The concept of oppression has been controversial but powerful in the history of political philosophy and is characterized differently by Marxists, liberals, feminists, and race theorists. As it is used today, “oppression” refers to a harm in which groups of persons are systematically and unfairly or unjustly constrained, burdened, or reduced by social forces. The concept is thus fundamentally normative but makes important descriptive claims that engage social-scientific explanations. The main controversies about oppression include how oppressive institutions arise, which groups are oppressed and why those groups, the main causes and harms of oppression, and the prospects for ending oppression.
The philosophy of oppression begins in the modern period with liberalism, which recognized the rights of individuals to freedom and justice. To modern liberal political theorists, “domination,” “tyranny,” and “oppression” were synonyms, connoting rule by an arbitrary or opposing will, resulting in violation of liberal political rights, economic deprivations, and physical brutality. They conceived oppression in individualistic terms, and its harms included being ruled by illegitimate governments and religious intolerance by the state. In the 19th century, the scope of liberal political rights broadened in the work of G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx and by works on women's rights and abolitionism. These theories posed a more social conception of oppression, where oppressor and oppressed may be related in a less politically formalized way. For Hegel, oppression was a failure to recognize the equal moral worth and dignity of another. Marxist, abolitionist, and feminist writers described oppressions of one social group by another (nongovernmental) social group.
Marx's historical materialism is the first attempt to scientifically explain the origin and maintenance of oppression. Marx understands oppression as causally based in the economic system of the epoch. Exploitation, a form of oppression, begins with division of labor and thus with the ability of one group to coercively appropriate the product of another's labor. In capitalism, the working class is systematically and materially disadvantaged through the organization of production, in which the capitalist class appropriates the surplus value of workers.
Contemporary discussions of oppression extend this analysis and provide different causal accounts of its origin and endurance in different oppressed groups. Three fairly standard conditions characterizing oppression can be summarized as follows:
The harm condition: A wrongful harm that comes out of an institutional practice
The coercion condition: Unjustified coercion or force that brings about the harm
The social group condition: Harm that is perpetrated on a social group
Condition 3 may seem to posit social collectives that exist over and above the individuals that make them up, which would raise ontological worries. Philosophers have shown how social groups can be constructed from individuals and the causes and effects of their actions.
Many accounts of oppression point out that when one social group is oppressed, another is typically raised up—materially, culturally, or psychologically. This extra boost to the nonoppressed has come to be known as “privilege” and can be stated as a fourth defining condition:
- 4. The privilege condition: Another social group that benefits from the institutional practice in Condition (1)
Recent theories have explored the significant psychological causes and effects of oppression. Some theorists of oppression use psychoanalysis to explain how individuals in certain social groups are motivated to be dominant or submissive, particularly gender groups and colonized national groups. Some contemporary thinkers theorize oppression as a problem arising from misrecognition, dehumanization, or failure of cultural respect. These theories share the core idea with Hegel that to be oppressed is fundamentally to be denied dignity or equal moral worth, either as individuals belonging to a social group or as a group as a whole.
Other theories are more concerned about the economic inequalities of oppression. Women's oppression on these theories is both an economic constraint and a psychologically degrading and distorting force. Theories of racial oppression have focused on dehumanization and invisibility as harms. Finally, Marxist and liberal political theorists, insofar as the latter treat aspects of oppression at all, tend to give primacy to the problems of economic distribution.
Another important development in recent theories of oppression is the recognition that persons belong to intersecting social groups, some of which may be oppressed while others may be relatively privileged. For example, Black men are both oppressed as Blacks and privileged as men, although intersecting group status does not always combine in the same way, and some privilege can turn to disadvantage under certain circumstances. Black feminist theorists originated this so-called intersectional analysis of oppression, which has now become standard, especially in feminist discussions of oppression and in discussions of the nature of race and ethnicity.
A controversy about oppression concerns its inevitability in human society. According to one prominent evolutionary psychological account of social dominance, there will always be a dominant and a dominated social group as a result of the basic structure of human psychology. Human males have evolved to form in-groups in order to have exclusive sexual access to the females in their in-group, the boundaries of which they will then violently enforce. The theory explains all forms of social group domination as a matter of evolved tendencies of males to police in-group/out-group boundaries. Since females have fewer tendencies toward domination, the theory predicts that they are easily dominated by males and that females are less likely to dominate others of any group. The evolutionary approach to explaining oppression equates oppression with dominance, making it impossible to distinguish justified from unjustified forms.
Finally, there are libertarian concerns about the claim that there are oppressed social groups, as opposed to simply individuals who are unjustly treated. However, recent work on stereotype threat and implicit bias, and a well-developed literature on stereotyping by psychologists show that individuals are perceived by others as belonging to social groups and are treated in stereotypical and biased ways as a result. There can be little doubt that individuals' social group status affects their opportunities in ways that are completely out of their control. Thus, social group status must be seen as an important locus of oppression.
Feminism: Schools of Thought
Implicit Bias and Social Cognition
Marxism and Social/Historical Explanation
Prejudice and Stereotyping
Race, Theories of
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