Fighting Today's Oppression, Not Yesterday's Oppression


Guy Burgess



This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog


From its earliest days, human society has been plagued by greedy individuals determined to dominate, oppress, and exploit others. Social evolution has been shaped by a continuing struggle between these individuals and the larger society that they seek to oppress. 

Many of history's greatest accomplishment have been focused on taking one oppressive strategy after another off the table. These include, at least for the United States, the advent of democracy, English Common Law; the Declaration of Independence; the Bill of Rights; the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Roe v. Wade, and Obergefell v. Hodges (marriage equality).  Other milestones included abandonment of the European colonial empires and, at least, the now-widespread shame over the way in which Native Americans were treated. 

Still, the desire to exploit others is a hydra-headed monster that responds to each defeat with some sort of clever workaround that will continue to threaten society. In short, exploitation is a highly competitive high-stakes game that tends to give the edge to the most ruthless competitors. 

For example, the victory embodied in the Emancipation Proclamation was functionally reversed with Jim Crow laws in the system of racial segregation. Beyond that, the success of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts as well as the Great Society programs has been substantially (but not completely) neutralized through the system of mass incarceration and the wide array of subtler dynamics that have produced today's array of racially disproportionate social welfare statistics. Similarly, the naked aggression and colonialism that led to the conquest of Native American lands is now frowned upon. In its place, however is the new kind of neocolonial conquest now practiced by giant corporations and corrupt political leaders who are not much, if any, kinder or gentler.

Against this backdrop, the test of each generation is not the vehemence with which it searches the historical record for still-honored perpetrators of past acts of oppression and its ability to posthumously disgrace them. It is the ability of a society to recognize and combat the innovative new forms of oppression that are having such a huge impact on the lives of people now living.

In this context, present-day oppressors can be expected to be more than willing to join in efforts to condemn past oppression. It is a great way of disguising the sinister nature of their actions and diverting attention from urgent efforts to address ongoing crimes, which include ever-more innovative and deceptive acts of oppression (which, of course, include continuing efforts to capitalize on the residual effects of past injustice). 

The bottom line is that, while ambient levels of material prosperity has made the lives of the oppressed better today than they were in past decades, the degree to which the wealth and income of society is being monopolized by a super-wealthy few is, as articles such as this demonstrate, comparable to the injustices of the past. 

While it is, of course, always good to correct the record with respect to past oppression, it is critically important that these historical revisions also acknowledge the positive steps that have been taken—steps that need to be defended and strengthened.  Discounting the importance of these steps would do much to strengthen the hand of current-day oppressors since it would undermine some of the best, currently-available tools for defending the interests of the larger population. 

Beyond this, we need to support vigorous and sophisticated efforts to expose the deceptive forms of oppression that characterize today's world and build the kind of broadly-based coalition needed to effectively challenge them. Obviously, the building of such a coalition will only be possible if people resist the divide-and-conquer strategies that contemporary oppressors are using to weaken those who seek to oppose them. To succeed, we need to work together to address current-day oppression.