Morton Deutsch on Understanding and Overcoming Oppression

By Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess



This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog


In 2005, BI published a series of six essays, written by Morton Deutsch, one of the founders and giants of the Conflict Resolution field.  Given the current focus on doing something about the enduring oppression of Blacks in America, we thought that this would be a good time to highlight the many timeless insights contained in Mort's essays.

I urge all our readers to read each of the essays carefully, but here's a quick preview of what they are and a bit (not nearly all) of what they say.

1. The Nature and Origins of Oppression - Here Deutsch explains how oppression got started when agriculture was started, and how it has continued through today.  It is supported by overt, self-serving discrimination, but also by the "unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary situations which are supported by the media and cultural stereotypes as well as by the structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms." So in order to combat oppression, it is necessary to unearth those unconscious assumptions and reactions of well meaning people, change media coverage, cultural stereotypes, and bureaucratic structures that work together to keep oppression in place.

2.  Forms of Oppression - Deutsch explores distributive, procedural, and retributive injustice, along with moral exclusion and cultural imperialism.  All relate directly to the experiences of Blacks in America today.  They also relate to the experiences of many other minorities, and the last two are also relevant to the relationships between the two major U.S. political parties.  All of this has important implications for what needs to be done to effectively overcome White oppression of Blacks, as well as other instances of oppression worldwide.

3.  Maintaining Oppression - This essay primarily focuses on power. When it is read alone, it is pretty depressing—it suggests that oppression is maintained by a large number of very powerful forces, none of which seem easy to change.  Though that is depressing, it is also important to understand:  changing systemic racism or any other type of oppression is not going to be easy.  It is very deeply ingrained in all aspects of society—among the oppressors and the oppressed.  But the situation, as Deutsch asserted in 2005, and is very much true now, is not hopeless.  The last three essays all talk about ways to overcome oppression—through awakening, persuasion, and power.

4.  Overcoming Oppression: Awakening the Sense of Injustice - After explaining that both the oppressors and the oppressed can be unaware of injustice if it has occurred for a long time and has come to be seen as "normal," certain kinds of situations and actions can raise awareness of injustice as well as the notion that something can and should be done about it.  Deutsch describes five kinds of influence that can awaken the sense of injustice:  1) dominant ideologies and myths about justice; 2) exposure to contrary ideologies and myths that are supportive of larger claims for the oppressed; 3) changes in levels of life satisfaction and dissatisfaction; 4) knowledge of what others who are viewed as comparable are getting, and 5) perceptions of the bargaining power of the oppressed and oppressors.  

5. Overcoming Oppression Through Persuasion - Although it is often thought that oppression can only be overcome with force, persuasion is actually more likely to be successful, as using force against a more powerful party is seldom effective.  Three strategies are available for persuasive appeals that are usually most effective when combined:  appeals to moral values, appeals to self-interest, and appeals to self-realization. Deutsch explains what these are, how they are used, and how they can be used in combination with power strategies if the oppressive party isn't willing to listen or negotiate.

6. Overcoming Oppression with Power - When the dominant group is unwilling to negotiate a change in the status quo, the low power group needs to use power to compel the dominant group to negotiate.  There are two approaches: enhancing the power of the low-power group, or decreasing the power of the dominant group.  Deutsch gives suggestions about how to do both.  Low power groups can increase their power by finding additional resources (within themselves, with allies, and within the oppressor) and by increasing the effectiveness by which they use their resources to leverage change.  They can decrease the power of the dominant group, sometimes, through violence of their own (although Deutsch thinks this seldom works and discourages its use). A much better and more often successful approach is nonviolence or nonviolent direct action which has recently been shown to be twice as effective than violence in attaining the goals of the low-power group than are violent approaches.

These are just "teasers."  Much more is found in each of the individual essays which have all been updated with "Current Implications" sections which reflect on their implications for the discussions about race that are happening in the summer of 2020.