Three Modalities of Oppression: trying to fit it all together

A few days ago I made some comments about relating different sorts of oppression to each other, and the subject is both very interesting and quite tricky. It occurred to me that matters might be illuminated if we distinguished different ‘modalities’ of oppression.

(‘Modality’ is perhaps an unnecessarily fancy word, it’s sort of like ‘types’ but I prefer the connotations)

It seems to me that there are three major modalities in which violence and conflict and exploitation are manifested: oppression in the imposition of identity, oppression as the essence of that identity, and oppression as a consequence of clashing identities. What do I mean by these phrases?

The first is something like this: different people interpret the world in different ways. Sometimes there’s no room for major disagreement because one interpretation is so clearly superior (e.g. fire burns people). But a lot of things aren’t so easily resolved – indeed cannot be factually resolved at all. For example, who is more important? What sort of person is normal? Out of the many things that person X does in their lives, which one expresses their ‘essence’, and which should they stop doing? Etc.

So what typically happens is that one such interpretation (often with a bit of space for minor variation) is privileged as the truth and competing interpretations are repressed. This repression is both the psychological repression of individuals dismissing or explaining away inconvenient information, and the social repression of both symbolic and physical violence against those who express (voluntarily or involuntarily) any alternative.

So for example, the socially-agreed upon interpretation might be “human beings are homosexual and travel in wheelchairs”, or “women are assertive and robust, while men are shy and fragile”. Then those people who contradicted this interpretation, assertive men or heterosexuals or ‘walkers’, would be the targets at best of reluctant toleration and mildly hostile ignoring, being mentioned as rarely as possible and their lives erased from respectable history – or at worst, of violent attack in defense of decency, either by state operatives determined to electrocute them into ‘health’ or by inebriated young people with baseball bats and the tacit support of society. The fear of this external repression would prompt its internalisation as self-policing of one’s thoughts and actions.

(Incidentally, I tend to assume, when I hear people declare that “there is no absolute truth”, that they mean something rather like this, rather than that ‘fire burns you’ is no more or less true than ‘fire turns you green’. It’s still an irritating phrase)

So that’s the first modality of oppression, and its great usefulness is that it enables the others: once people have identities that rest not on anything so unreliable as their own feelings and choices, but on the firm and solid foundation of baseball-bat-beatings, then you can establish much more stable, organised, systematic systems of oppression and exploitation.

The first modality in which you can do this is by constructing pairs of identities, of which one must dominate and the other must be dominated. Three major examples are the sex-binary, in which the ‘masterful’ man is in control precisely insofar as he is male, over the irrational, emotional, and passive women; the adult-child relationship, in which the rational and wise adult justifies their control over the unthinking, stupid child (concealing both the frequent foolishness of adults and the knowledge, especially of their own feelings, that children do possess); and thirdly, the human-animal relationship, in which the rational human must ‘tame’ and ‘make productive’ the unruly dangerous animal, usually by killing by killing or enslaving it.

They key thing is that to those who accept the symbolic identities involved, the control or oppression that occurs can only appear as natural and right. If you accept the identity ‘child’ or ‘beast’ (as opposed to simply ‘person younger than…X?’ or ‘animal not human’) then you have already accepted what is written into them – that the adult and the human must be in control for the good of the controlled. Indeed, submitting to that control is liable to be glamourised and encouraged: it makes your a ‘good’ woman/child/animal, and if you have accepted that identity (as even the animal may do in its own way) you will probably enjoy it, feel ‘fulfilled’ to some extent by being dominated.

This contrasts with the third ‘modality’ of oppression that I envisaged. I earlier called it ‘oppression as a consequence of clashing identities’ and that might make it sound like it’s about people with different identities, the traditionalist Amazonians and the metropolitan latte-drinkers and their cultural conflicts or whatever. But that’s not at all what I have in mind (that’s a breakdown in the efficiency of oppression in the first modality).

What I have in mind is people with the same identity. In particular, the identity ‘dominator’, or equivalently ‘male adult human’. Those who are on the dominating side of each of the previous divides (to some extent female adult women are encroaching on this in recent centuries, though still in a very limited way). Because if your identity is to be supreme, then anyone else with that same identity is a problem.

This is the starting-point for traditional politics. Traditional politics ignores the first and second modalities of oppression and begins here: a collection of ‘people’ (male adult humans) who are ‘naturally’ in conflict. See ‘state of nature’, Hegel’s ‘master-slave dialectic’, and all the various arguments for why authority is necessary to control the ‘war of all (dominators) against all (dominators)’.

This toxic by-product must then be managed and stabilised by the mechanisms of ‘society’, as discussed by political theorists since immemorial times. Broadly speaking, endless conflict is averted by a combination of two processes: that by which one dominator submits to another and accepts it (the war ends because one side wins) and that by which two or more dominators jointly agree to have their own separate ‘spheres’ of supremacy, regulated by an authority placed above all of them (the war ends because the fighters limit their powers for the sake of peace).

