Monday, November 25, 2013

Oppression and the Oppressor

What follows is a fascinating conversation between a few excellent individuals on facebook. Recording it for posterity. I will continue updating it as the conversation moves forward.

The greatest oppression, is in being the oppressor.
Like ·  ·  · November 1 at 4:57am · 
  • 7 people like this.
  • Kiran Gulrajani The oppressor is the oppressed.
  • Paul Peacefulgoodheart Ashis Nandy says "there is one continuum of man-made suffering'
  • Ravi Badri Well I have to disagree on you with this Naveen. If I were from a historically marginalized and oppressed community, I would have accused you of being highly insensitive. If you are saying both the oppressor and the oppressed are in misery, I will fully agree with you with the caveat that they are suffering in very different ways and if we 'have to compare' them, their suffering are disproportionately different but both have to go through a healing process. How can we even begin to fathom the misery and suffering of someone who is a dalit or an adivasi or a person from a marginalized community and say that the suffering of someone with privilege is same as the suffering of the marginalized person. 

    let me explain this with a small example. in an discussion on race in a multi-racial group, it is not uncommon to see a white middle-class male or female come up with a very similar argument such as your to say that they are also oppressed. a friend in fact wrote a paper on this theme that was severely crituqued. ofcourse it is impossible to delineate the world into categories like oppressor and oppressed, and each one of us have elements of the two in us, it is also important to recognize the historical and structural oppression that certain groups experience and not take it away by saying that we from a historically privileged group are also equally oppressed.
  • Naveen Kumar V Hi Ravi, we will talk about this more in detail very soon. Our ideas of 'privilege' are significantly different. There is a deliberate reason (and world view) behind calling one form of suffering 'greater' than the other. i understand that most people from historically 'marginalized/oppressed' communities would find this insensitive. But it doesn't change for me, what i understand Truth as (however imperfectly). When Christ said "Blessed are the meek", he wasn't making promises for the future, but unveiling a profoundly subversive and empowering world-view. This i feel is the essence of the true Gandhian approach as well where power and privilege are completely redefined, with respect to their current dominant understandings. But how many of us are ready yet to wield this kind of power is a different question. All this is not to make light the extreme deprivation and violence the majority are put through. But there is a deep privilege in suffering as well. It is only whose who have suffered, who can love.
  • Paul Peacefulgoodheart this is a really important discussion you two and I would like to be there to hear you go further! My two cents worth: we shouldn't romanticize the suffering of the poor--it doesn't help them, it misses the debilitating aspect of poverty and it only focusses on the unjust side or the 'innocence' of it (and thereby we may romanticize the solution as Marx did). On the other hand, it is good to connect the dots between unjust suffering and self-denying privilege. If the privilege or the privileged is ever to become conscious and change itself it will have to become aware of its denial, the denial that my privilege is based on the suffering of others. Oh well...just thoughts. Keep me posted!
