Overcoming Oppression: Awakening the Sense of Injustice

Morton Deutsch

March 2005

In this essay, I shall consider the sensitivity to injustice in the victim and the victimizer. Awareness of injustice is a precondition for overcoming it.

The Differential Sensitivity to Injustice of the Victim and the Victimizer

Although it may be morally better "to be sinned against than to sin," it is generally accepted that the immediate pain is usually greater for the one who is sinned against than for the sinner. As I have indicated in earlier essays, the victimizers -- in addition to their gains from their exploitative actions -- commonly have the reassurance of the official definitions of justice and the support of such major institutions as the church, the press, and the schools to deaden their sensitivities to the injustices inherent in their relations with the victim. The victim may, of course, be taken in by the official definitions and the indoctrination emanating from social institutions and, as a result, lose his sensitivity to injustice. However, since he is the one who is experiencing the negative consequences of the injustice, he is also less likely to feel committed to the official definitions and indoctrinations, especially because of his lack of participation in creating them.

The explanation of the differential sensitivity in terms of differential gains and differential power is not the complete story. There are, of course, relations in which the victimizer is not of superior power, and yet, even so, he will not experience guilt for his actions. Consider a traffic accident in which a car hits a pedestrian. The driver of the car will usually perceive the accident so as to place responsibility for it upon the victim. Seeing the victim as responsible will enable the driver to maintain a positive image of himself. Projecting the blame on the victim enables the victimizer to feel blameless.

If we accept the notion that most people try to maintain a positive conception of themselves, we can expect a differential sensitivity to injustice in those who experience pain, harm, or misfortune and those who cause it. If I try to think well of myself, I shall minimize my responsibility for any injustice that is connected with me or minimize the amount of injustice that has occurred if I cannot minimize my responsibility. On the other hand, if I am the victim of pain and harm, to think well of myself, it is necessary for me to believe that it was not my due: it is not a just dessert for a person of my good character. Thus, the need to maintain positive self-esteem leads to opposite reactions in those who have caused an injustice and those who suffer from it.

Although the need to maintain a positive self-regard is common, it is not universal. The victim of injustice, if he views himself favorably, may be outraged by his experience and attempt to undo it; in the process of so doing, he may have to challenge the victimizer. If the victimizer is more powerful and has the support of the legal and other institutions of the society, the victim will realize that it would be dangerous to act on his outrage or even to express it. Under such circumstances, in a process that Anna Freud labeled "identification with the aggressor," the victim may control his dangerous feelings of injustice by denying them and by internalizing the derogatory attitudes of the victimizer toward himself.[1]

Conditions that Awaken and Intensify the Sensitivity to Injustice

In the preceding, I have suggested that the sense of injustice may be minimal in the oppressors and also in the oppressed under certain circumstances. Here, I wish to consider the conditions that awaken and intensify the sensitivity to injustice. The major explanatory theme advanced by social scientists for the sensitivity to injustice is that of relative deprivation: the perceived discrepancy between what a person believes she is entitled to and what she obtains regarding the different forms of justice: distributive, procedural, retributive, moral inclusion, and cultural imperialism. It is commonly assumed that it is relative rather than absolute deprivation that is critical in stimulating dissatisfaction. Research has demonstrated that people who are well off by absolute standards may feel more discontent than those who are much worse off if they feel relatively more deprived because their aspirations are high or they are surrounded by people who are even more well-off than they are.[2]

Runciman has made a distinction between two types of relative deprivation: egoistic and fraternal.[3] Egoistical deprivation occurs when an individual feels disadvantaged relative to other individuals; fraternal deprivation occurs when a person feels his group is disadvantaged in relation to another group. An individual may feel doubly deprived: as an individual and as a group member. As Tajfel has pointed out, the two kinds of deprivations have different implications for how an individual may improve his situation.[4] To remedy fraternal deprivation, social change (change in the position of one's group) is necessary; to remedy egoistic deprivation, only change in one's individual situation is entailed.

The greater the magnitude of relative deprivation, the greater the sense of injustice that will be experienced by the oppressed. Members of the relatively advantaged group will be sensitive to the injustices experienced by the oppressed when they are aware that the oppressed are relatively deprived, that they are receiving less than their entitlement.

An individual's conception of what is he and others are entitled to is determined by at least five major kinds of influence:

(1) the ideologies and myths about justice that are dominant and officially supported in the society,

(2) the amount of exposure to ideologies and myths that conflict with those that are officially supported and are supportive of larger claims for the oppressed,

(3) experienced changes in satisfactions-dissatisfactions,

(4) knowledge of what others who are viewed as comparable are getting, and

(5) perceptions of the bargaining power of the oppressed and oppressors.

