Historical Oppression

Historical Oppression

It is clear that in the vast majority of cultures that have become and remained dominant into the present time, there have been long histories of oppression. I will not go into a detailed history of the U.S., but suffice to say, slavery and the decimation of native people stemmed from an inability to see others as fully human.

It was encoded into the U.S. Constitution that an individual slave counted as 3/5 of a person.[1] Throughout the world, class based oppression has been a phenomenon for thousands of years, gender based oppression is just as clear. Fully 50% of the human population was seen as property to be traded as an economic bargaining chip up until recently in a disheartening number of cultures.

As cultures get healthier, those extremes do not occur.  I think most can agree we are trying to head to cultural states where everyone’s rights and dignity are respected. If you are reading this and have any trouble with the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights as a reality to achieve, I think we are done.  For the rest of us who do agree that everyone’s rights and dignity should be respected, hear me out.

Correlation to Mental Health

Not coincidentally, the inability to see others as fully human is a common trait of those with pervasive mental illnesses.

Cultural PTSD theory says that it is directly due to our being in the grips of Cultural PTSD that we 1) still have trouble seeing “Others” as fully human and multidimensional beings and 2) are so reactive when differing perceptions of power/oppression are discussed. I

n PTSD there is a very large focus on power and control. In fact, we could argue pretty convincingly that striving to have power and feel in control (and therefore safe) is a central feature of PTSD. This focus on power and control is not created consciously.  In individuals with PTSD, we build beliefs about what will keep us safe and what will help us have personal power and control.  When these beliefs are directly challenged before enough work has been done to create safety, people with PTSD become very defensive.  

Since we currently conceive of differing perceptions about the nature of oppression as “ideological differences” rather than deeply rooted beliefs that are associated with our senses of safety, we do not see any need to create safety for “our opponents”.  So when folks who do not see/experience oppression in cultural constructs and people who do see/experience cultural factors  at play in creating oppression try to talk with each other, we do not realize we are triggering (often unconsciously held) safety issues and TBRs in each other, and instead become more and more entrenched and mistrustful of each other.

The solutions are complex, but a first step is the need to create awareness in people of how deeply we hold our visions of reality -especially as they relate to how sensitive we are to challenges to our understandings/beliefs about power and control issues.


[1] The Three-Fifths Compromise is found in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution, reads: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons”

[2] This corresponds to (a small part of and very simplified interpretation of) Emile Durkheim’s Functional Theory of sociology. From Wikipedia: “Durkheim’s work revolved around the study of social facts, a term he coined to describe phenomena that have an existence in and of themselves… Durkheim argued that social facts have, an independent existence greater and more objective than the actions of the individuals that compose society. (phrase bolded by me). “The determining cause of a social fact must be sought among the antecedent social facts and not among the states of the individual consciousness.”— Émile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method.” Information taken from Wikipedia entry on Durkheim accessed January 2018