“Who am I, as a white American man, to decide how an oppressed group should express their resistance? I support anyone fighting against U.S. imperialism, whether they are insurgents in Iraq or American Indians in Colorado, and I am not going to tell them what they should and should not do.”
About 25 of us were packed into the back room of a local Infoshop to attend a talk about the role of violence in movements for social change. When the presenter arrived at this point, I was not surprised; I had heard this argument so many times, in so many different forms, that I had spotted it long before it was spoken.
One person protested, politely suggesting that many Iraqi insurgent groups do horrible things that are not worthy of anyone’s support. The presenter retorted that the mainstream media misrepresents the struggles of groups in resistance. Heads nodded in agreement, and the conversation quickly moved on to other topics. I am ashamed to say that I remained silent and allowed the issue to be buried.
“Those in positions of privilege who are interested in radical social change should support resistance movements led by oppressed people, withholding all judgment.”
This principle has surfaced in countless radical spaces that I have been a part of, from feminist meetings to Indymedia workshops to anti-war events. Whether explicitly spoken or silently assumed as a foundational truth, it has often had the status of an axiom that is nearly impossible to question. Sometimes it leads to awkward clashes and moral dissonance, but I have never seen it thrown out into the open for all to debate.
I think that this principle contains powerful and misguided claims about human subjectivity. It casts oppressed people as essentially simple and good and constructs their subjectivity as radically different from that of privileged people. It homogenizes complex factions into unified wholes, denying diversity and individual agency. It answers nuanced questions about justice with overly simple statements about human character, jumbling up important discussions within social movements.
We live in a society where constant criticism, insult, and dismissal are everyday instruments and manifestations of oppression. People in positions of privilege learn and adopt these oppressive behaviors, not necessarily because they want to, but because their social positions shape who they are. In order to help disrupt this dynamic and contribute to collective liberation, people in positions of privilege must radically transform themselves; they must examine and change their own oppressive thoughts and behaviors and fight against the oppressive social structures — whether cultural or institutional — that they are caught up in.
The principle that “people in positions of privilege should withhold all judgment of oppressed people in resistance” is an attempt to solve this problem. It suggests that, in order to reverse oppressive social dynamics, privileged people should avoid criticizing and judging oppressed people; indeed, privileged people telling oppressed people what to do and who to be is the very problem, according to this line of thought. Instead, privileged people should take leadership from oppressed people in combating social problems, whether those problems are expressed in interpersonal dynamics or social structures. Only then can we turn social hierarchies on their heads within social movements, and thus ensure that the change we create is truly liberating.
I think that this approach begins to break down when you look at how it constructs the subjectivity of the oppressed versus the privileged person. When I use the word subjectivity, I refer to the internal reality of the person: her interpretation of experience, process of thought, repository of memories, and unique consciousness. I use this word because of its strength; I wish to demonstrate the totalizing effects of claims about human subjectivity.
First of all, to claim that oppressed people are beyond reproach implies certain boundaries. It suggests that privileged people exist within a field where outside and internal criticism is welcome and constructive, but that they should make sure that this criticism stays within their field and does not extend into the realm of oppressed people. This framework is cast as important for the political transformation of privileged people; by absorbing and internalizing criticism from the outside, as well as generating criticism of those who share her social advantage, the privileged person can begin to identify and change her own oppressive ways and those of the larger group to which she belongs. Thus, individual and collective transformation are closely related; the privileged person must continuously work on herself in order to challenge structural oppression and affect positive change in her personal life. Within this framework, the subjectivity of the privileged person becomes hugely important for political struggle. The privileged person must navigate a complex mental terrain, fraught with dangerous thoughts, learned behaviors, and possible mistakes. By employing agency and force of will, the privileged person can transform herself into an agent of positive social change.
The subjectivities of oppressed people are decidedly more static, according to this line of thought. Oppressed people exist within a field that is closed off to criticism — this tool for understanding and growth, by which the privileged person is established as a political subject, is denied them. The oppressed person is seen from the outside — as a part of an oppressed whole — but it is impossible to peer in to learn about her inner workings, if they exist at all. She is a political subject because of the group to which she belongs, not because of her unique desires, goals, motivations, or personal choices. Within this framework, the oppressed person is no longer insulted, harassed, and disproportionately criticized. But she is still “other.” The self that she occupies is unknowable; questioning and criticism cannot be used to decipher the cause of her actions. She is still contained within the category that oppression has created for her — a category of difference as defined by the privileged outsider.
It is easy to see how this line of thought leads to the essentialization of oppressed people as inherently good. The reasoning is that those who suffer under oppressive institutions, governments, and cultures know far more about the workings of oppression than those in positions of privilege ever could. Thus, oppressed people are driven towards positive radical change as a direct consequence of their conditions. Unlike the privileged person, who must fight against the oppressive behaviors she has inadvertently learned, the oppressed person must merely be who she is and follow the knowledge that her social position affords her.
It is true that direct exposure to oppression is a powerful source of knowledge. However, as Joan Scott has argued, personal knowledge through experience is not unmediated. Systems of oppression also serve to beat people down, delude them, and shape their responses. No one can avoid being situated in a historical moment that has power to affect her perceptions of reality. To claim that oppressed people do not have to struggle, self-criticize, introspect, and search in order to do the right thing denies them agency, creativity, and force of will, and in fact, reserves these qualities for privileged people alone, who are constantly tempted to do the wrong thing.
There is no doubt that privileged people in resistance movements need to do a great deal of work to overcome learned oppressive behaviors. However, this effort will only be hindered by embracing clichés about the essential goodness of oppressed people. I think that it is absolutely vital to re-think an approach that renders oppressed people infallible and unreproachable and devise new methods for combating oppression that take human variation and complexity into account.
Let us return to the previous example to look at what happens when the principle that “oppressed people in resistance are beyond reproach” is applied to real political situations. The presenter essentialized all resistance movements against U.S. imperialism as deserving of indiscriminate support — as pulled by the same force towards good. Yet, who are these “oppressed Iraqi people” bound together by common struggle? Are they Sunnis, Shiites, secularists, socialists, or capitalists? Are they the ones blowing up crowded markets, fleeing Iraq, attending peace rallies, or hoisting the caskets of their children on their shoulders as they march through the streets? Are they the ones carrying out honor killings or fighting for their abolition? The category of the “unified oppressed group” becomes dangerously homogenizing; a complex social situation, with many competing political visions, is reduced to a cliché. Individual subjectivity is lost; all become a part of a whole that does not represent them — that is patently false.
It is easy to see how dangerous this line of thought can become. The false category of the oppressed group makes it impossible to openly discuss oppression within that group — ethnically motivated discrimination and murder, patriarchal oppression, religious tyranny, etc. It also prevents distinction between groups with different political goals.
The principle that oppressed people are beyond reproach contains claims about human subjectivity that are damaging and false. Yet, it is an attempt to answer vital questions about justice within social movements. How do we create fair, equitable movements for radical change? How do we prevent the oppressive power relations that we are fighting against from infecting resistance movements? How do we create coalitions among diverse group of people? How do we handle political disagreement amongst people of differing cultural and privilege backgrounds?
The answers to these questions are beyond the scope of this essay. What I have argued here is that the answers do not lie in clichés about the essential goodness of oppressed people. Political situations are infinitely variable, and so must be correct courses of action. Questions about justice within social movements must be addressed honestly and deeply, with attention to nuance and specificity. While it is important to discuss these issues collectively, it is also vitally important to think for oneself — to approach these questions with open eyes and to take on the full weight of one’s decisions.