Civilized oppression and the urgency to recognize it

Arshia Malik
6 min readNov 28, 2015

There is an uncivilised oppression and then there is a civilised oppression. Deutsch, M. (2006) in his — A framework for thinking about oppression and its change (Social Justice Research) has used the term “civilised oppression” to characterize the everyday processes of oppression in normal life. This is very different from the other kind which involves the feudal system, apartheid, slavery, and other such illegal issues that once were in the domain of modern nation states and still are being fought daily. However, “civilised oppression” is embedded in unquestioned norms, habits and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutions and rules, and the collective consequences of following those rules.

Civilised oppression is not visible and more often than not, the oppressor hardly realise that they are being oppressive in nature, action and word. Women face a lot of this in the form of culture and one needs to be a victim to really under understand the subtle and profound undercurrents of exploitation, dehumanisation and disempowerment that goes on around, disguised, invisible and hardly so prominent — so used are people to it. Most of the people are well meaning in their intentions when they tell a woman to go inside, or veil her head or not to step out after dark. These ordinary interactions do not only come through men but women also and hence the vast and deep injustices that the most discriminated of groups suffers are a consequence of these unconscious assumptions and reactions of ‘well-meaning people’. Their ordinary reactions are further supported by media and cultural stereotypes as well as by the structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms.

Tilly, C (2000) in his ‘Relational Studies of Inequality’ (Contemporary Sociology) says that we cannot eliminate this structural oppression by getting rid of the rulers or by making new laws, because oppressions are systematically reproduced in the major economic, political and cultural institutions. While specific privileged groups are the beneficiaries of the oppression of other groups, and thus have an interest in the continuation of the status quo, they do not typically understand themselves to be agents of oppression. Which is what is most dangerous especially in domicile situations, when the abuser turns on his own family and starts hurting them. A dysfunctional parent is the best example of such oppression because to the world outside that door he is the provider and protector of the family and if he is displeased about anything, he is just making a noise. Which is what stops people from ‘ringing that doorbell’ upon hearing a quarrel or sound of beatings.

When questioned in places where a victim has the facility and the right to call in help, the oppressor is often incredulous as to why he is being questioned in conducting his duty as it is in his mind. So as stated above, changing regimes, a theocratic system or making new laws is not going to change mentalities that have been shaped over centuries of conditioning of the inferiority of certain groups and their dehumanization. The dictionary defines dehumanization as the act or process through which a powerful class or community or individual divests another of human qualities or personality. According to Paulo Freire, the author of the classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed, there are two kinds of dehumanization — one is animalistic dehumanization and the other is mechanistic dehumanization. The main differences between the two being that in the animalistic dehumanizing process human attributes of the person are shorn off say like the disabled are somehow thought of as inferior or deformed or ‘incomplete’.

This dehumanization is reinforced through the media too where the deaf friend, or the paraplegic neighbour or the autistic child is depicted as the ‘prop’ holding the plot or storyline together. Or the media campaigns which often reflect the overly sympathetic or empathetic attitude of the ‘normal’ ones in contrast to the differently-abled hence shearing them of their own personality, however, strong or dynamic they maybe. Something akin to ‘Rainman’ or ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’

There is a mechanistic dehumanization too which South Asia is all too familiar with and which is a scourge in the Middle East. This kind of dehumanization enables the “Other” as ‘automata’ or not possessing any core features that make up human nature. The slave on cotton fields of yesteryear, the overexploited maids and man servants in our homes and in oil-rich countries are an example of such ‘automata’. It is a combination of all of this — oppression, dehumanization and exploitation that tends to place severe restrictions on an individual, group or institution and stops them from progressing ahead. Typically, a government or political organisation that is in power places these restrictions formally or covertly on oppressed groups so that they may be exploited and less able to compete with other social groups. Just as privilege tends to open doors of opportunity, oppression tends to slam them shut.

Women, minority groups in countries all over the world, sub-sects within a culture, are all oppressed groups who need reformists apart from regime changes and new laws or upholding of the old ones. Once it is recognized that oppression is acquired rather than inherited, it can be tackled with understanding, moral literacy, empathetic curricula, and a scientific revolution which tends to keep all spheres of life secular. I tend to be very pessimistic when I see children as young as 12 or 13 stabbing Israeli guards on buses, or ISIS creches featuring mock beheading videos of toddlers using teddy bears on the net; but then I also see Afghan women defying their religious culture and carrying the body of Farkhunda (stoned, mutilated, run over, kicked to death by an educated, young mob) to be buried. I also see voices of reformists raising questions about the obsession for women’s clothing, and the constant paranoid perspective of an “Infidel Enemy” out there especially if it’s labeling the ones who are doing the questioning under the convenient word “Islamophobia”.

The best bet so to speak for the abolition of the slave trade was the abolitionists themselves who happened to be white, who despite knowing the economic flip over it would cost their countries, still upheld their belief of the universality of human life and human values and their protection. Who defied their own families and societies and even overcame their own self-doubt to listen to that tiny pricking conscientious voice that told them this was not right. It is that voice that we have to rescue which is silenced through reinforced cultural prejudices and outdated norms and traditions. In the words of Marlon James, the Booker Prize-winning author for 2015, on Facebook “… recently there has been this movement gaining steam largely because nobody wants to give it a name, let’s call it: The Liberal Limit. In fact, it’s been the view of many liberals and leftists, but particularly old white liberal men…that progressiveness has gone too far, so far that even their (white) privilege now feels attacked. They are tired of learning new gender pronouns. Tired of this, tired of that….

But here’s the news, he goes on to say, you’re progressive. You’re supposed to progress. You’re supposed to be more liberal today than you were yesterday. Yes, we’re supposed to passionately debate (not tear down) even the stance of our allies, even those who agree with us 60% of the time. You’re supposed to keep changing your views on race because even the most positive view is inherently flawed and needs work. The whole point to being liberal, to being progressive is to continuously evolve, continuously question, continuously debate, even continuously knock down and build up, sometimes even ripping everything to start again. My views on trans people are different in 2014 than they were in 2004. And you can bet your a** they will be even better in 2024 than they are now because that’s what makes me not conservative. The point to being a progressive is to make progress.”

I’m going to take Marlon James’ words and extend it to the conservatives, the orthodox and the traditionalists. If you do not recognize the dark and brutal nature of humans and their ever-ready tendency to pick up ideologies and theologies and philosophies to suit and feed the perverse in their nature, you will keep the bloodbath between the clash of civilizations alive. Civilized oppression may serve you all for that period of time but then if history is to be believed, change has always been a constant in time and flip-over of cultures or implosion of societies has always contributed to their decline. As the world is opening up to the possibility of more egalitarian societies which benefit people more than the exploitative ones; it seems rather foolish to continue on the march of deadly ideas and not heed to the change in the air.