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Do the oppressed owe anything to their oppressors?

This has got to be one of the all-time great questions of ethics. It should be considered pretty crucial on the left. Many of the most perplexing dilemmas in political thought can be rephrased into this question.
Do the oppressed owe anything to their oppressors?

This has got to be one of the all-time great questions of ethics. It should be considered pretty crucial on the left. Many of the most perplexing dilemmas in political thought can be rephrased into this question.

On the one hand, revolutionary ideologies tend to maintain that to endorse the rather paradoxical idea of "the oppressed owing the oppressors" is to sneak a reactionary agenda into ethics. Why should the oppressed owe any better behavior towards their oppressors than they have received in turn? Isn't the first duty of the oppressed to throw off their chains "by any means necessary"? Only then, surely, will they enjoy the luxury of entertaining any moral qualms about their supposed "obligations" to their now *former* oppressors.

This is complicated by the fact that, even after a revolution, the "former" oppressor can remain a dangerous adversary for a long time. He does not just sulk off into oblivion, but continues to try and regroup his forces, to launch counterrevolutionary strikes, "White Armies," to try and avenge and recuperate his losses and his former power.

Therefore, what stance should the left take towards ethics in the relations of these two fundamental classes? And what stance should ethical people take towards revolutionaries? Are the two reconcilable? Or is their conflict just illusory?

In a typical wisdom tradition -- let us take Buddhism, since it's the one I'm most familiar with -- one does not reserve ethical considerations solely for one's comrades or equals. Buddhism especially, with its insistence on the impermanence of reality, would have a hard time reconciling itself to revolutionary violence. For the oppressed of today are soon the oppressors of tomorrow. This is not to say, in a wisdom tradition such as Buddhism, that violence is dogmatically and simplemindedly rejected out of hand.

There is a famous story that is told of the Buddha, in a former incarnation, killing the skipper of a ship. But the Buddha's former incarnation didn't kill the skipper in anger. He killed him because the skipper was a madman, and was going to deliberately sink the ship and murder its passengers. The Buddha killed the skipper out of concern for both the other passengers of the ship, and the skipper himself. The Buddha knew that not only would terrible suffering befall the other passengers and their surviving relatives if the skipper carried out his evil plans, but the skipper himself would suffer terrible karmic consequences for his actions. The Buddha calculated immediately that the bad karma he himself would suffer by killing the skipper would be far outweighed by the suffering the world -- including the skipper! -- would suffer if he acted otherwise. Therefore, the Buddha's acted in perfect mindfulness while killing the skipper.

Could revolutionary violence ever be justified on such a basis? I have my doubts. So often, it seems almost impossible for human beings to overcome the temptation to exact revenge, when given the chance. And yet, if the goal of revolution is to instill a more just order in human relations, then isn't just this sort of "superhuman" virtue essential?

There is a school of thought gaining ground that says that the act of "humiliation" and its consequences play a central role in human affairs (see, for example,  http://www.humiliationstudies.org/). The one who is humiliated will do almost anything to free themselves from the suffering of it. Cycles of violence often ensue from humiliation. Humiliation almost invariably plays a role in oppression. It is precisely when the oppressed perceive they are humiliated by their oppressors that they are most likely to do anything to shake off their chains, even if it requires violence.

If this school of thought is correct, then it becomes important for revolutionaries to think carefully about the consequences. How, for example, can counterrevolutionaries be peacefully disarmed and reintegrated into a post-revolutionary society? It would then be crucial to be mindful of avoiding any appearance of humiliating our adversaries or former adversaries. We would have to make the utmost efforts to resist any such temptations, equally whether such opportunities presented themselves before or after the victory of the revolution.

According to such a school of thought, revolutionaries would have to hold themselves to much higher ethical standards than their adversaries. Obviously, a revolutionary aspires to transcend endless cycles of violence, and to raise society to a higher plane of justice in human relations. Is this possible?