This creation, the hierarchical society ruled by a state, involves forms of oppression that differ from the aforementioned in that the oppressed have the psychological resources to call their oppression oppression. For centuries, to be oppressed as a woman, a child, an animal, was simply one’s natural state – and let’s not even start on being oppressed as a queer or an atheist. But to be a ‘normal’ ‘man’, and yet to be oppressed – you could complain about that and others might (might) listen and be sympathetic.

The male slave, proletarian or poor peasant, the citizen of a despot, the nation defeated and taken into servitude – their oppression was a contradiction of their basic identity. The female slave, the female noble, the child and certainly the animal – their oppression was in agreement with their basic identity. And the perverts and blasphemers – well, they have no identity beyond ‘abomination’.

Of course, to cover over and cement the oppression of normal men by normal men, it is very common for the powerful men to recycle the symbolic identities from the second modality and apply them here.

So for example, slaves and workers have always been, in subtle ways, assimilated to animals: they are brutish and unthinking, and without the rational management of their superiors they will get nothing done. Another example – oppressed races have often been assimilated to children, carefree and unproductive in their mindless leisurely lives, needing the firm hand of ‘civilised’ societies to come and ‘teach’ them with gunboats and rifles. And thirdly, the state-society relationship has been implicitly likened to the male-female relationship, in which, although the latter’s ‘consent’ was necessary, their essential passivity, their incapacity to take control and show self-discipline, made it inevitable and right that a strong fatherly authority should come to impose order. Other examples can be found.

Anyway, that concludes my taxonomy. It’s all sounded rather symbolic, but I focus on the symbolic dimension because it’s where we see the human processes of domination most clearly, without the complications introduced by non-human facts (e.g. about the technology of food production). That’s not to downplay the explanatory importance of those non-human facts, or to exaggerate the importance of people’s symbolic decisions, just to look at where we may see things most clearly.

Since the post has been long, I’ll summarise briefly.

1) Through external and internal repression, a single narrative interpretation of reality is violently enforced in spite of its factual weakness. This produces oppressive relationships in which agency is dispersed (every oppresses everyone, including themselves) and where the direct targets tend to be ‘abnormal’ minorities or deviants, through whose oppression the rest of society is kept in line.

2) Of the identities thus established, some are by definition dominating, while others are by definition dominated. This produces relations of oppression between dominant groups and their counterparts, in particular between ‘men’ and ‘their’ women, children, and animals (and servants/slaves, to anticipate 3.), and where the oppressed must struggle not only against oppression but to gain the psychological resources to recognise it as oppression.

3) Between ‘men’, their shared identification with the ‘dominator’ identity causes a conflict over who is to be ‘the daddy’. This conflict is partially stabilised by the construction of hierarchical coercive societies in which, according to formal rules, some ‘men’ are to be dominated by others. This is then justified ideologically by assimilating thoe oppressed men to animals, children, or women.

14 Responses to “Three Modalities of Oppression: trying to fit it all together”

  1. missivesfrommarx Says:

    Nice post. One question: you speak briefly of internalized repression. How do you define that? I ask because most definitions of internalized repression posit some sort of authenticity or authentic desires that are being thwarted by a process of socialization—but I don’t believe in authenticity. Is there a sense we could give to internalized repression without positing authentic desires?

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Hmm. Well, it is indeed a good question how to make sense of the notion without dichotomising between artificial socialisation and a prior ‘nature’. I guess I might approach it by first going for a sort of general, value-neutral sort of definition, and then specifying that some cases are ‘bad’.

    So the general definition would apply equally to, say, a man policing themselves so as to not express weakness or sympathy or something, and someone policing themselves so as not to hurt someone’s feelings. So here there’s no ‘authentic’ desires, just desires in general, of which some will always be repressed.

    One would be called ‘oppressive’ only because of its social context: a certain system of self-policings is against people’s best interests, while others (like my restraining my anger) is in people’s interests. That would connect with how, for example, external repression can include, say, refusing to associate with members of a certain group, even though simply refusing to associate with someone can be a reasonable thing to do sometimes (if you just don’t get on, say). Oppression is about the system (you know the birdcage metaphor? Birds aren’t kept trapped by any individual wire, because they could just fly around it. But all of them together are different).

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Perhaps, though, there might be some prospect of a stricter definition of internal repression, based on the difference between refusing to act out a desire, and refusing to recognise it.

    So let’s say I have a desire to punch my friend when they show up one of my failings. Certainly I should ‘suppress’ the desire to the extent of not punching them. But there are then two possibilities. One would be to inhibit the action but accept and recognise the desire, and perhaps under some circumstances admit it to others. The other would be to refuse to believe that you had that desire (because it conflicts with your self-concept), deny it if asked, etc. This will leave you with some anger and frustration that you can’t process properly (and would connect more with the psychoanalytic sense of ‘repression’).

