This website is about digging deep into power and oppression. In trying to make sense of oppression, I’ve stepped back from focusing exclusively on the specifics of the (many) forms it takes. Instead, I’ve tried to get a handle on WHY in some people and cultures, the impulse to oppress exists.
Many famous and not so famous people have blithely said that ‘it is human nature’ that spurs the impulse to oppress.
This ‘human nature’ level of analysis about power/oppression is very common, but it is also pretty …inaccurate.
Categorizing a dynamic or act as ‘human nature’ is an incredibly slippery slope. But people do it all the time. The main points of this article are to
1) Illustrate that humans have found it incredibly easy to mix up what is a natural for us living in our cultures (say: speaking English after being inculcated in it from birth) – with what is really human nature (the human capacity to learn language- ANY language that we are sufficiently exposed to), and to
2) Argue that the impulse to oppress isn’t human nature, per se, but a function of pervasive cultural norms and assumptions that the theory of Cultural PTSD may explain.
Cultural Norms Are Constructed
Every person on Earth is utterly surrounded by millions and millions of bits of cultural norms we all (mostly unconsciously) respond to, and learn to live within (sometimes trying to change them, sometimes trying to promote aspects of them). There are currently still a wide variety of cultures on this planet. It’s also clear that some have been (purposefully) wiped out by others. We in the Western world live with both the legacy of Renaissance thinking, AND what we can call “colonizer mindsets” that ended up being frighteningly successful. While Renaissance thinking based in reason and logic is mostly positive, our cultural ancestors ALSO held beliefs about superiority, entitlement and greed that allowed (mostly males) to invade and then actively try to wipe out a wide variety of cultures. Folks with these hubristic and superiority based mindsets not only tried, but in numerous cases succeeded in completely wiping out some cultural traditions. That’s a horrific reality. But it is our reality.
As a result, remnants of “colonizer mindsets” still greatly infect our cultural contexts today. When looked at objectively, the reality is we collectively accept (in modern Western cultures) absolutely horrific amounts of cruelty, violence, and senses of completely misplaced superiority. Many of the cultures that have survived have been pretty violent, while others who were more egalitarian have been…mostly obliterated.
Again, that’s a very difficult reality for many people to accept, but it’s true. Instead of accepting that, many humans do amazing mental gymnastics to avoid facing reality, and/or get completely turned around in their beliefs. As a result: many people will try to say that it is ‘human nature’ to try to oppress others. But even if there is some ‘human nature’ at work around oppression, could this supposed quality ever be reduced down to a simplistic monolith?
Cultural Myths Are Often Mistaken For Facts
Questions about why power manifests as oppression (in many cultures) have been routinely, hubristically, and sometimes purposefully dismissed by people pointing to ‘human nature’ to excuse or explain oppression, greed, selfishness, and so on.
But all kinds of myths were once taken as ‘facts.’ The Earth clearly used to be at the center of the universe, science had proved men were superior to women, white people were known to be better than others, and a male god who acted in capricious ways was utterly seen as factual, despite no one ever being able to prove his existence.
These ideas were seen as ‘obvious facts’ to millions of completely wrong people for generations. Likewise, people have proclaimed variations about the ‘natural’ selfishness of humans so often over the course of modern history, that this idea is taken as if it were fact by many of us.
Having said that, many of us sense that the idea: ‘it’s human nature to oppress’ isn’t quite right, but we collectively haven’t gotten too much further than that. We don’t have fleshed out alternative theories. We have noted the many problems of selfishness, but we’ve haven’t really gotten too far with figuring out that selfishness is a symptom of illness, and not the actual disease itself.
We Have Been Mistaking Myths About Power For Facts
Cultural PTSD theory takes the stance that due to an over focus and over emphasis on power and control issues, we have culturally formed underlying (mindset level) beliefs that are profoundly unhealthy. Some among us truly believe that any conflict or unknowns can be legitimately resolved by brute strength, or ability to overpower others (a.k.a what is also call a ‘might makes right’ doctrine). These mindset level beliefs are the root causes of the disease.
Believers in ‘might makes right’ actually believe that whoever can overpower others (via violence-including state sanctioned violence) must be correct. Let me be clear: Belief in “might makes right” at the mindset level is the root of what ails us as a species around power. “Might makes right” kinds of primitive beliefs appear to have been widespread among tribes that feared other tribes and used force to “stay safe,” in cultures where men oppressed women within their own cultures (women being generally smaller as so more easily overpowered) and in the far too many places where people stooped to physical abuse to create slavery and other forms of coercion and exploitation. While many cultures existed that did not do these things, “might makes right” mindset level cultural beliefs (and related beliefs about ‘conquering’ or colonizing and overpowering being legitimate ways to conduct oneself) are what appear to direct the impulses to oppress others. And, not coincidentally, this mindset of “might makes right” also created needs to hierarchically arrange everything and everyone into gradations of status and worth.