The Influence of Ideologies and Myths

The official ideology and myths of any society help define and justify the values that are distributed to the different positions within the society; they codify for the individual what a person in his position can legitimately expect. Examples are legion of how official ideology and myth limit or enhance one's views of what one is entitled to. The American poor offer an instance of the potency of myth in creating an identity that promotes docility in the face of deprivation.[5] Schools, the mass media, and their political rhetoric teach Americans that America is the land of equal opportunity. Given such pervasive indoctrination, the poor are apt to attribute their condition to their own failings. This view of themselves as unworthy is further supported by cues from governmental practices toward them which place in question their morality, ambition, and competence. As a result, the poor in America have typically been meek and acquiescent, requiring less coercion and less in benefits than has been true in other developed countries. Similarly, the ideology and myth of white supremacy has led whites to expect that they are entitled to deferential behavior from blacks and blacks to expect that they are not entitled to equal treatment from whites. In addition, men and women under the influence of a sexist mythology and ideology have defined gender entitlements that give the woman supremacy in the narrow confines of the kitchen and the nursery while men have supremacy in the broad world outside the home as well as in many areas within it.

The Weakening of Official Ideologies

It is difficult not to accept the official myths and ideology of one's society even if they are to one's disadvantage unless:

(1) there is a breakdown of consensual norms and the inability or unwillingness of the ruling elite to act in such a way as to restore these norms. This is likely to occur during a period of rapid social change or intra-societal conflict, either of which could bring into question the legitimacy of traditional myths and values.

(2) there is a failure of the society to deliver the entitlements that it has defined as legitimate for one's position, so that the magnitude of one's relative deprivation is increased. This could be due to natural or social disasters that worsen the conditions of daily life; or

(3) there is exposure to new ideologies and new examples that are accepted as legitimate by many people, which stimulate consciousness of new and better possibilities. This could happen as the result of increased communication arising from new technological developments such as books, newspapers, radio, and television, or it may reflect an increased urbanization and the resulting exposure to more diversity of people, ideas, and experience. Obviously, one would expect that the receptivity to new ideologies and examples would be heightened by the breakdown of legitimacy of the existing ideology and the worsening of living conditions.

Experienced Changes in Satisfactions-Dissatisfactions

Modifications in the conception of what one is entitled to derive not only from alterations in the ideology and myths that one accepts, but also from changes in one's experiences of satisfaction. A period of gain creates expectations about further improvement. As Tocqueville in L'Amcien Regime commented: "Only a great genius can save a prince who undertakes to relieve his subjects after a long oppression. The evil, which was suffered patiently as inevitable, seems unendurable as soon as the idea of escaping from it is conceived".[6]

Many social scientists, before and after Tocqueville, have written insightfully about the "revolution of rising expectations" to explain the paradox that social discontent and even revolutionary activity is more likely to occur after social conditions have improved, when there is rising hope, not bleak despair. The explanation generally follows two major lines. First, improvement of social conditions increases aspirations by increasing what is perceived to be possible to attain. Demand may increase at a faster rate than the actual gains received, with a resulting increase in relative deprivation and in the sense of injustice. The increased discontent is most likely to occur if the gains are discontinued or reversed after the initial gains have heightened further expectations.

The second explanation of the effects of gains is that, the increase is not uniform in all areas in which the victimized are disadvantaged. Improvement in one area, such as education, only makes one more sensitive to the injustice one is experiencing in other areas such as employment, police protection, and housing. Many social scientists have advanced the proposition that status-disequilibrium (such that there are differences in one's relative statuses in income, education, social prestige, and the like) is a source of tension and discontent. Thus, a very effective way of enhancing the sense of injustice of the victimized is to increase their education and little else.

Comparing Oneself to Others

Alterations in the conception of what one is entitled to result not only from changes in the level of satisfaction, but also from modifications in one's views: either about how comparable others are being treated, or about who should be considered as comparable. There is considerable research evidence that one's attitude, one's evaluations of one's abilities, and one's emotions are very much influenced by one's perceptions of these attributes in others who are used for comparison purposes.[7] Although the evidence is by no means conclusive, it has been suggested by Festinger, Gurr, and others that comparison tends to be primarily with similar others, and Gurr further suggests that the comparison will be with the similar others whose gains are most rapid.[8] Thus, if someone else who is perceived to be similar is already better off, then one will feel it is unjust, and if, in addition, the person advances rapidly in status, salary, or the like, one will experience a substantial increase in relative deprivation unless one receives a comparable increase. A potent way of arousing the sense of injustice is to make the victim more aware that comparable others are being treated better or to increase her feeling that it is appropriate to compare herself with others whom she previously considered to be incomparable to herself.

Increasing Bargaining Power

One's perceived power is undoubtedly a factor determining what one is entitled to and with whom one compares oneself to establish one's entitlements. If a victim or victimized group is dealing with an unresponsive exploitative group, it is faced with either the possibility of resigning into apathy and depression or attempting to increase its power sufficiently to persuade or compel the other to negotiate. Bargaining power is increased by either of two means: increasing one's own power or decreasing the other's power. Attempts to change power can be directed at altering the resources that underlie power (such as wealth, physical strength, organization, knowledge, skill, trust, respect, and affection), or it can be directed toward modifying the effectiveness with which the resources of power are employed.

