Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Enlightenment Values, Discourse, and Oppression

I want to discuss why I think it is that communication and dialogue are, ideally, the tools we should use to free ourselves or others from situations of oppression. When we say that we are oppressed, what we usually mean is that we are being treated unjustly by someone who has power over us. This unjust treatment can be specific to an interpersonal relationship with a particular oppressor, or it can be something that pervades the general conditions of our environment, and is a systemic or structural phenomenon. This might range from discrimination in job applications or by the judicial system based on group stereotypes to rules of conduct or social mores that unfairly exclude people lacking in education or wealth. One good example of the latter – which can often be subtle or unrecognisable to those who don’t suffer from it, or even to many of those perpetuating it (for example, this good parable) – would be Rhodesian electoral laws, which restricted the franchise to property owners and therefore were formally non-racist while excluding virtually all of the country’s non-white population. Suffice it to say, oppression is a bad thing. By definition, in fact.

I think it’s safe to say that we would like to minimise not only the oppression we suffer, but the oppression that others suffer as well. This is in keeping with the values of compassion and commitment to human wellbeing that are essential to humanism.

But how can we do this?

In thinking about this question, I have come up with a kind of typology. This is actually somewhat connected with a project I began just over half a year ago in looking at different types of political protest, but I won’t bore you with the details of that.

Imagine that A is suffering oppression at the hands of B. Maybe others like A are suffering oppression at the hands of others like B, or maybe it’s specific to this one relationship? It doesn’t matter for the purposes of this thought experiment.

A has three options for ending the oppression:

  1. Threaten B with violence or something else unpleasant until B stops being oppressive (coercion);
  2. End the entire relationship, which could even require leaving the community (abortion);
  3. Convince B that her behaviour is bad so that she stops being oppressive (persuasion).

Coercion has certainly been the choice of many oppressed persons and peoples, appearing both morally justified and strategically easy, and while we can identify situations in which it has worked, we should view it with great scepticism. Threats exist only so long as they are sustained, and thus in many situations a respite from oppression that is won through coercion will only survive while that coercion is maintained. Violence has a tendency to generate the circumstances for more violence, and what value is an escape from oppression that leads only to more oppression (or counter-oppression), at least to a humanist? Abortion has also been the choice of many, and could be seen as the impetus behind many secessionist movements. One version of abortion might be for A to simply kill B, or otherwise deprive her of the very instrumental capacity for oppressive relation. This should be distinguished from violence used to threaten, as the goal is destruction rather than coercion, and it has also been the choice of some oppressed groups. Even excluding that extreme action, I think that humanists are likely to be uncomfortable with the choice to divide communities and separate people from interacting, as this option reduces rather than increases the richness of our social lives.

Thus we are left with option 3: persuasion. Like coercion, this is a communicative act, and one which requires that we identify the source of oppressive behaviour in order to usefully tailor our persuasive messaging.

As I see it, oppressive behaviour comes from one of two possible sources:

  1. The oppressor has similar values to ours, and her oppression comes from incomplete or incorrect information. I’m sure most of us can recall cases where we have felt mistreated by someone, only to find that they simply misunderstood our intentions or our situation, and that they were not so much malicious or selfish but merely clueless;
  2. The oppressor has reasonably complete and correct information, and simply has different values from us. She knows how we feel and why, but disagrees that her conduct is unjust.

The second category is where most of us are tempted to place bigotry, but I think that in most cases we underestimate the influence of ignorance over actually irreconcilable understandings of what it means to be good. Most people believe themselves to be fair, just, and ultimately good individuals, and most people will if prompted enough likely define those traits similarly. I would thus generally place most kinds of bigotry into the first category, as prejudices are ultimately heuristics: convenient principles for making fast assessments, which are presumed to be accurate enough to be worthwhile, but which may not be. This  leaves us with a certain very important conclusion:

Oppression happens most often when an oppressor has faulty knowledge of her victim’s circumstances, such that she behaves unjustly when she otherwise wouldn’t.

So going back to A’s task of persuading B to change her behaviour, we can now say that A’s goal is to change B’s knowledge – that is, the information available to her and the way she categorises it. There seem to be three ways for A to do this:

  1. Share her perspective so that B feels greater empathy (appeal to compassion);
  2. Directly critique B’s paradigms or presumptions so that the justificatory basis for B’s oppressive behaviour is undermined (appeal to reason);
  3. Act in such a way that B’s paradigms or presumptions are shocked, and that in her conformation with and interpretation of such an act, she develops an awareness of the injustice of her treatment of A (propaganda of the deed).