Cultural constructs of all sorts can be very difficult to discern (true believers mistake their religious beliefs for facts routinely, for one example). But beyond that, we ALL are pretty much captive to our cultural constructs once we are indoctrinated in them. Individual humans simply can’t think very far beyond the boundaries of where our knowledge or experiences have been. For an illustration of this, just try to -think- in any language that you are not very familiar with. NO ONE can do it. Yet others around us can effortlessly think in Mandarin, or Hungarian.
My point is: while a few things do appear to be part of the human condition (like communicating with others), how we accomplish those things can be highly varied (to the point that humans currently use somewhere around 7100 languages). I would argue that the impulse to organize societies into patterned ways of relating to others is also one of those things that appears to be a function of evolution. But cultural norms for how we relate to others are quite varied along any number of continuums, an important one being: from highly egalitarian to highly stratified.
The other important point though is, once inculcated into a culture, MANY customs, norms, and mores are easily mistaken for “natural laws,” and come as naturally to us as speaking our native languages. And it also means that other LEGITIMATE and perfectly valid cultural differences can be very difficult to comprehend, much less agree with for most of us (for example, notions about monogamy or priorities given to ceremonies around tea can seem puzzling to us if we’ve been indoctrinated in a very different kind of culture). Cultural differences can leave us feeling quite uncertain, as if we are trying to communicate in Hungarian, without knowing the language. És hidd el, a magyar nyelv elég ijesztő lehet az angol anyanyelvűek számára. See? I wrote: And, believe me, Hungarian can be quite daunting for native English speakers.
Mistaking Symptoms for the Sickness
In Cultural PTSD theory, serious problems like patriarchy, economic exploitation, racism, homophobia, environmental and animal exploitation, followers of specific fascist or authoritarian doctrines, religious persecution, colonization and other oppressions are all symptoms of “might makes right” assumptions, not root causal agents.
Don’t get me wrong here, you can definitely (and in many cases horrifically easily) die from these symptoms—I’m NOT dismissing them at all. However, you can also die from a myriad of opportunistic infections and cancers brought on by HIV that develops into AIDS. If you try to cure AIDS by only focusing on curing the specific infections or cancers that ail specific individuals, it will only get you so far. Medical researchers figured this out relatively quickly in the case of AIDS.
But cultural illnesses are not nearly as widely understood as medical diseases. And understandably, if your group has been affected by a particular symptom, it does make a lot of sense to try to directly address that particular symptom, especially in the absence of understanding that it is a symptom of a larger disease.
Some Sciences Are More Fully Fleshed Out And Understood Than Other Sciences
As a species, humans are much less adept at understanding sociological forces and cultural determinants in social problems than we are at understanding the determinants of physical illnesses such as cancers. And we have a woefully inadequate understanding of how to positively affect those determinants. So: not only is it difficult for us to understand the full scope of the disease that brings us the horrible symptoms of racism, sexism, religious persecution, horrendous levels of wealth inequity, etc., we don’t know how to -efficiently- treat that disease very well.
The reasons for the lack of sophistication in the social science realms are complex, but an important reason is because social facts get lots of pushback (both from lay people and from some of the “experts” studying them) because some people become threatened by…the social facts themselves. So we still live in a pretty primitive and very fractured time in terms of cultural understandings about what ails us.
Why Do We Need Deeper Understandings About Power?
The short answer is because our collective social ills are all—clearly— related to power.
And, as Albert Einstein is said to have proclaimed, “No problem can be solved using the same level of consciousness that created it.” If we don’t understand what kind of assumptions we hold about power, it makes it very difficult to truly see how those assumptions have shaped our beliefs, values, and norms. This is true at the individual level, and it is also true at the cultural level.
The majority of theorists who have studied power, have tended to study only ‘power over,’ as if it were the only form of power. While this was an obvious place to start, this conception of power is limited. It created the sort of silent corollary cultural norm that this kind of power was a “natural” artifact.
For example, early theorists did not examine the mindsets of the oppressors very much, and as a result sort of portrayed them as inevitably occurring, as folks who were expressing a “naturally occurring tendency” towards greed or selfishness. But the question really does remain- with different cultural norms, would these tendencies still exist, or would they become much rarer?
I don’t discount the fact that the vast majority of the historical “great thinkers” about power have been mostly white, privileged, and male, and neither should you. It’s surprisingly easy to believe in untested assumptions, and/ or not see certain things that help your status in life. It really is.
What Do You Mean There Are Different Ways To Wield Power?
‘Power over’ is conceiving of power in terms of the ability to compel others by force, when necessary. It is often seen as a scarce item that is related to ‘leadership,’ to war, and to political power.
If we limited our studies to this one aspect in another realm -say in the field of chemistry- the whole field would be a narrow one, focused on explosives, and we would not know anything at all about the less dramatic, but incredibly useful ways chemistry works to create crystals in rocks, cellulose in trees, or in creating the very air we breathe. My point is: as a species, we really—haven’t —gotten much further than ’Nah, I don’t think that’s the whole story’ in our understandings of the different ways people wield power and why —some—people can only think in terms of ‘power over’ others.
Having said that, the (rudimentary) idea that power over others is the entire universe of ‘what power is’ does make a certain kind of sense, since Western Civilization is built of beliefs about ‘might makes right, and, the most dramatic ways power manifests —are—through force.
