My previous post drew a lot of attention after being retweeted by Toby Young, a conservative commentator from the UK. Few of the subsequent comments dealt with the substance of what I wrote, but I did receive some thoughtful responses on the notion of structure. So I thought I’d expand a little on that here.
It is clear that, to many people, the idea that oppression is a system or a structure is axiomatic. So firstly, let me make one thing clear about my position: I am not arguing that oppression does not exist or that oppressive laws and practices do not exist, I am arguing that it is profoundly unhelpful to think of them as part of a system or a structure.
Both terms imply something that is coordinated or even planned. They imply direct causal links between one component and another. A three storey building is a structure. If we remove the bottom storey, this will have a profound effect on the other two. Oppression does not work like that. We can make progress with one issue but not another. We can make progress in one community but not another. Laws can be changed in one state but not another. If it is a structure then it is one that can bend and flex to extreme degrees.
If you do believe in a structure then what is it made of? Does organised religion form part of it? Are Catholicism and Episcopalianism part of it? What about a Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Taoism? How do we decide?
Structure also implies something stable, semi-permanent. This may be appropriate in some cases but perhaps not in others. Again, conflating these different things into a structure gives all of them this perceived property.
So you can call it a structure if you wish, but it’s a funny kind of a structure. And conceiving of oppression as a structure in this way leads us into a number of traps.
Perhaps the most obvious trap is to infer that the structure has a designer and to seek to identify who that is. Is it the bankers? Is it a particular ethnic or cultural group? Any passing acquaintance with history knows where this leads.
For instance, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the Kulaks, a strata of peasantry who happened to own a little more than other peasants, played this role. Their farms were seized and many were killed or deported to labour camps. Oppression did not end as a result.
Who would it be this time?
A counsel of despair
With the most hideous interpretation of a structure to oppression out of the way, we may turn to some more subtle ones.
If you believe in a malevolent structure, then you may convince yourself that there is nothing, short of revolution and a complete dismantling of the structure, that can be done to improve your current situation. This may function at the personal level or at the level of collective action.
Yet history again demonstrates that the actions of individuals and groups can lead to significant social change without the need for a revolution. See, for instance, the suffragettes, Martin Luther King or the foundation of Britain’s National Health Service. In fact, when revolutions do occur, they don’t always turn out well.
I remember Section 28 of the local government act, a law introduced in the U.K. under a conservative government in 1988 and repealed under labour governments in Scotland in 2000 and the rest of the U.K. in 2003. Section 28 banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools along with the, “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” In practice, it limited schools from discussing gay relationships and helping gay students and families.
If campaigners had decided that this law was just one part of a structure of oppression and the only thing they could do was overturn the entire structure, they may not have successfully campaigned for its repeal.
A false hope
Paradoxically, perhaps, a belief in structure can not only lead to an overestimation of what is required for change but also an underestimation.
Meaningful social change requires coalition building. It requires support from across different sections of society. By the time the conservative-leaning Australian government finally and reluctantly held a postal referendum on gay marriage in 2017, the argument had already been won in the population at large.
Belief in a structure can lead you into thinking that any attack on it, no matter how small, is worthwhile because it is chipping away at the structure. Without having to go to the wider public to make your case and build coalitions, you can call someone out on social media and you have done your bit. Publicly shaming a history teacher over a lesson plan on Twitter becomes a valid act of resistance rather than a weird thing some people do in a bubble.
Sure, you can imagine oppression as a structure if you wish, but if you do, please bear in mind the three traps I have outlined. Alternatively, you could identify an issue in your community and seek to change it by speaking to people and building coalitions. The latter requires you to have a positive message to convey. Can you do that?
Update: I’ve just realised there’s a fourth pitfall – I’ll write about that when I get a chance