  • Naveen Kumar V Hi Paul, thanks for writing in. i agree the suffering of the poor is not to be romanticized, and that's not the intent either. However, there has been a dominant understanding or 'power' and 'privilege', advanced by modern civilization that i feel needs to be critically looked into. While their situation is quite hard indeed, i feel these dominant discourses of 'power' and 'privilege' further disempower the poor by making them victims. This is where i feel people like Christ and Gandhi are extremely important in their inversion of what power and privilege actually are. No doubt material deprivation causes immense hardship, but i feel the spiritual deprivation (of the oppressor) is worse. The oppressed, if they can be free of their victimhood, are in the best position to hold a mirror up to the oppressor. i do not see a non-violent revolution happening, without the oppressed waking up to their spiritual privilege. Their role is vital in the journey towards Sarvodaya. Beneath all this is the world-view that in the scheme of things, consciousness (or spirit) is hierarchically more important than matter. It doesn't mean that matter is not important, it has its rightful place in the Pancha-kośas, but that if we were to choose, as many of us are forced to in this civilization, then material poverty is far more desirable to spiritual poverty.
  • Naveen Kumar V This is a beautiful story of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, who seems to have effected such an inversion of power and privilege. Who was more free, the Führer or the Father? More powerful.. (http://goo.gl/lJSdOQ)
  • Ravi Badri Naveen Kumar V Tell me more about what you see as the dominant understanding of power and privilege. Is framing the poor as powerless as you mentioned the only problematic with this dominant understanding or are there other issues as well. please tell me more. I think that is the bases for this conversation.
  • Naveen Kumar V I'll think about this more and write before leaving for Madurai, Ravi. Otherwise, we'll do it in person.
  • Paul Peacefulgoodheart Yes Naveen, basically I agree and that is an important insight. My concern is more with the psychological processes (more complex than simply holding a worldview) by which both victim and victimizer come to believe in the privilege of one and the incapacity/poverty of the other. What holds all that in place on both ends is a kind of mesmerizing belief in privilege carried by one as if it belonged to him and deprived from other as if that were 'meant to be'. That is a very deep seated delusion--both ways.
  • Paul Peacefulgoodheart Have a wonderful rich time in Madurai and kiss the earth there for me
  • Naveen Kumar V Yes Paul, i agree. And ha ha, so sweet. Thanks, and Will do 
  • Ravi Badri Naveen Kumar V wouldn't it better if we carry on this conversation here as opposed to off-line/in-person ? that way Paul and anyone else who would want to join the conversation can do so.
  • Urmila Samson I'd love it continued here, as there is little chance of me being there in person. I don't need to join. Naveen is saying everything that I would have liked to say - only better!
  • Ravi Badri waiting for your thoughts Naveen Kumar V 
  • Naveen Kumar V ha ha, oops sorry. We will certainly continue this thread, perhaps later in the day when i get to Chennai. Thanks Raviand Urmila 
  • Naveen Kumar V Hi Ravi, so the main issue with the current/dominant understanding of 'Power' and 'Privilege' that modern civilization promotes, is that it considers material deprivation and physical pain as the greatest forms of suffering. Those who are materially 'p...See More
  • Ravi Badri I think we are mixing things up here Naveen. 'Modern Civilization' does not have a single conception of 'power' and 'privilege'. naming groups that experience material deprivation and physical pain as powerless and underdeveloped is usually seen in thedevelopment sector i.e., by NGOs, international-NGOs and framing privilege, and development is clearly problematic as you have pointed out. but then one usually does not come across terms related to 'oppression' in such a space.I have come across the word oppression in left/marxist literature which is also associated with historical materialism. 