But it’s a huge problem for us currently when many prior “great” thinkers about power have (mostly) ignored questions of why certain people lust after ‘power over,’ or have —ended— discussion on the topic by inferring, or even blithely proclaiming, that it’s just human nature to do this.
How Do We Know There Isn’t A ‘Human Nature” Component?
There are —at least— a couple of fundamental errors in the whole idea that ‘power over’ is the natural state of things. One has already been briefly mentioned. It is the conceiving of power as –only– manifesting as ‘power over.’ Power has been so fetishized that many humans honestly get confused or lost (and then usually quickly descend into defensiveness) when it is suggested to them that there are others ways of organizing life beyond a simplistic elementary school level “top of the food chain” hierarchy.
The point is, people have grown up seeing and learning about certain, very specific ways of wielding power. So they believe that is the entire universe of what power is. Getting people to think about power in different ways can be a lot like trying to describe snow as a weather phenomenon to someone who has always lived in the tropics, and has never even seen the stuff in videos, much less in real life. It is honestly difficult to imagine for many. So there’s that piece.
But the other fundamental error is more experiential. At least for me, and many people I know. It’s this: I do not lust after ‘power over’ others. I simply do not. I can see its allure, I can see its advantages (as well as its many drawbacks), but I don’t want to live in that way.
Well, I do sincerely wish for others to not try to oppress people, so in that —very— limited sense, I guess I do want to “control others.”
I find authoritarianistic ways of relating to be quite confining, and feel relationships built on “one up, one down” arrangements are pretty unsatisfactory ways of living, actually. And I’m human, as far as I know, so there’s that.
But there’s more to the experiential part: Because in my observations, to a person: people I consider to be brave, heroic and admirable, the most extraordinary people I know (or just know of, like the Dali Llama, for example) simply don’t lust after having ‘power over’ others. They act from kindness and compassion.
These real heroes have taught me that choosing to act from generosity and compassion ARE acts of power. That is: being kind and generous are very effective ways to wield power. And, based on how good being kind and compassionate feels, it’s got to be a much healthier way to wield power. I would encourage people to reflect on this relatively simple idea for a minute or five every single day, actually.
Furthermore, it’s also undeniably true that every single person I find to be oppressive, regressive, utterly wrong, lacking in compassion, and who engages in acts of corruption and other injustices does so because they are—actively— seeking to have power over a situation or (usually) others.
Test it out for yourself: Who do you want to be close to, live around, interact with, or associate with: a person who insists on having things go their way, or a kind and generous person? The answer is obvious.
I can already hear reactionaries steeped in ‘might makes right’ kinds of thinking say, “that’s too simplistic.” Well, isn’t it also -incredibly- simplistic to believe the world is organized around simple hierarchies? Clearly, those pyramid diagrams do not take all the complexity of the natural world into consideration. And despite the obvious need for it, the idea of symbiosis is either conveniently ignored or dismissed as unimportant (sic!) by those most indoctrinated in ideas of might makes right.
But It’s So Widespread
Because of our cultural legacies, most of us probably hold some beliefs about wanting ‘power over’ others, even as we consciously reject notions of superiority. After all, it’s a common way of organizing groups. Most of us have learned to accept things like work hierarchies, or other chains of command in order to get through our lives successfully. But by not being aware of all the instances where we might be influenced by ‘power over’ ideas, we end up often being what some might call accidental racists, sexists, homophobes, apologists for billionaires, etc. We don’t consciously know we think of some differences as “good” and others “bad,” but we are exposed to them so often, we do. (When I say accidental racists, sexists, etc, I am referring to folks with implicit biases, which again, is probably most of us). Whatever you call it, the main point is: part of the difficulty in seeing our illness -as illness- is that so many others think in the same ways, so it can look like a natural part of the human condition.
So it just seems like oppressing others might be a ‘natural response’ because we’ve been so inundated with it. But it’s fully learned. A good way to illustrate this is by asking: Is speaking English a natural part of the human condition? No, but it comes naturally to us. That is a big distinction that can help us see how much influence cultural norms, even very sick ones, can have over us..
If It’s Not Human Nature, What Is It?
So anyway, my observations lead me to believe that the compulsion to want to wield ‘power over’ others cannot be appropriately explained away as ‘human nature.’
In the psychology world, there are understandings about the differences between “needs” and “compulsions.” Needs are things we actually truly do need (air water, food, shelter, etc.). Compulsions are things that feel like needs to those experiencing them. Currently, millions of people mistake their compulsions for “needs.” For example, plenty of people are stuck with psychological compulsions for certain drugs, sex, internet connections, food, lack of food, and other compulsions, including needing to feel like they have status/power over others. These desires are not really needs, but they feel like them to the people in the grips of being afflicted by them. They are…compulsions, driven by psychological dynamics that are complex, but have already been better and more thoroughly deconstructed by other people.
Soooo, in coming to the conclusion that this obsession with ‘power over’ is much more of a culturally accepted and encouraged compulsion rather than a “need” born of human nature, the next logical question to me was, “Why is that so, and where could that have come from?” The theory of Cultural PTSD attempts to answer those questions.