On Oppression

I wanted to add to my previous post about the power of oppression, to in some way provide a notion not only of what I resent seeing in the world, but what I wish to see. Speaking in the positive, of what could be instead of what shouldn’t be, is very important.

First, I’d like you to consider two situations. First, a national civil rights conference, filled with people who are deeply concerned about issues of discrimination. These are people who feel an obligation to make a change in a world they see as corrupted. The other is a college suite, filled with people of differing backgrounds, races, and sexualities, who persistently joke at one another’s expense, calling each other by names like “Dirty Mexican” or “Slut” or “Bitch.” If I asked you which of these is superior, which we aught to aspire to, the answer would probably seem obvious. I’ve been to both places, though, and I can tell you that you are wrong.

I visited the conference with a group I formed with several friends in high-school, moved by a book called “Free the Children” to try to aid the fight against child labor. We were lucky to be allowed to visit the conference as presenters, and looked forward tot he chance to learn from people who had more experience and more passion then us. However, what we found was completely different then what we had expected. The conference held none of the practical, problem solving approach of our meetings. Instead, the majority of the attendees were members of our society’s minorities, who felt that they were oppressed by an ongoing, systematic form of oppression. White people were specifically targeted, referred to as dogs, and any planning that went on sounded more like a war then a reconstruction. The goal was to tear down the system, not to fix it, and I saw no place being made for me in the new system. How was I expected to feel compassion, or a desire to help, with people who wanted me out of the picture? Quite possibly the most offensive remarks I heard came from a woman of my own race, a woman who seemed to carry the guilt of thousands of slave owners she was possible not even related to. I admit that what hurt the most was that she seemed like a traitor to my race. Was that, a pathetic form begging for forgiveness for crimes she had not perpetrated, what would be demanded of me as well if I were to belong? We left largely discouraged, at least towards the organization if not the cause altogether.

Still, I can imagine some of you saying this seems better then the derisive college suite I described. As I said, though, I was there too. I spent many weekends there visiting Moi last year. I was not exaggerating the political incorrectness of the atmosphere. However, you may note that I never mentioned pain, or anger, or hurt. These things were absent. Contrary to all common sense, the suite felt much like a family, and everyone felt secure.

Is it really so counter intuitive, though?

The distinction here was the way that these terms were used. Today, debate rages around the use of the infamous N-word among African-Americans. In many ways Moi’s suite was the same way. Yes, nearly every stereotype available was used to joke about someone else. Nothing was ever said in meanness though, or to deny anyone their freedom. Quite the opposite, everyone was universally accepted, no one was thought strange. Something even more important happened, though. The same way that people can, among their friends, come to be proud of usual qualities (a proficiency with video games, a knack for puns, whatever it may be), so too did everyone come to take a certain pride in their qualities, even if only as a sort of simplified, stereotypical, hilarious image of themselves. This image was never confused for the real identity, neither among the suite mates or the actual person. Rather, these images were kept around as a cast of characters for our personal comedies.

The most amazing this about this was not the connections we formed among ourselves, or the fun we had with these ridiculous stereotypical parodies, but the way that they were able to rob these otherwise noxious names of their power. It would have been difficult for anyone to really insult someone else. If someone had yelled in anger, “You dirty Mexican!” the target of the remark would have found it nearly as hilarious as ever. “You’re damn straight! Now where’s my money? I don’t clean your house for nothing!”

For many, this sort of situation seems ridiculous. However, I’d like to echo the sentiments of countless comedians through time; the best way to steal the power from something is to laugh at it. It’s when people forget to laugh, when people take everything too seriously, that society’s fragile balance collapses. I would wish on everyone the freedom of being that I saw among that group of friends.

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