Oppression and Violence

In “Five Faces of Oppression” (also in this book), Iris Marion Young argues that oppression is structural, part of the existing system. There might not be a clear oppressor anymore; no tyrant to point to. Instead the relations between groups are marred with oppression, even if that oppression is not administered consciously. Importantly, there are many groups in society that are oppressed. No group’s oppression has “causal or moral primacy” (42). (Page numbers refer to the text linked to above.)

Young identifies five faces of oppression:

  • Exploitation:

    The injustice of exploitation consists in social processes that bring about a transfer of energies from one group to another to produce unequal distributions, and in the way in which social institutions enable a few to accumulate while they constrain main more. (53)

  • Marginalization:

    [...] while marginalization definitely entails serious issues of distributive justice, it also involves the deprivation of cultural, practical, and institutionalized conditions for exercising capacities in a context of recognition and interaction. (55)

  • Powerlessness:

    [...] most people in [advanced capitalist] societies do not regularly participate in making decisions that affect the conditions of their lives and actions, and in this sense most people lack significant power. (56) [...] This powerless status is perhaps best described negatively: the powerless lack the authority, status, and sense of self that professionals tend to have. (57)

  • Cultural Imperialism:

    Cultural imperialism involves the universalization of a dominant group’s experience and culture, and its establishment as the norm. [...] Given the normality of its own cultural expressions and identity, the dominant group constructs the differences which some groups exhibit as lack and negation. (59)

  • Violence:

    Violence is systemic because it is directed at members of a group simply because they are members of that group. [...] The oppression of violence consists not only in direct victimization, but in the daily knowledge shared by all members of oppressed groups that they are liable to violation, solely on account of their group identity. (62)

How do we determine if a group is oppressed? Obviously, different groups experience different combinations of these faces of oppression. And even the form of the oppression might differ. But “the presence of any of these five conditions is sufficient for calling a group oppressed” (64).

Are singles oppressed? Based on Young’s criteria, we are. Let’s look at each in turn. (Keep in mind, though, that this looks at singles as a group. Women who are single, for example, might face different oppressions from single men when we look at them as women as a group):

  • Exploitation: Energies are transferred from singles to marrieds in the form of monetary benefits to married folks through those thousand-plus benefits the GAO counted. Marriage is also a greedy institution that sucks away energy from other relationships.
  • Marginalization: Singles might be marginalized by being ignored. This is even reflected in our language: If you’re not married, you are unmarried… Although this is probably more cultural imperialism: Being married is the norm – they are not unsingle…
  • Powerlessness: The way Young defined it, I don’t think singles face powerlessness (again as singles, certain single people might face it as members of other groups.)
  • Cultural Imperialism: This is probably the biggest face of singles’ oppression. We are Other. Marriage is the norm. We are thus anormal, not following social rules, not littering our lives with conventional events. The stigmatization of singles probably stems largely from this oppression face.
  • Violence: Young seems to use the standard definition of violence: An act that one person commits against another causing bodily harm. I agree with Mary R. Jackman who argues that this definition of violence perpetuates the status quo because the violence committed by the dominant group is hidden. So, let’s take a look at this.

In her chapter “License to Kill: Violence and Legitimacy in Expropriative Social Relations,” Mary R. Jackman defines violence much more broadly than we usually do:

Actions that inflict, threaten, or cause injury
Injuries may be corporal, psychological, material, or social
Actions may be corporal, written, or verbal (443)

One of the key differences of this definition to the standard version: It allows us to identify violence even if we cannot identify one perpetrator (or a group of thugs). BP’s oil spill is violence (it certainly caused injury!). Violence, Jackman, emphasizes does not require that injury is the primary goal of an act. In fact, only in two of the four categories of violence Jackman identifies is injury the primary goal of the act – either the goal itself (in expressive violence) or a means to reach another goal (in instrumental violence) (448). Injury is the byproduct of the other two categories of violence: Incidental violence (injury is a byproduct of working toward another goal; like profit before environmental protection) and accidental violence (injury is truly accidental) (448). The first three forms of violence – expressive, instrumental, and incidental – are used in “expropriative intergroup relations,” relations where one group takes something away from another. Young called this exploitation. These relations can be marred by violence. Note that it is crucial that we do not have to identify the one person/group or the one act that constitutes this violence, especially in the case of incidental violence! In fact, Jackman stresses that one of the insidious things about incidental violence is that it happens through so many layers of the system nobody can be blamed. It is structural violence, to adapt Young’s description; part of the system. It can only be reduced if the system is changed radically. Also, there does not need to be an intend to cause injury. Based on Jackman’s definition, what is required for actions to be called violence is for there to be injury. Having to pay proportionately more in taxes when single is a material injury. Clearly, most, if not all, violence singles face is incidental – unlike other groups who also face expressive and instrumental versions. But looking at the status of singles from Jackman’s definition of violence is eye-opening: It shows just how wrong the marriage system is.

