Once upon a time, in eras where life was harsher for everyone, the word oppression meant something. If you were oppressed—your freedoms of expression, including freedom to organize and assemble, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech, were suppressed—if you had them in the first place. You had no rights to privacy through mail, by telephone, or in your house. Your home could be searched and your property could be seized without a proper warrant, if you could even own property at all. You lived under intense state control, either as part of a larger repressed community or, in extreme cases, in a death camp. In essence, you were viewed and treated as subhuman, or property of the state, subject to its whims.
Oppression was a serious term intended to describe dire circumstances.
In the modern era, and particularly in the modern West, this is no longer the case. What was once a phrase used to define brutal and gruesome conditions has become a worthless catch-all for any and every inconvenience or difficulty perceived in society by malcontented activists. To be oppressed today is to feel mildly uncomfortable or slighted, to suffer as everyone does, or to not be in control of all things around you. A word which once held great meaning has been perverted by the agendas of oblivious academics so detached from reality that they speculate on past centuries and worlds of imaginary alternate universes. Brilliant lore for stories, but useless as academic observation.
Only in the modern West could the label of oppressed be affixed to groups with the rights and power to own property and vote, with freedoms of expression, with protections of privacy, with economic autonomy, with opportunities for higher education and compulsory public education, and with social programs operated by the state to avail them in their quotidian lives. The idea of being oppressed in the modern West has so wholly transformed Western culture that many are blind to the true nature of the current world in which we live, and what it means, or once meant, to be oppressed.
This contemporary notion of oppression, which I refer to as “Oppression Hysteria,” has led to the implementation of speech codes in universities and workplaces, the banning of “unsavory” literature, and sensitivity training specifically designed to alert people to the needs and hardships of the soi-disant oppressed. It has so thoroughly altered and consumed society that to express even the mildest dissatisfaction with those behind it is to commit the ultimate sin. And only in the West could the oppressed have an oppressor removed from their occupation and ostracized from society for uttering an unkind or inelegant word in their presence.
While this conception of oppression seeks to sensitize us to the extensive histories of systemic and social iniquity, bigotry, and nescience once faced by formerly disenfranchised groups, it ignores the fact that things have largely changed for the better. It operates as though we still subsist in eras long gone, or on another timeline. In truth, few of us in the West today authentically fall under the definition of what it should reasonably mean to be oppressed. Everyone faces bias and discrimination, some more so than others in certain cases, but this, in and of itself, is not oppression.
Moreover, it turns a blind eye not only to the struggles of the alleged oppressors, which are akin to those of the supposed oppressed, but it ignores the imbalances that it forges itself, as it continuously adds weight to one side of a scale which is essentially even. Instead of challenging the modern state of affairs, it rages violently against phantoms of the past and nonexistent or overstated threats. Instead of combating the true ills and inequalities of today’s status quo, it demands a new status quo by refusing to acknowledge reality.
The most worrisome aspect of all of this is what it does to people’s perspectives on their fellow human beings and their rights and freedoms. The oppressed do not feel empathy for their oppressors, the tyrants who rule over them. Where, for instance, men are murdered at a rate dramatically higher than women, as they are in the West and most other places, there is little concern because women are seen as an oppressed class, and men are not. Empathy must be cultivated through the belief in a shared human struggle and bond. Oppressors and those which they oppress lack this. Thus, the notion that they are oppressed has left many people today devoid of empathy for those whom they believe oppress them.
This is a callous and perilous mindset; a persecution, hate, and vengeance complex which renders those who believe in it bitter, deranged, and misguidedly starving for the punishment of others who have done no wrong. It is the mentality from which every oppressor and tyrant has ever been born, and it is most dangerous when pervasive throughout groups.
In “Federalist Number 10,” an essay from a series arguing for the ratification of the United States Constitution, James Madison wrote (excerpting):
“Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction . . . The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations . . . By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
He went on to prescribe methods which might curb these tendencies, and so far the outcomes have chiefly been successful. He did not use the word “tyranny” in this document, but he was certainly describing the unpleasant effects of it.
In modern times, looking back, the primary focus seems to have been on protecting us from the tyranny of the majority, and rightly so. A situation wherein a government or other authority functions solely to benefit the majority through its actions and policies, without regard for the wellbeing and rights of the rest of its subjects, can have grim consequences for those left neglected. But there are no longer any meaningful majorities in most of the developed world, at least where unity in ideology is concerned. We are now fractionalized in numerous fashions, standing as a collection of minorities.
Need we be reminded that in most cases in history where tyrannical forces have taken the reins of power, they were tyrannies of the minority? They always begin by faulting some group, occasionally mendaciously designated a “majority,” for all of the problems encountered by the minority, typically their collective. During turbulent periods, especially those which coincide with shifts in social politics, this presents an opening for “change,” and for a brief time, the public will support anything or anyone who is not already perceived to be in power, or part of the established order or apparent issue. We can witness this transpiring now as some of the foremost contenders for president of the United States are political “outsiders,” their policies hardly known to the people at large.
Concurrently, in ordinary public discourse, you must often “bite your tongue” so as not to offend someone. The speech which is considered unacceptably astringent is frequently that of the status quo, or another “faction” that those in power (for example, at a university) do not happen to approve of or agree with. A cursory reading of the events leading up to many dictatorships shows that these same sorts of suppressive tactics have always been employed. The old guard was silenced and/or deposed, the revolutionaries were swept into power, and then the subjugation and purges commenced.
We might not be on the verge of a “Great Purge” or “Night of the Long Knives” just yet, but there is cause to be concerned. Oppression Hysteria in the modern West is rising in influence and prevalence, and with it comes a class, filled with rage, which believes itself oppressed; wielding power like no truly oppressed group in history ever has. The results of allowing this festering menace to spiral out of control may be dreadful not only for those whom the self-classified oppressed deem their enemies, but for the fundamental liberties of our society themselves. To avert such ends, and to continue positive progress in hopes of creating a better world, we must reconfigure our viewpoints to more accurately reflect the actual conditions under which we live.
If you have the freedom to read this piece right now and openly disagree with it, then you are not oppressed, just as I am not oppressed, and by equating the ghastly circumstances of those genuinely oppressed with the mild discomforts and lesser comparative ills of those of us living here in the modern West, we diminish the significance not only of the real suffering of thousands of people across the planet, but of the very essence of what it means to be oppressed as well.
Now, be free, spend a little time in the real world, and enjoy life knowing that your oppression, which held no substantial characteristics of oppression, was never anything more than illusory.
Krista Milburn is the Editor of Trigger Warning. She is an interdisciplinary researcher and criminology student with an interest in a variety of fields ranging from sociology to biology. She is, additionally, a commentator on sex and gender issues and problems related to crime. You can find her writing here.