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.

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 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.  

How We Currently Discuss Oppression

We discuss 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 deeply rooted beliefs- no,  entire mindsets–  that are associated with our senses of safety and survival.

Because we try to discuss lingering/ongoing oppression as “simply” a political issue, we do not see any need to create safety for “our opponents”.  So when people try to talk with each other, we do not realize we are triggering (often unconsciously held) safety issues and trauma or fear based reactions in each other.

By approaching these power and control issues as simply ideological disagreements, it is easy for discussions to stall out and for people to actually become more hardened, more entrenched in their beliefs, and more mistrustful of each other.

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 perceptions of loss of power are involved, 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”