Most oppressors do not think they are oppressors. And many of the oppressed don’t think of themselves as being oppressed. That’s why that Monty Python bit is so funny. Oppression is system-wide and people are specific.
Most oppressors think they’re doing good in some way with whatever their oppressive tactics are. Hitler thought he was improving things for everyone.
This is all stupidly obvious.
But it’s making me think of Theatre of the Oppressed. I learned about it in college, when we read Boal’s book in my anthropology class. I loved it. Then years later, I was a part of a Theatre of the Oppressed project and found I had much more complex feelings about it. The first was that identifying as the oppressed didn’t seem to really empower anyone.
Who decides who is oppressed and not? It felt patronizing to say, “Well, you’re oppressed because you live in this neighborhood and you’re that race and you don’t have much money.” The story selection felt like a game of identity politics, a “Who is the most shat upon?”
And while the program brought people together in some ways, the solutions it came to seemed to conveniently leave out the systematic problems people had and instead focused on the micro problems. Rather than thinking about how to battle racism as a collective, it used the collective to think about how to talk to a racist. And there’s nothing wrong with any of it. The participants seemed to enjoy it all immensely and audiences came to see it.
But it all left a very complicated bad taste in my mouth. There are many groups that I identity with that are less privileged than others. Being a woman, for one. Being part of the working poor. Being an artist.
But I have no interest in identifying as oppressed. It feels diminishing somehow Because it comes from outside of me.