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.
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?
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.
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.
Clearly, 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.