How to Tell Whether You Are Being Oppressed

Imagine that you’re faced with a problem, and some other agent X is involved in, or at least adjacent to, that problem. You suspect that X is oppressing you. How can you be sure?

Consider the following criterion:

If reality were altered such that X did not exist, and never had existed, would I still have the same problem?

If your answer is “Yes, I would still have this problem,” then consider the possibility that X is not actually oppressing you, but simply failing to serve your goals.  Then ask yourself this:

Am I upset that X is not serving my goals?

If your answer is “Yes, I am upset that X is not serving my goals”, then consider the possibility that you are the oppressor.



6 thoughts on “How to Tell Whether You Are Being Oppressed

  1. unknot says:

    I think at the very least this test requires careful thought about what we mean by “if X did not exist”. If X is a person, are we imagining a situation in which there’s one fewer person in the world, or one where X is replaced by another person who has no role in the problem (so there’s one fewer person involved in the problem), or one where X’s position relative to the problem is taken by someone else, who might potentially be friendlier toward my goals?

    Regardless of how that’s resolved, I can’t see how the test would distinguish between “My boss fired me because of my race/gender/orientation/etc.” which I see as an archetypal example of oppression, and “My boss fired me because I did a shitty job” which I think no one would consider to be oppression.


    • It’s not meant to be an exhaustive criterion, despite the post title, just a perspective check. The intuition behind it, for me, is something like ‘if this person died, or was put on the opposite side of the Berlin Wall, or shifted into a parallel universe, what then?’

      One concrete example: Y feels oppressed because X won’t go out with Y. Is Y oppressed? No. Y is displaying a sense of entitlement. Nobody owes Y a relationship.

      I don’t think “my boss fired me because of my race/gender/orientation/etc.” is an archetypal example of oppression. Under my own ethics, I don’t think it’s properly classified as oppression at all–it’s shitty behavior of a different kind. The critical distinction, to me, is the nature of the interaction: getting fired is being denied a connection; oppression is having a connection forced on you. Even if you classify it as oppression, I don’t think it’s archetypal: not comparable to living in a police state, or being extorted by a criminal gang, or being imprisoned in an abusive relationship.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. unknot says:

    Point taken: I don’t mean to suggest that being fired is comparable to the forms of oppression you mention. Perhaps a better example would be imprisonment because of race etc. versus imprisonment because you’ve committed a horrible crime. But the reason I was thinking about employment discrimination is exactly that it seems to cause problems for forced-connections-vs.-refused-connections as a test. If a group you belong to is discriminated against to the extent that no employer will hire you, and you don’t have access to sufficient community or government support, then you may die of malnutrition or preventable illness. The problem in this case consists only of people refusing to make connections –no one is actively doing anything to hurt you– but its effects can be as severe as those caused by police brutality or any other form of oppression.


    • Imprisonment is an obvious example of oppression, though! Sometimes society sanctions oppressive relations; sometimes that kind of oppression is even just (maybe).

      As for the latter case, I don’t know of a good theory that bridges the chasm between individual justice (where I think free association is an important fundamental right*) and global justice (universal behaviors like you describe). I don’t pretend to have one. The usual libertarian response, I think, is to claim that universal behaviors like that are only made possible by central coordination (eg Jim Crow laws), which kicks it back toward an obvious case of oppression. I think there’s some truth to that, but it’s not the whole story. Local-to-global problems are very hard.

      In my defense, I’ll note that I formulated the criteria locally: you vs. an agent X. Institutional/intersectional issues are harder.

      *: I don’t actually believe in fundamental rights, at least not as anything more than useful heuristic norms. But I think free association is a very useful heuristic norm.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Local and Global and the Terrible Telescope, Part 1 | Carcinisation

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