Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Culture of Oppression: A Google+ worldbuilding hangout report

I had a fantastic and very large group of people join me for my Culture of Oppression hangout on February 15th. My guests were Dale Emery, Liz Arroyo, Harry Markov, Jaleh Dragich, Janet Harriett, Barbara Webb, Glenda Pfeiffer, Bryan Thomas, and K. Richardson.

We started out by doing a bit of brainstorming on what came to mind when we thought of oppression. My list coming in to the hangout was: stereotypes, slurs, institutional bias, demographic pressure, "what is strength?", "to whom is oppression invisible", and "who buys in?" My guests mentioned bullying, isolated communities, minorities, ethnicity and sexuality.

Very often when we read science fiction and fantasy, we'll see a heavy emphasis on stereotyping and insults - the aspects of oppression which can easily be expressed out loud. However, in worldbuilding, it's very important to keep in mind that the invisible aspects of oppression are just as important, and your world won't work nearly as well if they are missing.

Jaleh mentioned that oppression leads to emotional scarring. In fact, oppressed peoples will often not only be insulted, but will come to believe in their own inferiority and join in oppressing one another. The animal people of Tamora Pierce's The Emperor Mage were mentioned in this context.

Institutional oppression happens when the structure of a system (institutional, bureaucratic) results in the oppression of a group. Religious oppression happens both across religions and within religions. We talked about the function of "gatekeepers" as a means to oppress within institutions. It's not fair to ask someone to "fill out this form" if he or she is unable to read. Liz mentioned language barriers - a really good point. In Australia* until the 1960's, immigrants could be asked to pass "a language test" in order to enter the country. Though one might assume that the test would be in English, tests would often be administered in Swahili or Tagalog to minorities that the authorities weren't keen to let in. This policy is referred to as the "White Australia Policy." This is just one small example of how, in oppressive situations, the rules will be applied inconsistently  based on what kind of person you are. Dale taught us "the unwritten law of unwritten law": written laws are just a fa├žade for unwritten laws. Harry told us about how in Bulgaria you need to have the right connections to get appointments at universities, with doctors, or with lawyers. The people who know the right people or who have done the right kind of favors are able to bypass the gatekeepers, when to the general public it looks like everyone has to face the gatekeeper in order to proceed.
*[Note: during the verbal discussion I wrongly (if uncertainly) attributed this policy to the US - I apologize for the mistake. My Australian husband reminded me of the precise facts when I asked him.]

People who are "behind the law" are also vulnerable to predation. If the law says you are not allowed to access a particular person, and you access them anyway, then they are more easily able to take advantage of you because you cannot reveal that you saw them in the first place. The example I gave of this was of women who were swindled, fondled, raped or seriously injured by doctors (and men pretending to be doctors) when they sought abortions in the pre-Roe vs. Wade era.

When we write fiction, intentional oppression is a lot easier to portray than unintentional oppression. Similarly, it can be tricky to portray lack of opportunity realistically. Barbara brought up the fact that in fantasy, farmboys seem to have an uncanny ability to run off and have adventures unlimited by their poverty and lack of education, etc. Definitely keep an eye out for places in your work where people are able to access things in unrealistic ways.

As I have mentioned in a previous article, being oppressed does not mean that you are weak. People who are oppressed and have social walls erected around them will be aware of the power opportunities they do have, and use them to the greatest extent possible. A woman who is only allowed to choose her husband will choose very carefully. A woman whose virginity is considered a valuable bargaining chip may decide to take matters into her own hands in order to influence events (a friend and I both have situations like this in our current works-in-progress).

Oppressed people are not necessarily in control of the meaning of their own actions. Harry mentioned a story of a girl who was framed for killing a dragon, and how politicians used her as a symbol. Katniss of The Hunger Games is a terrific example of an oppressed person trying to use her actions to express meaning, but having those actions be twisted by multiple forces outside her control (the government of Panem, and the resistance).

Dale asked, "How do oppressors justify their oppression?" This will be different depending on whether it is intentional or unintentional oppression. With unintentional oppression, the oppressor is more likely to construe an oppressed person's lack of opportunity as a lack of drive or a lack of quality. With intentional oppression, very often that same "lack of quality" argument will be used to justify actively oppressive behaviors on the basis of "the greater good." Some people will become oppressors out of the fear that if they do not, they will become the oppressed. But who decides what is good for society? Who defines these group identities? You will tend to see a lot of common scripts for oppression, by which I mean ways in which a dominant group will simultaneously define and belittle another group. "They're not like us." "They're savages." Even characteristics in which the oppressed group takes pride (internally) can be turned into justification for ridicule. Bryan mentioned that people often feel threatened by strangeness in values and ways of understanding the world.