The primary resource of the oppressed are discontented people and having justice on their side. The utility of people as a resource of power is a function of their numbers, their personal qualities (such as their knowledge, skill, dedication, and discipline), their social cohesion (as reflected in mutual trust, mutual liking, mutual values, and mutual goals) and their social organization (as expressed in effective coordination and communication, division of labor, and specialization of function, planning and evaluation). Numbers of people are obviously important, but undoubtedly not as important as their personal qualities, social cohesion, and social organization. A large, inchoate mass of undisciplined, ineffectual people are at the mercy of a small, dedicated, disciplined, well-organized, cohesive group. Most large groups are controlled by less than ten percent of their membership.

If one examines such low-power minority groups as the Jews, Chinese, and Japanese that have done disproportionately well in the United States and in other countries to which they have migrated, it is apparent that these groups have been characterized by high social cohesion and effective social organization, combined with an emphasis upon the development of such personal qualities as skill, dedication, and discipline. Similarly, the effectiveness of such guerilla forces as the Vietcong or such terrorist groups as Al Qaeda has been, in part, due to their cohesion, social organization, and personal dedication. Clearly, the development of these characteristics is of prime importance as a means of increasing the power of one's group.

Elsewhere, I have considered some of the determinants of cohesion. Here I add that groups become cohesive by formulating and working together on issues that are specific, immediate, and realizable.[9] They become effectively organized as they plan how to use their resources to achieve their purposes and as they evaluate their past effectiveness in the light of their experiences. It is apparent that the pursuit of vague, far-in-the-future, grandiose objectives will not long sustain a group's cohesiveness. Nor will the exclusive pursuit of a single issue be likely to sustain a long-enduring group, unless that issue proliferates into many sub-issues. Those intent upon developing social cohesion and social organization should initially seek out issues that permit significant victories quickly; they will set out on a protracted indeterminate struggle only after strongly cohesive and effective social organizations have been created.

So far, I have stressed personal qualities, social cohesion, and social organization as resources that can be developed by low-power groups to enhance their power. Typically, such resources are vastly underdeveloped in victimized groups; however, they are necessary to the effective utilization of almost every other type of resource, including money, votes, tools, force, and the like. Low-power groups often have two other key assets that can be used to amplify their other resources: discontent and the sense of injustice. If intense enough, these may provide the activating motivation and the continuing determination to change the status quo. They are the energizers for individual and social action to bring about change. Moreover, to the extent that the basis for discontent and the nature of the injustice can be communicated to others so that they experience it, if only vicariously, then supporters and allies will be attracted to the side of the low-power group. And increasing the number of one's supporters and allies is another important way of increasing one's power. Thus, in a circular way, bargaining power and the sense of injustice mutually reinforce each other: an increase in one increases the other.

Discontent and the sense of injustice may be latent rather than manifest in a subordinated group. Neither the consciousness of oneself as victimized or disadvantaged nor the consciousness of being a member of a class of disadvantaged may exist psychologically. If this be the case, consciousness-raising tactics are necessary precursors to the developing of group cohesion and social organization. The diversity of consciousness-raising tactics have been illustrated by the variety of techniques employed in recent years by women's liberation groups and black power groups. They range from quasi-therapeutic group discussion meetings through mass meetings and demonstrations to dramatic confrontations of those in high-power groups. It is likely that a positive consciousness of one's disadvantaged identity is most aroused when one sees someone, who is considered to be similar to oneself, explicitly attacked or disadvantaged and sees him resist successfully or overcome the attack; his resistance reveals simultaneously the wound and its cure.


Note: This was originally one long article on oppression, which we have broken up to post on Beyond Intractability. The next article in the series is: Overcoming Oppression through Persuasion.

[1] Freud. Anna (1937). Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. London: Hogarth.

[2] Crosby, f. (1982). Relative Deprivation and Working Women. New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Runciman, W.C. (1966). Relative Deprivation and Social Justice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[4] Tajfel, H. (1982). Social Identity and Intergroup Relations. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[5] Edelman, P. (1971). Politics as Symbolic Action: Mass Arousal and Acquiescence. Chicago: Markham.

[6] Tocqueville, A. de (1947). L'Ancien Regime. Trans, M.W. Patterson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p. 186.

[7] Pettigrew, T. (1967). Social Evaluation Theory. In D. Levine, ed., Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

[8] Festinger, L. (1954). A Theory of Social Comparison Processes. American Psychologist, 16, 1-11.

Gurr, T. R. (1970). Why Men Rebel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[9] Deutsch, M. (1973). The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Use the following to cite this article:
Deutsch, Morton. "Overcoming Oppression: Awakening the Sense of Injustice." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: March 2005 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/awakening>.

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