A Few Words about Oppression

A Few Words about Oppression October 24, 2012

A Few Words about Oppression

So, for the last week, we’ve been talking here about feminism. I want to thank all those who have contributed in constructive ways. We need more spaces where people concerned about oppression in society can discuss their different perspectives without rancor or dismissiveness.

We’ve discovered that there is no universal agreement or even consensus about exactly what that word means. Perhaps we should talk about “feminisms,” rather than “feminism” as if that is a monolithic movement. I would have no problem identifying myself as a feminist if I had time (in a given context where it comes up) to explain what I mean by it.

Early on in this discussion thread someone suggested I read bell hooks, which I have been doing (Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, Second Edition, 2000). Without taking anything away from her prophetic pronouncements against sexism, I have to note that she harshly criticizing much of the mainstream feminist movement for promoting “war between the sexes.” (p. 35) She rejects what she sees as the attitude of many (and she calls them) “radical feminists” who argued that “all men are the enemies of all women.” (p. 34) Note, bell hooks, a leading feminist theorist, is the one who says these things, not just I.

I hope I have made clear that, in my opinion, sexism is one form, one of the worst forms, of oppression in human existence but not the only form. Oppression (again, as defined by hooks) is the robbing of choices. Anyone can be a victim of oppression. True, women have been and still are much more often and on a wider scale victims of oppression based on gender than men. We have far to go to abolish such sexist oppression of women.

In my opinion, however, two (maybe three) things need to be added to this discussion. First, oppression is a manifestation of dominating hierarchy, of what Walter Wink calls the “domination system,” and not only of so-called patriarchy (which I define as men dominating both men and women). Men can be and often are victims of dominating hierarchies. Many men are powerless, subjugated, robbed of choices by virtue of class, for example, being born into generational poverty. We need to look at humans, not just persons of color or persons of a particular gender, as victims of dominating hierarchy. The enemy is dominating hierarchy, not a gender or race per se.

Second, there is oppression of neglect, not only oppression of active subjugation. In the beginning of white-Native American relations, for example, the problem was genocide. The oppressive results of that are still pervasive but especially in terms of not-so-benign neglect. Native Americans herded onto reservations (little more than concentration camps in some cases) were left to rot, so to speak, often on the poorest land possible. When they dared to protest or leave the reservations white people (not all, many) killed them. (Russell Means, founder of the American Indian Movement just died; he was a fellow South Dakotan when I was growing up and almost universally despised by white South Dakotans and others. Now many enlightened people would consider him almost a Martin Luther King, Jr. of Native Americans.) The oppression of Native Americans now is mostly that of neglect. That doesn’t lessen its impact; it’s just not obvious, visible killing. But two “Wounded Knees” get too much attention and the ongoing neglect of Native Americans too little.

People opposed to oppression need to recognize and struggle against all forms of oppression and not just that which affects them and their kind. Some feminists argue that sexism is the most pervasive and fundamental form of oppression. Some African-Americans argue that racism is that. Others argue that oppression against Native Americans tops them all. It’s fair for an individual or group to take up the cause of a particular oppressed group, but it isn’t right or fair-minded to claim that cause is the only one worthy of attention and resistance.

Also, and perhaps this is a third point, there is what I call “macro-oppression” and there is what I call “micro-oppression.” For example, racism is macro-oppression. It’s worldwide and deeply rooted. The same is true of sexism. These deserve the most attention and resistance to correct them, to overcome them. However, there is also the neglect of boys in education in many places in the U.S. So much attention has been focused on helping girls rise above the limitations imposed on them by sexism that now boys are being neglected (oppression of neglect) and are falling far behind girls at all levels of education and dropping out of high school and college at record rates. Closely tied to that is a rise in suicide rates among boys and young men. This is “micro-oppression.” It’s limited to a particular context (for the most part, anyway)—education (including non-profit organizations that focus on youth empowerment most of which are dedicated to girls). One can and should fight macro-oppression while fighting micro-oppression, too. It’s not an either-or. Micro-oppression can grow and have devastating results before it’s recognized unless people with influence raise their voices about it and bring about change.