Let me end with a quote from Jackman, which I find especially thought-provoking and disturbing. It captures the essence of the point Jackman is trying to make in this chapter: Systems with expropriative intergroup relations are fraught with violence. We are blind to this violence because of how we define “violence.” The definition thus functions as a legitimizing myth that keeps the current system in place.

Surely, it is a measure of human callousness when social actors, despite the absence of a deliberate intent to harm, fail to be deterred from a course of action by the knowledge that injuries may or will be the by-product. (447)

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Oppression and Violence — 7 Comments

  1. Yes, this is the line that the leadership within the LGBT movement wants us to believe. It is a rather sad development within their strategy and it’s counter to many people’s wishes in the LGBT community, especially the more radical parts. There are many voices speaking out against this single focus on marriage, some more angry than others. For example, Tommi Avicolli Mecca has pointed out that there are much more urgent issues facing the LGBT community that are being ignored because of the marriage-focus (for example, many transsexuals face discrimination at work and in housing, leaving a large proportion homeless). He is pretty angry about the massive expenditure to fight for gay marriage while leaving others in the community out in the rain, literally. I haven’t listened to this yet but Avicolli Mecca is involved in a radio program “beyond marriage.” There’s also the Beyond Marriage statement and, of course, Nancy Polikoff’s book. I’ve written about the voices against marriage before. That post contains more links to voices other than the mainstream LGBT leadership…

  2. One of the problems as I see it is that the LGBT community is now fighting to get the right to marry. And in order to do so they’re emphasizing the benefits of marriage. Which means that they’re not going to be happy when someone points out that marriage is perhaps not that great or all that necessary. It runs counter to their strategy.

    And when you think about it, it’s understandable. The average gay couple is probably not that different from your average straight couple, at least not when it comes to marriage. The idea of questioning the value of marriage probably isn’t any more common among them than among straight couples.

  3. @Darshan: Thanks so much! I am glad you found this useful! I suspect applications like this is what Iris Young had in mind when she wrote up the categories of oppression.

    @Donna Marie: Excellent point! I completely agree that the normative state is the couple whether married or not! That’s one reason why it always irks me to hear about the extension of benefits to more couples rather than more people…

    @Alan: I think these arguments are precisely what prompted Iris Young to make the point that it’s silly to talk about who is more oppressed! Because then we’re busy arguing over this rather than fighting to end the oppression… Think about this way: Is a person who is a Lesbian and single morally superior in some ways to a straight woman who is single? That’s just absolutely silly! There is no morality here except the moral outrage we should be reserving for the oppression in general! Of course, there are differences in levels of oppression and, yes, the LGBT community faces expressive and instrumental violence while singles don’t but this doesn’t mean that the LGBT community can ignore the oppression faced by singles. It simply means that they face different levels of oppression and we better figure out how to fight/change all of the above!

  4. I know that there are groups who would argue that their oppression does have “causal or moral primacy” over other groups. I have heard members of gay rights organizations say that the discrimination experienced by singles doesn’t really count, at least not compared to what they experienced.

    While I dislike the singlism I periodically find in gay organizations, I’m not sure I disagree with their assessment of the level of discrimination: If you use the standard definition of violence then gays are more strongly discriminated against than singles.

  5. I definitely agree with the notion of the economic advantages and other protections offered to marrieds and not to singles. And, I would extend the notion of “oppression” to include uncoupleds who I think can feel emotionally oppressed and excluded because of their choice to be uncoupled singles. In my view, the normative state is being coupled not simply married. This is so evident in pop culture as well as marketing/advertising efforts. As a single/uncoupled woman and a market researcher I was inspired to discuss it from this perspective in my trendblog (http://www.new-take.com/2009/09/28/the-new-singles-single-and-thriving/).

  6. Good.

    You have nicely explained with those five points what oppression is. But what’s rather delightful to read is how you proved that “singles” are being oppressed in the society. That was a new take on the subject. Liked reading it.

    Learned a neat new technique (to prove something concretely) also!

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