A Dilemma for Oppression theorists


A Dilemma for the Oppression Theorist

Oppression Theory is the theory that differences between groups of people in wealth, power, influence – generally, the good things in life – are due to one group of people oppressing another. Marxists, Feminists, Critical Race-Theorists tend to be Oppression theorists in this sense. An alternative view is what I would call “Eclecticism”. This is the view that differences in the good things in life among different groups can be due to various causes, not excluding oppression of course. For example, we have a society in which the good things in life are not in abundance because the members of that society spend too much time playing golf rather than making things or healing the sick. Let’s call this group “the Golfers”. Now in saying this about the Golfers I am saying that they are to a large extent the authors of their own misfortune. This, of course, is a criticism. Enter the Oppression Theorist. She will reason as follows: criticizing a less-well-off group is harming that group; harming a less-well-off group is oppressing that group, preventing people from oppressing people is a good thing. So, she concludes, preventing someone from voicing the opinion about the Golfers just mentioned is a good thing. Generalizing from this, she concludes that preventing Eclecticism from being voiced at all is a good thing. And, voila, you have the phenomenon known as “Political Correctness”. It is just one step from there to Middlebury College.

“So what is the problem?”, our Oppression Theorist asks. One problem is that Oppression theorists claim to know that Oppression Theory is the correct view. After all, if they just opine that it is true, then (one would think) they will have to allow that others may opine differently. But what is it to know something? To know that something is true is to be able to rationally rule out alternatives. Thus, I do not know that the sincere-sounding offer to fly me and my family for a month to Tahiti for free that I just received over email is genuine because I cannot rationally rule out the possibility that it is a sham. And so it is with knowledge of the truth of Oppression Theory: to have this knowledge one must be able to rationally rule out its competitor, Eclecticism. And for that to happen, Eclecticism has to be voiced and discussed. But that is just what the Oppression Theorist cannot allow! This is the dilemma for the Oppression Theorist.


Tom Vinci

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One Response to A Dilemma for Oppression theorists

  1. Chris Lyon says:

    Given the date I suspect this was probably largely spurred by the Middlebury College incident and as such, a) it is more of a critical reaction to that than a rigorously worked-out critique of ‘oppression theory’, and b) I am now a bit late to comment. Nevertheless, I think this is a debate that will continue to surface, so a few quick thoughts:

    In a general sense I think this accurately highlights an important quandary, namely between the ‘good’ of free speech and the healthy exchange of competing views, and the ‘bad’ of potentially encouraging the further entrenchment and legitimisation of ideas and narratives that (one believes) contribute causally to injustices in society. Where should the balance be found, and what form should opposition take in various different cases? These are certainly hard questions, and, doubtless, people sometimes respond in ways that seem questionable to many others.

    More specifically, though, there is quite a bit to disagree with here in terms of how the theoretical tradition in question is presented and the views that are attributed to it. (By ‘oppression theory’ I assume is meant critical theorists of race, gender, class, etc., such as perhaps Iris Young or Charles Mills.)

    Firstly, it is a bit frivolous to suggest that the oppression theorist would jump in on behalf of ‘the Golfers’ and champion them against criticism. We can reasonably assume that oppression theorists have already considered and rejected the possibility that a putatively oppressed group is in fact simply a collection of feckless wastrels.

    More fundamentally, the Golfers are not an apposite analogy for any existing social group, and are not the sort of entity with which the oppression theorist is concerned. The example vacillates between the notion of a social group and the notion of a society. First the Golfers are introduced as a whole society, which chooses en masse to neglect productive activities in favour of golf. Clearly such a society would be ‘the author of its own misfortune’, assuming that we can say that this was a free choice simply arising from knowing and wilful idleness. However, the Golfers then become a ‘group’ for the purposes of supposing what the oppression theorist might say.

    This is an important difference because theories of oppression, inequality, etc. are relational; they are to do with the comparative position of, and, more strongly, the interaction between, different groups within societies. The Golfers are not a ‘less-well-off’ group, they are an entire society all in more or less the same condition. They have (at least taking the example as read) no interactions with other societies or groups, and no relationship with the structures, institutions, and historical path-dependences of a larger overarching society.

    This last point is important since, for the theorists in question, these sorts of things are involved in ‘oppression’ as much as the more agential-sounding “one group of people oppressing another” (which puts one in mind of a big collection of nasty individuals who wake up each morning and consciously decide to persecute another group of individuals out of spite). One aspect of such supra-agent factors is the ideas, assumptions, representations, stereotypes and so on that are abroad and influential in public discourse. Insofar as these things have causal effects there is a case for considering whether opposition is merited, and if so, of what kind.

    This brings me back to my initial observation that it is clearly correct that this presents a question to be worked out. However, I don’t think that it is really a true ‘dilemma’, which would suggest some kind of irresolvable tension in the oppression theorist’s position – another uncharitable implication is that all (or most) such theorists believe that absolutely any opposing view should be shut down rather than debated. I don’t see any justification for that generalisation. In my experience, at least, it is more likely that activists would ask themselves, in response to a particular case, whether the relevant group’s interests are best served by exposing and debating objectionable or misinformed ideas, or whether it is a case where more harm is done by positively engaging with an idea. I personally would probably more often come down on the side of actively debating and hopefully debunking, but either way, it is unfair to suggest that, say, anti-racists or feminists take the blanket position caricatured in this post.

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