    I haven't read marx closely to definitely say how does he define oppression. But from what I understand from my reading of liberal/radical literature is that oppression is not the same as material deprivation even though material deprivation may be part of it. Oppression seems to have more to do with social and cultural forces. A person working in the financial sector in new york and identifies himself as gay will consider himself oppressed. Here his experience of oppression has nothing to do material deprivation. So is the experience of a muslim bureaucrat, a dalit scholar or a woman executive who face discrimination. I understand oppression as a set of social norms, culture and actions by members of one or more dominant groups to keep the dominated group 'in its place' and in the process denying the member of the oppressed group his/her full expression of human potential and consciousness, destroying the spirit and denying the humanity in the being which is probably why it is called dehumanizing. Ofcourse there is suffering, ignorance and misery in the members in the dominated group that makes then carry out such forms of dehumanization. An outcome of all this social and cultural oppression can and often manifests through economic marginalization but oppression is not just material, it is also social and cultural.

    Coming to power, the understanding of power has become more subtler and nuanced than before. Today power is not just about who has and who hasn’t; instead power is exercised in a relationship in many subtle ways and the oppressed also exercise their power by resisting in subtle ways. According to Michel Foucault, a French philosopher. one of the ways power is exercised is in the production of knowledge, in the process of naming something. The colonizer affirms and regained power by naming various aspects of indigenous life. This kind of privileging one kind of misery over the other in a definitive statement is also an exercise of power and this is why I responded to your original post. Such a definitive statement somehow has the effect of denying the misery of the oppressed group or has an effect of saying 'yes I understand your suffering but my suffering because of my spiritual ignorance is much larger'. It seems to come from a spirit of competition to say whose suffering is bigger. Why are we trying to put the two kinds of suffering in a hierarchy ? Can we acknowledge the different ways both groups are suffering and work in different ways with both the groups?

    All of this brings us to the idea of liberation. Liberation in the individual context at least from the perspective of Indian philosophy has to do more with spirituality but in the social context, it has to do with the removal of those social norms, and behaviours that dehumanizes an oppressed group and helps in regaining an element of their human spirit. I agree with your analysis that looking at liberation only in terms of material or cultural or social without much reference to spirituality is very limited. This understanding could be incomplete but it is not incorrect and our job is to find ways to integrate elements from spirituality into the material, social and cultural.

    I would suggest a close reading of Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. I place it on the same league as Hind Swaraj. Some of his concepts may be difficult to accept but the core of his message that only the oppressed can liberate the oppressor when he acts from a position of lover, compassion, and faith is very relevant even to day. This position is not very different from what you quoted earlier of the Christ 'blessed are the meek".
  • Naveen Kumar V Hi Ravi, i'll answer what i consider the main crux of our difference first, and respond to the other issues you raise further in the conversation. The below is just my understanding of things, and it could be wrong: 

    < kinds of suffering in a hierarchy ?>> 

    The gestalt of an individual's personality lies in the Vijnanamaya Kosha. The more distortions/wounds there are in this sheath, the more one suffers and causes suffering to others. These distortions however, are not permanent and can be straightened out through consistent Awareness practice. As the practice progresses, healing unfolds, and there is a consequent transformation of the personality towards greater compassionate and responsible behaviour. So in a sense, everybody is a work in progress. Every saint had a past, every sinner has a future. 

    However, this journey is not easy and requires tremendous hard work, energy, sincerity etc. Its a deeper morass and hence requires greater effort to pull oneself out of it. imo, its relatively easier to deal with material, socio-cultural-economic-political suppression when one has a healthy foundation at the Vijnanamaya (Egs. Gandhiji, Dalai Lama, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, Thich Quang Duc etc). But, if the foundation at the Vijnanamaya is unstable/distorted, then even if the person has 'mobility' or 'privilege' in the other spheres, he will still create suffering for oneself and others. Hence, i feel spiritual poverty is worse than other forms of deprivation/suppression.
  • Naveen Kumar V Thanks Paul, found this quote in your paper on Gandhi and Islam (in the latest edition of Ahimsa). Felt it adds to the dialogue here:

    "I have been a sympathetic student of the Western social order and I have discovered that underlying the fever that f
    ills the soul of the West there is a restless search for truth. I value that spirit. Let us study our Eastern institutions in that spirit of scientific enquiry."

    - Gandhi, Amrit Bazar Patrika '34

    It has been my claim, that the Eastern world-view while recognizing the necessity and importance of all realms of reality, still hierarchically places the subtle above the gross. Existence is a spectrum of unfoldment from the most subtle to the grossest, with each layer being engendered by the preceding layer in the hierarchy. 'Spirit' and 'matter' while denoting the two ends of the spectrum (atleast in the way i had used it), fails to capture the nuances and intermediary layers that lie in between the two. The theory of the Pancha(or Sat) Koshas do a better job of identifying these nuances. Thanks Ravi for pointing out that oppression is not just material. A distortion or deprivation at every layer/sheath contributes to the suffering felt by an individual (or group), and the distortions at subtler realms require greater effort to heal than in the gross realms. It's easier to a give a poor man bread and fish to eat (or teach him to fish), but next to impossible for a 'rich' man to enter the gates of heaven.
  • Abhinav Gupta