The last of these includes all sorts of protest actions, which could range from sit-ins and marches to terrorism. One of the appeals of this third option is that it does not suffer from the flaw of the first two; namely, that it does not require an open, neutral discursive exchange. If A cannot even bring B to the table for a chat, and command B’s attention long enough to have a dialogue, then delivering a shock to B by more dramatic means at least has a chance of working.

Yet the third way also suffers from two significant flaws. The first is that while dialogue has a reflexive element – meaning can be discussed and deliberated to ensure that  participants are ‘on the same page’ – communication by dramatic action is prone to misinterpretation. A’s ‘propaganda by deed’ might be intended to force greater awareness, of self and of others, into B’s life,  but if B interprets A’s behaviour as, say, coercive or selfish, then the problem of faulty knowledge persists. Worse, the oppression might increase, as B responds to a perceived threat or resorts to counter-action under the midguided notion that A can be shown the injustice of her original grievance – that A does not suffer oppression but is given just treatment. This leads to the second flaw, which is commonly referred to as the ‘escalation trap’. Here A and perhaps also B resort to ever more powerful attempts at shock action, shifting communicative exchanges entirely into the realm of symbolic drama, and perhaps even into violence. While there are certainly cases where the third way succeeds in alleviating oppression, there is generous evidence available to any student of history or social psychology showing that the opposite is also highly likely.

Thus, if the kind of discursive space necessary for the first and second ways can be established in a way that makes these strategies successful, it would carry far less risk of further oppression or violence. But what does this space require? I think the most concise starting point for answering that question might be Habermas’s rules of discourse:

1. Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to
take part in the discourse.
2. a) Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatsoever.
b) Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatsoever into
the discourse.
c) Everyone is allowed to express his attitudes, desires, and needs.
3. No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion,
from exercising his rights as laid down in (1) and (2) above.
(Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action/Habermas)

With these rules in place, all participants in a discourse should be able to debate and deliberate according to a single, universal, and therefore fair standard of evaluation.

These rules accord well with the Enlightenment principles of reason as something which transcends cultural boundaries, of certain objective metaphysical laws and conditions (of the sort discoverable through the sciences or by studying logic), and of the potential for rational, autonomous, and free thinking subjects.

But since it is impossible to simply ‘bracket out’ the existing power imbalances of society, which would serve to exclude or handicap the ability of some people to participate effectively in a discursive sphere, there is a social project which we must pursue to ensure that the rules of discourse actually obtain in reality. This project is to ensure that any potential participant have enough education, social security, and legal protection to be able to argue knowledgeably and effectively.

One might design this project behind a Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’, but I won’t digress into this too much.

It is clear in looking around us that our society is far from the Habermasian ideal, and that the project of establishing the ideal conditions for discourse is daunting. Certainly there is a strong onus upon us to lobby for better protection for the socially disadvantaged, and to provide that protection personally by speaking or acting against oppression when necessary.

Nevertheless, I think that a valuable part of it is to begin, immediately, to present discourse as the best way to combat oppression – as the more compassionate, more humane, more communal, and more secure path to advancing our interests and our grievances – and to encourage people to use reason and communication as a means of engaging with the world.


4 responses to “Enlightenment Values, Discourse, and Oppression

  1. Michael October 7, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    Simon, I really like your stance on oppression and ending oppression, and I agree with many of the points raised, however, using discourse to combat to oppression presupposes that the oppressor is willing to engage in such discourse. In many instances is may be the case that the oppressor would seemingly have no real motive to engage with such discourse as ultimately it would not be a benefit for them, especially if they are also exploiting the oppressed party for their own gain. In my opinion then, that leaves us with 1) violent revolution! or 2) leaving the community.
    I have recently written an article that relates precisely to this using a modern day example of oppression I hope you can find time to read it and let me know what you think!

    • Said Simon October 8, 2011 at 9:18 pm

      I agree entirely, and this is why I think the political goals of humanists should be to create a system that encourages engagement and discourse. This could mean mandatory arbitration, or new schemes of incentives to convince people who are reluctant that dialogue is in their interests. It certainly would include a redistributive welfare component and an educational component, both designed to create the capacity and appreciation for discourse. Violence or secession are likely to produce less beneficial and less stable outcomes.

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