Portraits, and thoughts on oppression

25 May 2007 / 4 Jauza 1386
Note: I have interspersed portrait-photos of Afghans I have taken. In conformance with the principles of the Committee to Protect Human Subjects–to which I am bound as an American university researcher–I must say nothing about who they are personally. However I do not intend to imply that these are “pictures of the oppressed.” Rather, this essay is about all of us as human beings. I thought it would be appropriate to see some human beings as you read this.

This morning I was re-reading Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I realized that I am forming a very different opinion about how to deal with systems of oppression, based upon what I am experiencing in Kabul. I think planning and development work should focus much more on the oppressors as the agents of resistance to oppression.

From a Leftist perspective this seems logically contradictory, and threatens to draw energy and focus away from the oppressed. But the apparent contradiction rests on the assumption that there is no difference between structure (systems) and agency (individual choice and responsibility). It assumes that oppressors are always fully conscious of their actions and fully conscious of the consequences of those actions. Rarely if ever is this even possible.

An example will help: suppose a man buys a dress shirt at a brand-name store in San Francisco rather than commissioning a skilled local tailor to make it. Is that man deliberately, maliciously supporting brutal working conditions for women in Ciudad Juarez where they make that shirt? No. There is a whole system of production which is designed to sell him a fine-quality shirt at a price low enough for him to buy it, and high enough to ensure company profit. Does that system deliberately hide the conditions of the woman in Ciudad Juarez who made that shirt? Not exactly. At the point of sale the idea is to sell the shirt. Company resources are devoted to ‘the retail experience.’ And the man is looking for a shirt, not a briefing on the political economy of Maqiladoras.

Many other examples can be cited from daily life: the man leaves the store, goes and buys a cup of coffee, gets in his car and drives off. The consequences of each of these actions may be far-removed, and it is difficult to gauge how individual, iterative acts of consumption contribute to either collective or very individual disasters far away in space and time. Chains of production, trade, and consumption today are so complex and dispersed that the process of oppression–and understanding of the nature of responsibility–can be very hard to pin down in practice. I will call this system oppression through distance, in which case the most identifiable processes which support this form of oppression are what Ananya Roy calls the management of distance. Think of anti-immigration movements; re-segregation; the promotion of social phobias. The promotion of fear of travel to “dangerous” areas.

For the current design of our economic system this abstraction by distance may be necessary because too few humans would stomach the consequences of their actions if they could observe them directly. I think few people would be sufficiently cruel to knowingly humiliate and deprive others as we currently do through more indirect action. But it may be worth looking at more direct, intimate processes of oppression from the oppressor’s side to improve the material and emotional conditions under which both oppressors and oppressed live right now.

A manager verbally abuses an employee in front of his co-workers because a job they are both working on goes badly. A white woman in Berkeley, California visibly clutches her purse more tightly when she sees a black man. An elderly Muslim man gets singled out and interrogated at length because he fits a certain ‘profile.’ Both fear and shame play major roles in each of these events. Friere points out that this dehumanizes the oppressor and the oppressed.

Over the last few centuries Christians and Marxists have engaged myriad conditions of oppression, and usually focused on helping the oppressed. The impulse makes sense: it is easier to feel compassion for the oppressed. But as a policy thinker working in Kabul right now, I must say that it is pretty apparent from here that those who oppress usually have more power to transform existing conditions. Besides which, the oppressor is you and me, demonstrated by the fact that I can create this page and you can read it–even, perhaps especially, if you are an Afghan.

There is a recursive problem here. Since oppressors are often motivated by fear and shame, perhaps exactly the same motives deter us from looking at ourselves. Far better to focus on charity for the needy. We know it helps, but it leaves existing conditions of oppression intact. Perhaps the man with the new shirt and the cup of coffee is driving to a community center where he volunteers in a literacy program, giving something far more valuable than money: his own skilled time. Does that change the conditions of inequality and oppression? Probably not, or only extremely slowly.

But a different line of questions may get at how to actually change conditions of oppression. Is that man working against his own dehumanization? Is he asserting his humanity? Perhaps he is driving to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and he is a sponsor who has to ask his client some very hard questions which he himself struggles with every day. Perhaps, in another place, the man is an American military commander who decides to go ahead with an investigation of troops under his own command, knowing that this will cost him his career. He asserts his honor; he asserts his fearlessness; he asserts his humanity.

Both systems and individuals can create oppression or dismantle it. The logic, ethics, and spatio-temporality of systems and individuals are very different, but neither can be ignored when challenging oppression. For those who have the power to oppress, and the capacity to transform systems that cause oppression, the fulcrum-questions may be fairly simple:

What quality of life do we want to enjoy?

If we really want to enjoy our lives, don’t we want to prevail over our own fear and shame? Don’t we want our humanity? That is what we have the power to claim.

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