Oppression as a Radial Category
and the Search for a Definition

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revision: October 5, 2004

What Is a Radial Category?

For more on radial categories, see G. Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (Univ. of Chicago, 1987).

A radial category is a classification of things ordinarily understood in terms of some clearly imagined subcategory, called a prototype. There is some reason to think that most if not all of our ordinary concepts are about categories like this.

For any category, and any prototype that belongs to the category, there are other subcategories that belong to the category but do not entirely fit the prototype with which a person tends to think about the category.

Prototypes are of different sorts. There are typical case prototypes, ideal case prototypes, and nightmare case prototypes, to name a few of the most important. (If we consider the category husband, the ideal husband prototype is different from the typical case prototype, and both of these differ from nightmare cases.)

Oppression as a Radial Category

In this essay I am considering "oppression" as it tends to be understood by social critics and social justice advocates. Apparently it is understood not in terms of typical case prototypes but nightmare cases (or perhaps nightmare cases are taken to be typical or nearly so).

For oppression, the prototype seems to be what we think of when we imagine plantation slavery as portrayed in Alex Haley's Roots or Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, or think of ancient Roman slavery, or the Hebrews in Egypt slaving for the Pharoah, or sweatshops in the 19th and early 20th century in the U.S., or in Central America or Indonesia today as reported by the anti-sweatshop movement.

This nightmare case prototype of oppression usually involves hard labor, dirty labor, long hours, crowded conditions, abusive overseers with whips or sadistic foremen on the shop floor. There are often ethnic distinctions between master and slaves, e.g., slaves taken from peoples conquered by Rome, Latin American or Chinese teenagers in American sweatshops, or in offshore sweatshops directly run by Asian middlemen, for the benefit primarily of white American capitalists.

This nightmare prototype of oppression consists of cases that fit all or most of the five features described by Iris Young in her article, "The Five Faces of Oppression" (Zembaty and Mappes, ed. 2002, Social Ethics, 335ff.)

* Exploitation (in the normative sense) - one-way transfer of energies from one exploited to exploiters
* Marginalization - at the edge of society's concern
* Powerlessness - lack of the privileges of "professionals"
* Systematic violence
* Cultural imperialism
  -- the oppressed group's own culture is under attack
  -- its images and creations are stolen and repackaged to serve the interests of the dominant group
  -- modes of thought of the dominant culture crowd out those of one's own culture
  -- dominant culture creates stereotypes that degrade those whose native culture
     differs from the dominant culture.

Freedom, Burdens, and the Metaphoric Concept of Action

We learn from cognitive linguists that the metaphorical concept "burden" is part of a systematic conceptual metaphor used to think about human action. (See G. Lakoff and M. Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, 1999, pp. 201-202)
Actions are self-propelled movements (Complex Metaphor)

Purposes are destinations
Aids to action are aids to movement
Freedom of action is the lack of impediment to movement

There are five different types of impediment

* blockages - Harry got over his divorce
* features of the terrain - It's been uphill all the way
* counterforces - Quit pushing me around
* lack of energy - I ran out of gas
* burdens -
      I'm carrying a heavy load this semester,
      I'm weighed down by a lot of assignments,
      I'm trying to shoulder a lot of responsibility . . .
Note that the metaphor of burden (the probable source of our notion of oppression) is negatively related to freedom (although it is but one of five chief types of unfreedom).

A version of this metaphor is of action as self-propelled motion is:

Long-term activities are journeys
So . . . to be oppressed is understood, in part, as to carry a burden on a journey, i.e., over a long term

Oppression as Injustice

As social critics and social justice advocates use the term "oppression," it refers to something that results from human choice and thus is not inevitable and possibly wrong. People not unreasonably wish to throw off their oppression.

Oppression involves injustice. Consider that (distributive) justice is right distribution of benefits and burdens.

So, to be oppressed is (metaphorically) to carry an unjust burden on a journey.

An oppressor is someone who unjustly creates or increases our burdens.

A Historical and Social Condition

Oppression is generally understood as a historical, not a natural, condition; in that sense, it is subject to change (perhaps not easy change).

Injustices are not inevitable, not part of the nature of things, but are results of (possibly collective) human choices. They can be changed, although when the choices are collective and they are reinforced by powerful social institutions, they are not easy to change.

Depending on the relationship between powerful and weak social categories

As the term oppression has been used for at least 160 years it refers to a relationship between social groups that pervades a society, on a regional, national and perhaps on a global scale. Slaves are understood to be oppressed by the slave-owning class, not merely by the slaves' particular masters.

An Objective Fact

Oppression is objective rather than merely subjective. It is possible not just to feel oppressed but to be oppressed. The idea seems to be that an oppressed person suffers under a long-term burden imposed upon him as a member of a certain social category by persons who are members of, or employed by, another social category. The category that imposes the burden is the oppressor group. To which we may add that the burden is unjustly imposed.

If oppressed persons can be made to believe that their burdens are justly imposed or that being burdened results from fate or nature or their own error, then they won't think of themselves as oppressed. It is therefore in the interest of oppressors to "convince" the oppressed that the burden results from something other than the actions and choices of an oppressor group.

To say that oppression refers to an objective fact is, so far, only to say that if it has any application at all, it refers to a social reality. Empirical observation and inquiry is needed before anyone can rightfully assert that it applies to the real social world. The philosophical or linguistic study of concepts cannot substitute for such inquiry.

Summing up: Toward a Definition of Oppression

Oppression is a condition

  a) of people suffering under a long term burden
  b) that is objective (real, not merely felt)
  c) expressing injustice (a morally unjust distribution of burdens)
  d) created not by nature but by joint activity of human beings, and
  e) corresponding to relationships between socially weak and socially powerful groups
(a), (b), and (e) make it systematic