Bedrock conviction: oppression is a relational dynamic involving at least two roles: oppressor and oppressed. If we want to relate to someone or some situation in a different way, then we have to move out of and beyond these two roles. We have to focus our attention in a way in which we can experience the other as neither oppressive nor oppressed. It has to be focused on the other as genuinely and humbly as possible in order to experience them as they are. At least as much as possible.
To do this our action has to be grounded in experiencing ourselves and other(s) in a context out of and beyond the oppressive dynamic. Free of it as much as possible in a given moment.
Setting ourselves up in “anti-oppression,” anti-racism,” and other “anti-” spaces is a big mistake. When we engage in these oppositional frames we are grounding ourselves in the dynamic we need to move beyond. Keeping ourselves grounded in it experientially no matter to what cognitive lengths we go in opposing it. Hobbling ourselves from moving out of and beyond it.
Rebellion may be an important first step, but it is ultimately self-defeating.
Bioculturally we are well-equipped to relate out of mutuality, reciprocity, gifting, and love. We begin doing this from the moment of birth, maybe earlier. The survival and evolution of our species requires we relate this way deeply and broadly. It makes our world go around. These are proactive ways of relating.
Oppression also runs deep and wide. We get into this way of relating on three levels: within ourselves, with others interpersonally, and socially.
We are deeply conditioned to relate to ourselves oppressively (or repressively, if you wish). We drive ourselves to do what we think we should do. Often we punish ourselves for the mistakes we make. In so many ways we are ashamed of the way we are socially, intellectually physically—not smart enough, too fat, too thin, wrong color, wrong gender, etc.—, and so on. Very few of us ever experience ourselves as fundamentally “okay.” We are almost always struggling intensely to become “good enough.”
Then there are the social conditions we cannot control. Behaviorally they can keep us boxed into the oppressive dynamic. For example, much of our economic lives take place through capitalist exchanges. These are inherently oppressive regardless of the motives of those who are participating in them. In spite of this lack of control, however, we do not have to identify with the oppressive dynamic. If we choose not to identify with it, we won’t.
This is not easy. In fact, it is a hell of a struggle, since 1) we have been deeply conditioned into it from the moment of our birth and so we don’t understand what we are going along with, 2) we are embedded in a culture in which capitalism is the predominant mode of livelihood (eating, producing, sheltering, recycling, etc.) and can’t avoid except by extraordinary practices, and 3) unlearning our oppressive conditioning is neither promoted nor supported in our culture, so it is damn difficult, to put it mildly.
Our struggle to free ourselves of the influence of both internal and social oppressive conditions will have no end during our lifetime. We are the prisoners of our culture. The dynamics of virtually every one of our interpersonal relationships is strongly influenced to some degree by our oppressive internal conditioning and our social conditions. The oppressive stuff we do to ourselves we also do to those we relate to, and they do them to us.
But that is not all. Our relationships are also strongly influenced by our biocultural tendencies to act and experience out of solidarity with and love for others.
We are also the creators of who we are and our culture. This gives us great leverage for creating relationships, relational spaces, and even institutions beyond oppression.
But let’s be clear. We cannot create social, economic, and political spaces or institutions without liberating our personal selves from the oppressive ways in which we relate to ourselves and to each other. There will be no freedom without that inter-subjective work. And that kind of work cannot gain the traction it needs except through co-creating the relational spaces and institutions that will support and promote our struggles to relate more and more out of love and mutuality rather than oppression.