Blogging to Prepare for PhD Comprehensive Exam: Understanding Oppression

Iris Marion Young tries to expand our understanding of oppression by offering a constellation of “five faces” that describe the various ways oppression affects individuals within certain social groups.

She speaks about social groups and their fluidity, challenging the perspective that places the individual ontologically prior to that of group membership, since social groups are formed through social dynamics and not through intentional choices of individuals. At the same time that the identities of individuals are shaped by their position within certain groups, the group does not confer characteristics to group members or essential natures. Groups are fluid and change, and people sometimes transform their identities and then move to other groups, but the groups as Young describes them, are prior to the individuals themselves.

That being said, the oppression experienced by various groups takes five forms: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. In her discussion on these five forms, Young provides anecdotes as well as conceptual tools to distinguish these forms from their more generic meanings. For instance, under violence, Young describes the way violence towards certain groups becomes something unquestioned by larger society, due to the fact that members of these groups have been ascribed abject bodies, that is, their bodies are sites of cultural meanings designated repulsive to dominant society. Thus, persons identifying as gay or lesbian have been labeled as deviant, and thus the violence done to their bodies is tolerated at a higher level than that of heterosexual person. Also, the bodies of women have been inscribed as the site for the sexual satisfaction of men, so rape has been historically sanctioned. Under the section of powerlessness, Young speaks to the difference between working class and professional class persons, where the latter are afforded greater respect in various social settings compared to the former.

As a personal anecdote, I requested a free estimate from a plumber today for various jobs around our new house. He came into one bathroom, listened to my complaint about the fixture, did not say much, and so we moved along to the next area I was interested in getting a quote for. Down in the laundry room, after I pointed out a leaky drain and mentioned our hopes of getting a half-bath down there, he begins by asking: “who’s ‘we’? Do you have a husband? Because that’s why I really would like it if everyone was present, because there’s no way you can explain to him the 50 different options… There’s like 50 different ways I can do each of these jobs.” That’s not verbatim, and I may be giving him the benefit of the doubt even in how I’m representing what he said, but the gist was as it came across: I really am wasting my time talking to you when I should be talking to your husband, who is the one to make the decision on this anyhow. The estimate went on, he didn’t leave right away, even though I was done with the estimate then and there. I felt belittled and powerless, unable by my sensibility towards hospitality and felt need for “niceness” even to kick him out of my own home. Phil came home as he was leaving, and I found myself feeling grateful that my “man” was finally home. Instantly, I felt my self-esteem impacted negatively, all because of a subtle discursive interchange that conveyed the idea that men are the decision-makers and power brokers, whereas women are not. I may be the one who typically makes these kinds of decisions in my family, but this plumber assumed that I would not be the one to make the decision. Young’s categories of oppression felt very real and palpable in this situation. And yet, there was no clear remediation. I sent an e-mail directly to the plumber, stating how I felt offended that he told me he preferred that my husband be present, and he left me a voice mail saying it hurt his feelings that I would say that. This of course invalidated my feelings, as if his lack of intentionality nullified my experience. Crazy-making. The cycle of powerlessness and silencing of persons experiencing oppression. So…what does Young say we can do about this?…

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