Talking about Oppressor Material, Outside of RC

At a non-RC conference for activists, Alima Adams and I led a one-and-a-half-hour workshop called “Perspectives and Tools for Overcoming Divisions within Progressive Movements.”

We did not do it as part of an RC delegation but rather as two independent activists working as a team. We have learnt a lot from being part of RC delegations, and we used that in our workshop, but it has been useful to also become an independent “parallel” force in the world.

We had to write an abstract of the workshop, in just two hundred words. (It took us eight hours!) This is our abstract:

Perspectives and Tools for Overcoming Divisions
within Progressive Movements

Effective action on many critical issues, such as the destruction of the environment, will require united and broad-based mass movements. The biggest impediment to all progressive movements has been division (whether externally provoked or spontaneous), in which a section of humanity comes to view another section as their major problem, diverting both from achieving their common interests. Preventing and overcoming division are vital for the future of humanity.

Division has been used to control societies for millennia. Perhaps the most effective divisions have been where one group is given a “platform” from which to mistreat another group (for example, sexism and racism). The hurt and resentment on one side and the unawareness and denial on the other make it difficult for each side to understand the other—the first step towards unity.

Emotional damage, sustained from growing up within an oppressive system, leaves each person vulnerable to being co-opted into that system. Blaming the “bad people” comes from misunderstanding the problem and actually prevents solutions.

Overcoming divisions will require understanding the oppressive structures as well as how mistreatment and oppression work at the emotional level and how to undo them.

Format: short presentation, inclusive discussion, small groups.

Our proposal was accepted, and the workshop was popular. Twenty-four people came, even though six workshops were running at the same time. It was clear from the number of people and from what they said in their introductions that people thought the topic was important.

Following introductions, we did a short talk called “Human Attention Is a Resource.” Next we organised people into mini-sessions. We wanted them to have the resource of each other’s attention and be familiar with the mini-session format, so they could use these things to think about the ideas we presented.

We talked about oppressor material but called it “the (acquired) vulnerability to mistreat others.” We wanted people to focus on understanding the oppressive system we live in rather than identifying with being “oppressor” or “oppressed.”

“Divide and rule” has organised almost every human into both oppressor and oppressed roles. Within the context of a given oppression a person is either “oppressor” or “oppressed,” but this is true only within that artificial context. I think that context does not correspond well enough to reality to help us think about and solve the actual problems humanity faces.


Over the last few years I’ve been trying to build my credibility outside of RC. Because of my internalised oppression (I am of Chinese heritage and was raised working class), I have not found it easy to promote my own leadership. Re-evaluation Counselling has encouraged and supported my leadership, and in the caring and supportive environment of RC my confidence as a leader has slowly grown.

Outside of RC, no one “knows” that they “should” treat me with the respect I get inside RC. It has taken me a long time to stop seeing that respect as a “right” that I expect people to honor and instead understand that I have to build and earn it.

I think the main benefit of our leading this workshop was building our personal confidence and public credibility. We had to deal with some unexpected and somewhat difficult situations, but we dealt with them well and learnt from them.


For a while I’ve been using the thinking we’ve done in RC about oppressor material (and related ideas) with activists outside of RC. They have found it useful to hear someone talk about the big problems they are trying to think about from a point of view that immediately makes it clear that no one is to blame.

When I am in a group, I don’t speak for a long time. Instead I listen to the whole group until everyone has spoken. Sometimes I only speak when someone else asks me what I think. At that point people are usually willing to listen well to what I have to say.

When I speak, it is about two main things: “divide and rule” and oppressor material (though I don’t use that term). I choose which points to talk about, and how to talk about them, based on what I’ve heard people say earlier, and I try not to talk for too long.

These are some of the things I say about “divide and rule”:

  • I am interested in thinking about divisions among people and how to end them.
  • Almost all groups that aim to improve society seem to get diverted from their goals by a division of some kind—either an internal division or a conflict with another group.
  • For thousands of years we’ve been living in societies in which the strategy of “divide and rule” has been used to control people.
  • It has been used to divide people on every “scale,” from nation states to people in a single office or factory.
  • This has been happening for so long that it has become part of our culture and we may think it is human nature.
  • If you want to divide two groups of people, it is much more effective to give one group a higher status, and give them power over the other group.
  • If people have equal status or power, then they can easily unite, as they see each other as equals with common interests.
  • But how do you unite with a group of people who systematically mistreat you and who are almost completely unaware of it?
  • Alternatively, how do you unite with a group of people if you see them as unimportant, unintelligent, ungrateful, irrational, and weak—or if they are angry in your direction, for no reason you can see?
  • Under systems of “divide and rule,” almost everyone is assigned both oppressor and oppressed roles.
  • This has been confusing to many liberation movements. Organising against the “oppressors” reflects a misunderstanding of the problem.

These are some of the things I say about oppressor material:

  • If young children are mistreated, or witness mistreatment, they later become vulnerable to mistreating others.
  • Over thousands of years, our societies have evolved power structures based on this vulnerability—structures such as sexism, racism, and classism.
  • Everyone has been made vulnerable to mistreating others, but different groups of people have been given “platforms” from which to act it out—for example, men are given the platform of sexism, white people are given the platform of racism, and adults are given the platform of young people’s oppression. (By “platform” I mean the support of the society.)
  • Some people are then publicly blamed for acting out the mistreatment. For example, special attention is given to the racism of working-class white people and the sexism of African-heritage or Muslim men.
  • This public blaming makes those of us who are not in those groups try to hide that we carry a similar vulnerability to mistreating others.
  • It also makes us defensive. It becomes hard for us to look at where we are in an oppressor role or where we personally mistreat people.
  • All of this makes it harder to understand that our problems are caused by a system that is much bigger than any person or group.

I have presented these ideas about fifteen times, with activists who had different areas of interest and different identities. Every time I’ve gotten a positive reaction. When I have spoken to small groups, the whole group has visibly relaxed and started smiling. When I have contributed to discussions in larger groups, the group has spontaneously applauded. These reactions have occurred so consistently that I’ve decided to do more with these ideas. I’ll write about that in later posts.

Karl Lam
Burwell, Cambridgeshire, England

Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion
list for leaders of wide world change

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00