Operating out of the Good: Interpersonal Interactions and Oppression by Ivy Helman

How humans treat one another matters.  Oppression is not only systematic; it is also personal because humans reproduce societal forms of oppression in interpersonal relationships.   Take sexism for example. Sexism, at its worst, manifests itself in intimate relationships through physical abuse, emotional violence, mental manipulation and/or controlling behavior.

This isn’t the only of form of interpersonal oppression that exists between humans.  Humans oppress one another in many subtle (and not so subtle) but equally harmful ways.  For instance, there are also racist remarks and sexual harassment.  Yet, that’s not what I want I want to focus on here.  Instead, I want to look at interpersonal forms of oppression in which agents often believe themselves to be an agent of the good.

Let’s probe two examples.  As the reader will see, each example has its own motivating factor, its own concept of “the good” and at least one oppressive outcome. I believe all of these agents think they are doing what is best for another person and do not necessarily understand the ways in which they are reproducing oppression. If they did, I’m pretty sure they’d modify their behavior, or at least I hope they would.

Example #1

Last month I wrote about a job that I quit because they were so critical of me that I felt like nothing I did was ever good enough.  They treated everyone, regardless of experience, exactly the same.  More than that, the way in which I was made to feel completely inept at teaching dragged down not only my opinion of myself but upped my level of stress as I tried in vain to do better in their eyes.  After months of constant criticism and a poignant discussion with a colleague, I realized that nothing I did would change the system. Likewise, my evaluations would continue to focus on the negative and write off the positive. The corporate culture valued, encouraged and systematized multiple forms of critique with the assumption that this system produced better teachers and better experiences in general. They even had “satisfaction surveys” at their holiday party.  Who does that?empty-exam-hall

Clearly, the company operated out of the assumption that their method of consistently negative feedback motivated people to fix their mistakes. Rather, it inculcated high levels of stress, constant second guessing and poor self-esteem. That’s why it is oppressive. While it motivated me temporarily (I gave my three-week notice after three months of trying to do better in their eyes), no one can operate within that system for long. It is no wonder their turnover rate is so high. I can think of a million other ways to create better teachers.

Example #2

Two weeks ago, I experienced the worst vertigo in my life. I’m not one to rush to a doctor at the drop of a hat so for me to spend the day in the emergency room, something is wrong. Yet, my treatment here in Prague was awful. In the end, I went to three different hospitals before I was seen. The first nurse we went to turned me away saying I wasn’t bleeding and the doctor would not help me. Another office within the hospital took my insurance card and my passport about ten minutes after I arrived. After an hour of waiting, and watching the staff struggle with a patient seizing and puking up blood in the hallway of the treatment area, I was told that it would be hours before I would be seen. I was the only patient in the waiting room. The doctor told me that she did not consider my symptoms to be an emergency and that she was there to help the emergencies. What made matters worse was that she made it clear that she wasn’t going to treat me until she was sure no other emergencies would arrive. How can one be sure no other emergencies would arrive? Clearly, that would never happen. She literally said, “While I can’t technically turn you away, I want you to know you will be waiting a long time.” She was turning me away the only way she could by making me the last patient to receive treatment.

stethoscope-23441288983461x1ZClearly, the doctor felt stressed and overwhelmed. She was trying the best she could. Her concept of the good was to help only those patients she considered to be emergency cases. Yet, she also was extremely quick to judge how she thought I was feeling and made me feel that my experience was insignificant. Rather than value my experience and take what I was saying seriously, she behaved oppressively. Yet, to me, the worst part of the treatment was her telling me that if she could, she would turn me away. I’m speechless.


Because of these experiences I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we treat each other and the ways in which our behavior replicates societal oppression. What bothers me the most is that these people thought that they were acting within the framework of the good. I’ve been wondering whether their definition of the good is wrong. If it is not, then why is their behavior, motivated by a definition of the good, not actually doing good? How could behavior be modified to better align with definitions of the good?

In both of the examples above, I would say that their intentions within their understanding of the good are generally correct (creating better teachers and helping emergency cases first when swamped), but it is the way they are put into practice that produces oppressive behavior. Here, analysis of individual interactions and experiences needs to be assessed as well as corporate models that require certain interactions. Is there a way to do so outside of individual human initiative? From where does the motivation come? Do I, the receiver of poor treatment, have the moral responsibility to call them out on their actions?

I’m not sure how to answer these questions. On the one hand, I believe that they may not be aware of the ways in which their behavior oppresses others, so I should speak up. Yet, on the other hand, people who behave oppressively need to take responsibility for their behavior.

What I am sure about is this: humans often oppress others even when they act out of a common definition of the good. Yet, operating out of the good requires that all of our interactions create experiences that are liberating and life affirming. Failing to do so only replicates oppression. Humanity has a long way to go.

Author: Ivy Helman

Jewish feminist scholar, activist and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic.

12 thoughts on “Operating out of the Good: Interpersonal Interactions and Oppression by Ivy Helman”

    1. It was rough Marie, but I received a good recommendation for a neurologist from my partner’s grandmother and am under treatment now. I definitely do not wish this experience on anyone!