For those who perceive that humanity is collectively an oppressor to other species, I have not even hazarded the discussion of human responsibilities to the rest of creation. Obviously this would require an entirely separate essay. Many of the considerations here might not be applicable, or only in modified forms, to that discussion. Perhaps there is a common strand, though, between any discussion of power relationships, whether we are talking about the power that humans are capable of wielding over other species, or that humans are capable of wielding over their fellows. In ethics, there is a notion of "noblesse oblige," the obligation of the more powerful or privileged to place the interests of those who fall within their power higher than their own.

Yet, returning exclusively to human affairs once again, how could a notion of "noblesse oblige" ever apply to the oppressed??? Wouldn't that be the height of paradox and absurdity?

One answer, once again, is that the world is impermanent, and the oppressed are soon the oppressors. If revolutionaries want to break such a cycle, wouldn't the oppressed themselves need "on-the-job training"? How does one learn "noblesse oblige" in time to use it when vitally needed?

Yet aren't we constantly faced with situations where we have to restrain our own powerful impulses and think carefully about the greater good? Isn't this something that all of us desperately need as much practice and skill in as possible?

Lest any committed revolutionary dismiss these questions as purely smug, bourgeois nonsense, one should look into themselves and think about their own visceral reactions to the most heinous injustices they have witnessed. What did you want to do with the oppressor RIGHT THEN? Did you not want to strangle them, humiliate them, destroy them? And what would be the moral and practical consequences if you acted on your immediate impulses? Or what if you formulated an entire philosophy and strategy motivated initially by those same impulses? What then? Can you really not see any dangers in that? Were not just such motivations at the origins of Al Qaeda (or the Khmer Rouge, for that matter)?

Naturally, these problems serve the agenda of counterrevolution. Reactionaries, of course, are forever trying to cast oppressors as victims of the oppressed, to whitewash history, to project their own actual conduct onto their targets, to turn reality upside down in the minds of people, so that they can continue to perpetuate the status quo.

Revolutionaries usually have their hands full just vindicating the cause of the oppressed, refuting the lies of the oppressors. No matter the cruelty of a suicide bombing in Israel, the Israeli military continues to use immensely greater firepower and take far more innocent lives to maintain its occupation of the Palestinians. No matter how many Westerners get killed by "Islamic terrorists," the actual destructive potential of the imperialist countries, and the human suffering it causes daily, dwarf the former by orders of magnitude.

So how can revolutionaries work out high ethical standards for themselves, and cultivate the right attitude inside themselves? What principles would let them navigate these kinds of perils successfully, without falling into traps set by reactionaries and rightwing political opportunists?
A complete picture 19.Jun.2006 09:45

noose papier

I was with this article until about halfway through, though it is a good discussion. Two issues come to mind; the first is point of reference, and the second is trauma.

The article misses the subjective point of coming from a person who actually suffers from the brunt of some kind of oppression. Second, most people who would benefit from this dicussion (al least in the US) are not coming from a eastern philosophical orientation. In other words, we are preaching to the converted.

The Buddhist argument goes: "The Buddha calculated immediately that the bad karma he himself would suffer by killing the skipper would be far outweighed by the suffering the world -- including the skipper!". This could be used as the cold calculated justification for the US dropping the bomb on Japan, because so many more lives would have been lost if the US hadn't, the story goes. the analysis doesn't jibe with history.

Second, and probabably most important, this politic need to be developed by actual survivors of oppression, not those that would express a third person account through remarks like these:

' If revolutionaries want to break such a cycle, wouldn't the oppressed themselves need "on-the-job training"? '

and:

"Revolutionaries usually have their hands full just vindicating the cause of the oppressed"

Former "oppressed" becoming "oppressors" is linked to trauma. People have been studying social behavor for 100 years, but the left takes no advice from this scientific school, lest it interfere with long established marxist interpretations of history and dogma. When someone is oppressed through physical or sexual violence, isolation, slavery, and other dehumanization, the mind reacts as a permanent flight or fight response, and there is no way to make an objective decision on what to do with a former "oppressor". This is why notions like "dictatorship of the proletariat" often result in conditions for more oppresive then under capitalist rule, because, at least capitalism rules from cold, calculated economics, and state socialism rules from emotionally charged anger from a economic standpoint, without regard to its egalitarina goals.

