Historical Oppression And Denial

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.

It was encoded into the U.S. Constitution that an individual slave counted as 3/5 of a person.[1] Obviously this legacy is incredibly callous and short sighted. Unfortunately it’s just one of numerous egregious forms of oppression. 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 within the same ethnic groups were seen as property to be traded as an economic bargaining chip up until recently in a disheartening number of cultures.

The good news is this: As cultures get healthier, the amount of and severity of oppression appears to lessen.  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 large majority of us who do agree that everyone’s rights and dignity should be respected, the book goes into more detail about how these dynamics have operated.

Oppression and the Correlation to Mental Health

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.

In 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 (often erroneous) beliefs about what will keep us safe and what will help us have personal power and control.  When these beliefs are directly challenged while people are still in the grips of trauma based reactions, people with PTSD become very defensive.  

How We Currently Discuss Oppression

Up until recently, reactionary folks have been able to simply relegate oppression as a political issue or issues. In the larger cultural contexts, we currently conceive of differing perceptions about the nature of oppression as “ideological differences” rather than the result of people having very different mindsets  that are associated with our senses of safety and survival.

Because oppression is framed as “simply” a political issue, we do not realize we are triggering (often unconsciously held) safety issues and trauma or fear based reactions in each other.

Rejection And Denial

Let me be blunt: Oppression of any humans should not be characterized as a political issue. It is a human rights issue. But those who do not see how they are oppressing others, routinely see criticism of their actions as an attack on their values systems (which it is) and on their very legitimacy as humans, (which it usually is not).

Basically our egos get fragile. It’s that simple, and that complex. This is an issue mental health folks have to deal with all the time. Our personal and social problems are usually caused by psychological problems of perception: Typically, Person A over or underestimates the importance of an issue. Person B points this out. This creates conflict. Conflict in and of itself is not a big problem, but it is when people start to feeling unsafe/vulnerable/insecure because of the conflict that defensiveness becomes the ‘go to’ reaction.

And defensiveness and privilege routinely get mixed up. (I’m working on an article about that, and believe that’s a very important area of research -along with social dominance theory, and understanding assumptions related to authoritarianism). If a privileged person feels (rightly or wrongly) that their legitimacy as a human is being called out, it will not matter –at all– HOW anyone else tries to address their erroneous perceptions that lead them to oppress others. Person B can agonize about how to address an issue: with kindness, bluntly, politely, respectfully, forcefully, subtly, etc., but none of those choices will matter in the least if Person A’s ego gets threatened.

If the ego is threatened it gets defensive and rejects what is being said. It doubles down on its original ideas, and simply rejects other perspectives. This isn’t healthy, and in many cases reaches the level of truly clinical level denial. Denial is usually thought of as a big problem for alcohol and drug addicts, and maybe in abusive relationships. But it is even more common than that, and I’d argue that it is pretty widespread. In fact, I would argue denial by some percent of the population has played a very large role in EVERY social problem that exists both historically and currently. Deconstruct any historical atrocity you want. You will find: Atrocities happen ONLY because some people descend into full fledged denial and rationalizations.

The solutions are complex,  but an overlooked key is recognizing and addressing the (primarily unconscious) fears about survival that get activated in the beliefs of some of the majority members when discussing any topics having to do with power and control.  Again, it cannot be overstated: When any perceptions of loss of power are involved or a person feels their legitimacy is being attacked, humans in general get primitively defensive.  The theory of Cultural PTSD helps us create awareness in people of how deeply sensitive we are to challenges to our understandings/beliefs in most arenas in life, but especially in those areas that are 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.”