    A key difference is that if I ‘merely suppress’, in the first sense, some desire, I can then ask myself, openly and without shame, how I might satisfy it. So I long for excitement, but the excitement of robbing a bank is obviously a bad idea – but what would be better? If, though, I properly ‘repress’ that desire (say, because I have to believe that I’m satisfied by my housebound domestic sphere) I can’t ask that, and if I ever satisfy my desire it’ll only be by some deflected irrational action I can justify on other grounds.

    In all of this there’s no need to dichotmise desires into two classes, merely to assume that the overall spread of my desires will usually include some that break the boundaries of any narrow identity. I guess it would amount to saying that our ‘authentic nature’ is ‘to be multi-faceted and open-ended’.

  4. missivesfrommarx Says:

    Yes, I think that you’re defining internalized repression in a way that doesn’t make it subject to the criticism I was suggestion. Your talking about internalized repression in the sense of deciding to forgo the pursuit of one desire for the fulfillment of another.

    I think the idea of internalized repression that is objectionable is the type that concerns things like the desire for subordination: for instance, women who WANT to subordinate themselves to a patriarchal order, rather than those who go along with it for practical reasons.

  5. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Excellent entry, I think you’ve really explored the concept of social roles as tools of exploitation. I wish I had written it!

    You should write a post about why communists reject evolution and human nature. I really don’t understand that. No one has really been able to explain it to me except to say “well, other people use human nature to deny people freedom.” That makes about as much sense as saying that the universe doesn’t exist because some Christians use the universe as proof of God. I wish communists would get over this whole psychological block and open themselves to who they are.

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I agree that it opens up a lot of difficult areas to identify certain desires as themselves ‘inauthentic’. Which perhaps relates to Francois’ rather sweeping gripe with ‘communists rejecting evolution’ – you’re critical of leftists setting up a ‘human nature’, he’s critical of leftists denying a ‘human nature’. Ironic. I may post about it.

  7. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Really? I’ve gotta tell you, that’s not my experience at all. On the blackened.net forum (a meeting place for Anarchists of all persuasions, and relatively balanced, although more predominently communist), every time human nature is brought up, all the communists rant against it, with pretty much no one to defend the concept except me.

    I think it pretty much reduces to whether you really accept evolution (and therefore the evolution of instinct and emotions) or just pay lip service to it. Blank slate theory is a refuted theory in the history of science, and it is, I think, a very absurd position to start from. It certainly doesn’t explain why people who have gone through similar traumatisms in childhood end up coping with it or killing themselves. It doesn’t really explain anything at all.

  8. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    While I suspect a comment discussion won’t be able to properly address this, my suspicion would be that “we have instincts vs. we don’t” isn’t what’s at issue as much as “we have open-ended instincts vs. we don’t” – though God knows there may be many distortions between what people are thinking and saying.

    So for instance, take a lion. Someone might say “lions operate by instinct, they are limited to leonine nature”, and mean this as implying the possibility of such statements as “lions will try to live with other lions, lions will try to kill gazelles and other hoofed animals” etc. (better phrased than that of course, which is abbreviated for brevity).

    Say we then find a lion which has been suckled by zebras in a human-run wildlife park. It sees other lions attacking the zebras and it fears them and runs away from them. It never kills anything, because it’s fed adequately and has never overcome the inhibitions involved in play. It play-hunts with young zebras but they merely wrestle when it catches them.

    Now, the person previosuly declaring what was and wasn’t ‘leonine nature’ might now feel they had been refuted, and that as it turned out, there was no leonine nature – lions were majorly plastic. But all of this is consistent not only with lions being ruled by instinct, but them being ruled entirely by instinct, in the sense that every single action can be explained by reference to instincts – just instincts which an unusual environment has developed into an unusual structure.

    So maybe ‘denial of human nature’ simply means something like this: that the human instinct-set and psyche are such that no statement of the form “humans will always do X” is true, except for uselessly vague and abstract values of ‘X’.

  9. Francois Tremblay Says:

    But, Alderson, that’s NO ONE’s position, pro or anti. I’ve never heard anyone take the position that our actions exist in a vacuum.

  10. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Well, I’ve often heard people say “communism will never work, people are too selfish” or “people will always want leaders to obey” or “it’s just human nature to want to own more than others” and so forth. Those sorts of claims fit exactly into the mould I described, I think, and most communists will at some point have heard them and disagreed and the expression “human nature” will quite likely have become associated for them with those kinds of crude anti-communist arguments.

  11. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Yes, I suppose you’re right. Still, like I said, to me that’s a very silly reason to start rejecting the concept of human nature as a whole.

  12. links for 2009-06-16 « Rumblegumption Says:

    […] Three Modalities of Oppression: trying to fit it all together « Directionless Bones […]

  13. The three modalities of oppression « Check Your Premises Says:

    […] three modalities of oppression Alderson Warm-Fork wrote an excellent article on oppression and its modalities on his blog Directionless Bones. It’s a big complicated, but worth […]

  14. Three Modalities of Oppression, Part 2: history and prehistory « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] of Oppression, Part 2: history and prehistory June 16, 2009 — Alderson Warm-Fork Yesterday I tried to draw together a lot of different sorts of oppression through distinguishing the […]


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