More Thoughts on Oppressor Material

Since my article “Working on Oppressor Material” was published in the January 2015 Present Time, a lot of people have said it has been useful.

I think that part of what makes it useful is that it puts oppression in a wider context. Rather than looking at individual oppressions, it allows the whole system of oppression to be understood in a way that helps to unite people. We still need to understand the detailed operation of individual oppressions, but it is not enough to focus only on one oppression at a time, or even the interaction of several oppressions.

Since I wrote the article, I’ve continued to lead workshop classes, community classes, and topic groups on “oppressor material” (oppressor distress) and have had some new thoughts about it. I’ve set out some of these thoughts below. (Some will make sense only after reading the original article.)

Reaching for Power and Finding Oppressor Material

In the original article, I wrote that we can act out “oppressor material” even in situations in which we are not in the oppressor role, and that this often happens when we feel the need to defend ourselves.

A new thought I’ve had is that when we reach for our power, often what we find instead is our oppressor material.

One can see this both inside and outside of RC. Many liberation groups, especially outside RC, are pulled to target people who are (or appear to be) “the oppressors.” An example is when activists who oppose oppressive policies attempt to humiliate or ridicule the politicians who put forward those policies. The activists are restimulating their own oppressor material as a way to avoid feeling like victims. This then scares everyone else. Restimulating one’s own distress recordings as part of a liberation strategy is counterproductive.

Actually Discharging “Victim Material”

In the original article I wrote, “A lot of our distress recordings include oppressor material, but for the most part we’ve focused on where we are being hurt rather than on where we may be hurting someone else. If we think of all of our recordings as a heap of dirt, we’ve taken big shovelfuls out of the ‘victim’ side of the pile (and we carry on shoveling, even when we’ve reached the bottom) but the ‘oppressor’ side has been left relatively untouched.”

What I now think is that our “oppressor material” has been like a shell that protects our “victim material” and often prevents us from working on it. In our sessions we need to dare to look at how small and powerless we were when we were first hurt. Instead we have been pulled to rehearse anger recordings or rebellion and defiance, which feel more powerful but aren’t discharging the actual victim recordings.

Taking Charge of Relationships

The perspective that we all carry oppressor material and have all been acting it out unawarely, irrespective of our oppressed or oppressor identities, seems to help us take charge of our end of relationships.

Ending Fascination with Other People’s Oppressor Material

I think we have all been encouraged to become fascinated with each new instance of other people acting out their oppressor material. (Almost all sources of news, even the more accurate ones, perform this function.) Currently we are too easily manipulated and divided on the basis of that fascination. I don’t think we will organise effectively to end oppression until a significant number of us can get past the fascination and lead from that position. Discharging and understanding our own oppressor material helps us become less fascinated with other people’s.

Understanding the Structure of Division

I am currently writing an article about how division is a more fundamental problem than oppression—and how the main function of oppression is to maintain division. All oppressive societies maintain systems of “divide and rule.” Under these systems, every single person is assigned both oppressor and oppressed roles. However, we tend only to notice where we are oppressed. If our liberation strategy is “find the oppressors and stop them,” then we put ourselves in a position in which we cannot understand the system accurately enough to organise to end it.

Karl Lam

Burwell, Cambridgeshire, England

(Present Time 185, October 2016)

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