Faces of Oppression

May 13, 2008 at 8:59 pm (Wst 300) (, )

Summary and Response to: Five Faces of Oppression – by Iris Young

“The function of literature, through all its mutations, has been to make us aware of the particularity of selves, and the high authority of the self in its quarrel with its society and its culture. Literature is in that sense subversive.”
– Lionel Trilling

When you look at a group of peoples there are things about each of them that set them apart from one another. Even two identical twins are going to have differences. These differences historically have been the building blocks of oppression and domination also known in the wider sense as injustice. These oppressive behaviors and ideals expressed on a micro level have traveled to the macro effecting laws, labor divisions, and cultural practices in the United States and around the world. It can also be said that these Macro systems have in turn stigmatized groups and communities of individuals reinforcing generalized stereotypes. To make the situation even more complicated it is almost impossible to describe a single set of criteria that fit all of the oppressed. Even further the nature of oppression and oppressive behavior has changed over history along with the communities it encompasses.

The word oppression has lost much of it’s tyrannical connotations. According to Iris Young the word oppression has come to encompass communities and individuals of people being harmed by structural systems with no distinct aggressor. This causes problems when organizations try and solve such inequalities at a larger level. The need for a scapegoat is felt in almost any conversation with oppression at its core. People worry that they will be blamed for having privilege. These are not necessarily individuals, or even groups of peoples behind the oppressive nature of society but rather an all-encompassing system.

This brings us to the problem of even defining human beings into groupings. For each individual a group and community will mean something different. There might be geological aspects, biological aspects, social aspects, or physical aspects, which brings a group together. These groups are lumped into two categories aggregates and association. While there is generally safety in numbers grouping people together in itself creates marginalization; one of the 5 faces of oppression. The other 4 are exploitation, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence. According to Young a group is oppressed if they experience at least one of these categories.

Marginalization is the process of making a certain group of people unimportant and invisible as individuals but keeping the characteristics of them mainstream. These characteristics usually are not flattering and often depict people as violent, low class, unintelligent, or lazy. Exploitation is a process by which monetary gains are made by classing groups of individuals; making certain individual’s time, work, and skills, worth more than another’s. This has been used to justify a large majority of non-euro white workers, specifically females, in factories, as maids/house servants, and in agriculture. Powerlessness is rather self-explanatory. This represents the lack of individual power a person can own, specifically non-professional workers. Without this power of voice, or money to back ones opinions and experiences, it is very hard to rise in status in a capitalistic society. Cultural Imperialism is the fear of new and different things. The idea that the western ideal is normal and everything else is ‘other’ is a good example of this. This thought process has allowed many military leaders to rationalize the ‘civilizing’ of the ‘other’. Last there is violence. This encompasses violence that is socially and systematically acceptable or tolerated by the people in power upon the ‘other’. A good example being the lynching of African American individuals for committing crimes such as looking at a white women or sitting in a ‘white only’ area.

Although Young says that these are all encompassing I believe that we should be carefully using that word. There are no two people the same and if we generalize in the theory trying to explain the systems of oppression there will be only more segmentation of ideas. Also this was a very western lens focused piece, which was not truly accessible to those outside the field of higher academia.

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