering Jews, Roma2 people, mentally and physically disabled people and LGBTQ+ people. They were only stopped by an alliance of British and American forces in World War Two.
Groups who have similar aims to the Nazis have been gaining power in Poland, Germany, France and Brazil to name only a few. In the UK, over the past forty years, the main political parties have shifted steadily to the right in order to try and attract votes from the people who might have voted for such parties as the British National Party (a neo-Nazi party which came to a sudden end due to corruption and bad financial management). In 2016, in an attempt to stop the rise of the new right wing, the British government banned National Action, which had become known for its violence towards Muslims and LGBTQ+ people. The UK government defined them as a terrorist organisation, thus making it illegal to belong to it.
All these groups in different countries and at different times have oppressed people they did not like. They use methods from just making life a bit more difficult and unpleasant for the target group to torturing and killing them.
I should say that left wing agent groups in numerous countries have also used similar tactics to right wing groups as a way of keeping themselves in power, particularly governments run by dictatorships under the name of Communism. Most of them have or had little to do with the aims of Communism put forward by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who thought up communism in the 19th century.
Oppression is a word that is often misused. In some cases oppression is so ingrained in society that the majority of people do not even realise it is going on, whilst at the other end of the spectrum some people feel they are being oppressed if anyone disagrees with them. So let me finish with my opinion of what oppression is and isn’t.
Oppression is not
- Someone who hates you
- Someone with different views and opinions to you
- Someone who hates you using that hatred as a reason to do you harm or persuade others to harm you
- Someone with different views or opinions using that as a reason to do you harm or persuade others to do you harm
1 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer plus any other people who regard themselves as not being heterosexual.
2 Better known in the UK by the derogatory name of gypsies