  1. Dear Ivy,
    I’m very sorry you had these experiences and I hope you got treatment for your vertigo and are feeling better.

    There may be a larger context to consider these oppressive systems. Case 1: perhaps they deliberately want to foster a high turn-over rate of teachers because they do not want to pay experienced teachers more money. If the written evaluations are constantly negative, they can justify not giving raises or bonuses. The constant criticism is a tool to keep labor costs at a minimum. Good for the company, bad for the workers.
    Case 2: It costs more money to treat emergency room patients than treating patients in a clinical setting. If the doctor thinks your problem can be treated in a clinic/ your condition is not life-threatening, then she wants you to go to the clinic. You probably have not experienced this in the USA because everyone is so litigious here, doctors are afraid you might sue them if you are not seen. Europeans are not so lawsuit-prone. The lengthy wait game is to test you, to make sure you REALLY want to see the doctor, and they are hoping you will be impatient enough to leave and go elsewhere. I strongly suggest you get a family practice physician while you are in Prague. At the very least, if you do need to be hospitalized, your personal doctor will advocate for you.

    I can only think of economic contexts that lead to this “good gone bad’ scenario. Hopefully there are other readers who could furnish different perspectives.


  2. Your post sure hit home for me Ivy! A few weeks ago I moved from my old suite to a one bedroom apartment that had come vacant. Two “friends” offered to help – well, one told me she was going to help (whether I wanted her to or not!) when she got off work. The other I asked to take my dog, who she loves, so he wouldn’t get outside, lost, or stepped on. She turned my dog over to her two kids and took over my packing and moving. I’m sure they both had good intentions, but what happened felt to me like a home invasion. They took over and pushed me aside and actually made more work for me. Now they are both mad at me for not falling over with gratitude but instead showing some – uhmmmm – pissed-off-ready-to-strangle-anger!

    I left the anger at the door of my new apartment, why should I carry it? I realized that these people are not ones I enjoy being with so it “allowed” me to enjoy different friends instead of feeling an obligation to be with people who say we are friends. I had already spoken with one of them about how I feel when she talks to me – she works with children all day and seems to think I’m one of them. I’m realizing more and more that I can’t change someone else, only how I respond to their behaviour. The experience has taught me and freed me and showed me where change is possible.

    Anyway, the shorter version of this story is that I feel with you, and I’m glad you didn’t stay in the abusive job situation. The medical problem is beyond one doctor and is a system failing as you indicated by linking the personal and the systemic. But in the end, the personal and the collective is so closely inter-twined that changing one effects the other, and perhaps that is our life’s work – how to do so with wisdom and compassion.


    1. You just reminded me of that proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It seems moving was a personal hell for you. Good that you were able to leave your anger at the door and have the insight to know who’s a real friend and who isn’t. Yet, wouldn’t it be nice if your friends understood how their behavior made you feel?


  3. Hi Ivy, this is a shocking fact, but right now the third leading cause of death in the USA is mistakes made by doctors and caretakers in hospitals (about 225,000 deaths a year). The adverse effects of prescribed medications alone cause 106,000 deaths a year, and there are an estimated 12,000 deaths/year from unnecessary!!! surgery.

    Search Google for: “Medical care is the 3rd leading cause of death in the U.S.” Read the whole article, it’s mind-boggling.


  4. Hi NMR, Yes, the doctor wanted Ivy to stop bothering her and go elsewhere. And she, the doctor, was convinced that this was done for the good – to help “real” emergencies who could possibly arrive later. And that’s exactly the point, that’s what’s wrong, no matter how the doctor justified to herself her good intentions. I believe that you too wrote your thoughts with good intentions, to give Ivy some useful tips. Sadly, Ivy had an insider right next to her (that would be me:-) and we didn’t do anything differently from what an average Czech person would have had a chance to do. I so agree larger contexts are necessary – except that Ivy is not missing them. She has been through it. I have some insider tips too, the unromantic ones, the ones that don’t paint our system as good because it stands proudly and doesn’t buy into made-up law suits. There’s no clinic where you just walk in anytime and where some treatment would cost less than ER, and there’s no nice family doctor who will advocate for you, let alone after office hours, weekends or God forbid as in our case during Christmas, or let alone if your insurance card says something as “foreigner”. Instead, there’re many nurses and doctors who are horribly low paid and overworked, whose bosses yell at them, and so they yell at the patients, and no one speaks up against it. There’re also many great nurses and doctors of course. But what we saw was a hallway at ER where the doctors yell at their patient who is in the middle of an epileptic attack “You drunk jerk” while the patient’s wife and son are watching all this, quietly and in tears. There’s indeed a lot of oppression in the Czech health care system. Wouldn’t it be nice if the story was different though. One day, maybe.


    1. Dear H,
      I am glad you were there to help Ivy through this. You sound like a good friend. Sorry about commenting on a system I don’t understand.


      1. Thank you, nmr. And clearly local people often feel lost in this system too. This is where Kafka comes from…need I say more…


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