I took an example from my Varin world at this point and talked about how the Imbati servant caste is marked with tattoos on the forehead that are seen by nobles as a sign of servitude, by people of lower castes as signs of danger and their tendency to be gatekeepers/keep secrets, and by themselves as points of pride in the virtuous nature of their vocation to serve the nobles who desperately need their support. Imbati take pride in their own selflessness, and see themselves as fundamentally better off than the nobles because they are more virtuous, but also because they are healthier and take something of a parental role in their guardianship of an ostensibly higher caste. Barbara picked up on this and mentioned that sometimes there will be widespread denial that any problem of oppression exists. The oppressive condition is seen as normal. Dale insightfully remarked that we are very protective of how we identify ourselves. K mentioned that the cultural oppression of women involves convincing the women in question that they are being given privilege, being put on a pedestal. Janet picked up on the idea of the invisibility of oppression talking about her "slightly redneck" background (my favorite quote: "there's nothing duct tape won't fix!") when no one she knew considered their low socioeconomic status a problem of oppression. "You don't think, 'I'm oppressed,' you think, 'what's wrong with me?'" Jaleh related to this and talked about encountering a sort of vague distaste when she changed schools. Barbara said that oppression is easier to identify from the outside than it is from the inside.

Harry told us that in Bulgaria, people who have more will explain how they're better off, and people who do not share your religion will tell you how you should leave Bulgaria. Also, homosexuals won't get jobs unless they're able to act straight. K agreed that the question of whether you can "pass" is very important in how you will be treated by the oppressive group.

Bryan mentioned encountering the attitude that "God likes white people more" when he was in Ghana, and being shocked that such a view could remain in the culture so long after slavery ended. The stamps of oppression last for years and years. Indeed, Japan has tried multiple times to eliminate discrimination against the untouchable caste, which is hundreds of years old. However, the bias still remains in places of residence (it's hard to move in Japan) and in names.

Liz Arroyo mentioned that names are critical. This is certainly true, not just in the Japanese example, but in Jaleh's example above, and in cases of ethnic division. Names are also critical in my Varin caste system, so if you're creating an oppressive situation, think about how you might use names to your advantage.

At that point we returned to the question of the invisibility of privilege, and the attitude of "I don't see what everybody is complaining about," which is extremely common. Jaleh notes that people have a hard time seeing beyond their own problems. Dale remarked that the effects of privilege may be visible but attributable to other factors. In particular he said that individual quality is a very strong myth of America, because we don't tend to take into account the many ways we are helped by institutions and by our own social connections.

K said that coming out as homosexual switches your position of privilege. Suddenly you're experiencing prejudice that you didn't before, and it makes you more grateful for what you have.  A different kind of switch in privileged status is the one I experienced when I went to live in Japan and suddenly became a minority (in our dorm we had a saying, "only foreigners steal," because when our tv was stolen by someone who broke in from outside, we were blamed for it). Dale observed that people in a privileged group are quick to point out when someone has broken free of oppression and achieved success, giving such unusual cases too much credence in evaluating how much progress has been made against that oppression by society in general. There is a price to pay for moving beyond your social position - such as when a woman who does well in a large company is accused of sleeping around to achieve her success. Privileged people are also careful not to be brought down by exposing themselves to less "cool" people, even if those people are also powerful. Dale mentioned Downtown Abbey as a place to find great examples of this (someone falling in love with a chauffeur! scandal!). In the Australian penal colonies, they considered it very important to separate "the races" - which to them meant keeping the English separate from the Irish!

With that, I have caught up on my hangout reports (whew!). I know there were a number of people who had hoped to participate in this hangout, and I'm sorry we couldn't include you.


  1. I found the reference for the Tamora Pierce book, The Emperor Mage. The group of people I mentioned were the Banjiku, a tribal people subjugated by the Carthaki Empire. Various families were connected with an animal, almost like a family totem, and got extensive tattoos to resemble them more closel. They treated each other well but didn't fight their status as lower class until near the end of the book when Daine relayed a message from the Badger God on behalf of theirs that Lushagui never meant for them to be slaves.

  2. Jaleh, thanks for following up on that reference! I really appreciate it.

  3. Another insightful and thought-provoking discussion as always, Juliette. Thanks for posting this summary for those of us who didn't/couldn't attend.


  4. Juliette, thanks for the detailed report.

    Minority, especially Black, friends have told me numerous testimonies about prejudice. Subtle forms continue, and in many spheres.

    Now me, I'm a white straight guy. But I'm also a minority religion. In the past I've been pointed-and-stared at on the street, held at gunpoint, and even threatened with a small-town lynching, due to my chosen faith.
    (Nothing I'd done, or anyone had been proved to have done, but thanks to ugly gossip and rumors.)