When George W. Bush was first elected president a female network television interviewer interviewed Laura Bush. As I recall it was the first network television interview of the new First Lady. The interviewer asked Mrs. Bush what charitable cause she would champion. She said “boys.” The female interviewer gave Mrs. Bush a very sour, skeptical look and asked “Why?” in a voice barely hiding ridicule. Mrs. Bush said “Because boys are in trouble in this country.” The interviewer didn’t follow up but hurried to a different topic. I suspect that public skepticism about the issue resulted in Mrs. Bush dropping her chosen cause.

I make no claim that boys or young men are victims of macro-oppression in the same way women have been and still largely are. However, the fact that sexism against women is still a huge problem does nothing to justify the near total silence of both women and men of influence and power about the plight of boys and young men under neglect.

The same can be said about men’s health. The U.S. government hosts an Office of Women’s Health but not one of men’s health. Various arguments are used to justify that, but none answer the overriding issue that, on average, men die younger than women. We hear all the time (e.g., from the American Heart Association) that heart disease is the number one killer of women, but most people fail to recognize that most of those deaths are of elderly women dying of heart failure. And there are more women than men—especially in the upper ages. Without any doubt more younger men are disabled by and die from heart attacks than women. And that is not just a result of bad lifestyles (smoking, over eating, etc.). Even in populations known for healthy habits (Seventh-Day Adventists, for example) men die younger than women and have heart attacks at younger ages than women. And yet very little is being done about men’s health as a public health issue. It is a case of not-so-benign neglect. Feminists rightly focused attention on women’s health, but in the process, perhaps unintentionally, brought about a neglect of men’s health by public health organizations. The result is that men who are concerned about their health find very little research being done to help prevent or cure diseases unique to or more common among men. Fund raising for a disease must find a way to relate it to females to be successful (e.g., by redefining the disease to include females and by using female “poster people” even if the disease or disability mainly affects males).

Are these issues as “big” as racism and sexism? Nobody is saying that. What we are saying is that it would be right and helpful if people with influence and power (e.g., in government and media) would spread the attention of neglect resulting in loss of choices (the definition of oppression) around to include males—not all of who are sexist oppressors or even beneficiaries of “male privilege.”

But, as we have witnessed here, for some people with particular causes to defend, to even mention any form of oppression than the one they are dedicated to defeating is to be labeled by them an enemy. There’s no justification for that. Oppression, including neglect, is a human problem not unique to women or African-Americans or Native Americans or any particular group. Yes, without doubt, the forms of oppression that have harmed them have been the worst, but they are not the only ones. To attempt to silence the voices of any group who is neglected to their detriment by society is to participate in their oppression.

When women first began to complain about sexism in society they were pooh-poohed and told they had it better than men because they didn’t have to “worry their little heads” about big issues like money and war and politics. They rightly rose up in protest against such paternalism and belittling of their very identity and rights as human beings and as women. Now, some women (and men) are doing the same to people who dare to mention that some boys and men are, in some ways, neglected by society to their detriment. I have only mentioned a few ways; many more could be mentioned such as the fact that most courts of law still favor women in child custody cases regardless of who would make the best custodial parent. Men are being packed into prisons by the millions for extended sentences not as often given to women for similar offenses. Men who suffer physical abuse at the hands of women (mothers, wives, girlfriends) or men (fathers, partners, school peers) get little to no support or protection from government or non-profit agencies dedicated to protecting victims of abuse.

Well, this is my blog, and I’m not going to post messages to it that simply sweep away these concerns as invalid. (Constructive responses, even ones that disagree, are welcome.) They are valid issues even if they are not as “big” as other ones. Human beings are human beings first and foremost, males and females, whites and African-Americans, citizens and immigrants, etc., second. Everyone suffering any kind of oppression (having his or her choices limited or taken away without just cause) deserves sympathy and support. As one woman pastor I know says several times in every sermon (much to everyone’s delight) “That’s all I’m sayin’.”

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