All abusers, from asshole boyfriends to ruling classes act on the basis of self perceived potential victimhood. To maintain their power, they victimize others instead, "in self defense". Another term being used is "pre-emptive actions".

The answer to the question is that the left needs to develop a worldview based on the science and politcal orientation of survivors of oppresion, through the use of social and behaviopr science; those that have resources have an obligation to recognize survivors as a distinct politcal identity and make resources available for healing and rising above the self directed anger caused by others. Then and only then can we have a discussion about what loving our enemies would look like.

What principles? 19.Jun.2006 11:36

Pravda or Consequences

"...The answer to the question is that the left needs to develop a worldview based on the science and politcal orientation of survivors of oppresion, through the use of social and behaviopr science; those that have resources have an obligation to recognize survivors as a distinct politcal identity and make resources available for healing and rising above the self directed anger caused by others. Then and only then can we have a discussion about what loving our enemies would look like."

No way is this going to happen, we're fucked.

noose papier 19.Jun.2006 12:35

fireweed

When I read your post, I felt very happy!

I don't know if I quite agree that a behavioral approach alone will be the answer, AND I deeply appreciate your analysis. I agree, for example, that a Marxist analysis of oppression does not even seem to acknowledge the interior life, and how that affects revolution.

To me, transcending the cycle of violence is not something I do for the oppressor's sake. I do it because I have found myself homeless and deeply vulnerable to predators when comrades who said they would help me call out abuse within the movement fell victim to their own scars from trauma and went away from me, while all the people who wanted to silence me drew closer. I don't want to hurt my comrades as I have been hurt, and so I try to educate myself about cycles of violence and transcend them.

(Note that I said "I try". The only way I could confidently say I succeeded is if all the people I interact with got together in a big council where all oppressions magically disappeared and agreed that I had succeeded.)

I personally recommend behavioral, and/or community-building, and/or mind-body-spirit, and/or intercultural/generational, and/or interspecies, and/or ecological approaches (no coincidence that wilderness therapy works better than office therapy - wonder what would happen if people dropped therapy's patronizing assumptions and went to the wilderness together?).

If anyone is interested in finding out more about the trauma-analysis, I encourage them to check out this e-book:

"Power-Under: Trauma and NonViolent Change" by Steven Wineman

Downloadable for free from:  http://www.traumaandnonviolence.com/

a fair trial 19.Jun.2006 16:37

guillotine

I would say like the some recent movements after human rights violation that the oppressed or victims owe the oppressors their stories from their own experiences. For the idea of justice those who oppressed need a people's trial. And for those whose crimes are too much to fathom I would suggest that since they deprived others of life, hope and a chance for a future then maybe they should not be exacuted but denied that which they denied others: sunlight, air, food, water and human contact so for those whose actions were beyond our concepts of being then we owe them only what they gave others a deep pit covered in concrete with a candle and matches and the pictures of their victims (glaring back) posted on the concrete ceiling and the concrete sealed entry of their unmarked pending tomb. Like the sunlight, air, food, water and human contact they took away then we owe them the same void. As any reasonable person would tell you that the State or any body of humanity shall not have the right to take life, but our social contract should reserve the right when needed to deny those things that oppressors took from our loved ones.

one 19.Jun.2006 22:08

example

often the healing has to transcend away from the "near" moment

a few years back, a palestinian woman participated in an intentional group whose simple mission was to share personal stories of a similar event. Palestinians and Israels who were focusing on peace, traveled to France to participate.

She spoke of talking to an elderly man at this event. She shared the story her father had spoken of. In his boyhood, one night the Israelis came to his family home and ordered them out. They could carry what they could quickly grab, but they had to leave at once. At the time the knock came at the door, they had been seated at the table eating their supper. They were not even allowed to finish eating.

The elderly man began to shed tears and then he spoke. He spoke of being a boy and the excitement his family felt of having a new home. He remembered the night they moved in so vividly because it had always left him puzzled. On the supper table were plates with half eaten food.

Now, in that moment, with the personal sharing of a story a bridge was made between two humans. It didn't matter that it was simply two people. What matters is the transformation of understanding that took place. That is where healing begins.