Thursday, May 25, 2006

Silent Oppression

Freedom and liberty are subtle concepts. The most obvious oppression of one’s freedom, through violence (whether by the state or otherwise), is easy to decry. However, if we are to simply end our understanding oppression as being derived from violence or the threat of violence, we will end with a shallow conception that misses many of the most powerful forms of repression.

As a student of anthropology, I am well aware that the majority of taboos and norms are “invisible;” worn like a second skin, our daily lives are governed by innumerable rules that are so ingrained, powerful and omnipresent that we never recognize their existence, unless we accidentally violate them. What I am referring to here are the small things that inextricably govern our lives: the rules on who steps aside for who on the sidewalk, the timing of pacing while walking beside someone, the tempo of speech and how it conveys meaning and so and so forth. The existence of this type of rules is inevitable
[1] in human society and not necessarily a bad thing. If we want to talk to each other, rules of tempo and turn taking must exist and if we want to be able to walk down the street, rules for pacing and stepping-aside must exist. Imagine dropping a Amazonian Indian into a busy New York sidewalk and you can perhaps begin to comprehend the potential for confusion caused by a lack of knowledge of these silent rules. We are taught these rules unconsciously by our parents and fellow humans from the moment we are born.

The problem emerges when we move beyond the simple rules of daily interaction and place them into the incredibly complex framework of human society. Concepts like wealth, power, race, blind obedience, gender and privilege become encoded into the rules of our daily lives and through this subtle system hierarchy and oppression become encoded into our lives. What emerges is a type of oppression that is harder to recognize and even more difficult to extricate than the more obvious forms of oppression that one can pin upon a person’s threat of violence against another person.

In the classic text 1984 by George Orwell, the society depicted is consciously altering its own language to remove the ability to even contemplate resistance to the state, much less formulate a concerted attack, intellectually or physically, against it. If their mission were completed, there would never again be a need for the threat of violence by the state to keep the populace in line; yet, I think that no one would question that oppression was involved, oppression more profound and terrible than mere violence. This type of oppression does not shatter the body but castrates the mind before freedom can even be conceived.

Let us move beyond literature, where even the finest example is still a fiction, and get a bit closer to home. Today in America, the values of materialism, egoism, competitive ruthlessness, aggression and authoritarianism have become part of that second skin: largely invisible and considered to be normal. While questioning is still possible here,
[2] the framework for discussion, the very words that we use to formulate our resistance, is tainted by these oppressive values. This prevalence of subtle thoughtways polluting our ability to resist has best been shown by feminists who have spent decades revealing how our spoken language, physical communication, social structures and rules of interaction all favor a patriarchal system. If we are to talk coherently about oppression in America, or beyond, we cannot simply limit our analysis to the overt use or threat of, violence and move beyond a persuasion-force dichotomy.

So, how does this all relate to anarchism and the pursuit of a free society? For one, it undermines the possibility for Utopia and instead argues that freedom-lovers must instead be involved in a never-ending search for oppressors, both silent and overt. It also argues against a purely political philosophy of anarchism that looks to the removal of the state and other hierarchical organizations as a solution to the problem of oppression. If the minds of the people are encoded with the values of hierarchy, violence and authoritarianism, than idealists can overthrow as many governments as they desire, but new ones will constantly rise in their place. Anarchism must instead become more profound and seek out the very roots of oppression, the place where it has coiled itself around the base of our brains. This doesn’t mean that action against the overt forms of oppression is not meaningful or important, only that proponents of true change must look deeper and be satisfied with victories that are slower, subtler and more difficult. Of course the other alternative is to be battling literal tyrants eternally, only to find that they come back stronger after every battle.
-By Jesse
[1] While these types of rules must exist for society to function smoothly, the actual makeup of the rule can vary incredible between societies and societal subgroups.
[2] Perhaps I am an optimist, but I believe that resistance to oppression can never be completely wiped out and that liberty is the natural state of human affairs. I hope that there is something in our minds beyond what they can touch, but I do have my worries.