Thursday, June 08, 2006

Help, Help, I'm Being Oppressed

An interesting post to pull out of Buridan's Ass on the definition of oppression. Buridan argues that being an oppressed group requires (a) being a group and (b) being oppressed and neither of these notions is well-defined, indeed, both are self-defined (or claimed by some to be) by the supposed group that is supposedly oppressed. As such, there is real fear that the entire notion becomes a triviality which is a harm to those legitimately concerned with fighting real oppression in the real world.

To play Goodman to Buridan's Hume, I think that even if his problem were to be solved, another one exists beneath. Is oppression a utilitarian concept or an intentional concept? Suppose we can identify a group and we have good empirical data to suggest a very real social disadvantage to a random member of that group vis-a-vis the general population. We now have a group and we have harm associated with being a member of that group. Does that disadvantage necessarily confer "oppressed group" status? If a policy affects African Americans in a disproportionate and statistically significant fashion, would that by itself make the policy racist or does the claim of racism require malintent in the formulation of the policy? Of course, determining the desires of the framers of the motion requires evidence that we will almost never have.

The proof of intent, of course, is not always in the sociological pudding. The disadvantage may be the result of (1) a common cause correlation that is group neutral or (2) the result of good intentions, but poor insight. An example of the first situation might be smoking bans which, say, turn out to have a more significant affect on the working class than the upper class because of a correlation between socio-economic factors and likelihood of smoking. There was no intention to inconvenience any group more than any other, but it, in fact, does. Would such bans be classist? An example of the unintended consequence variety would be title seven of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which bars using race as a criterion for employment. It was designed to end discrimination, but its wording is now being used to put a stop to affirmative action and other programs designed to help overcome the legacy of racism. Does this make the Civil rights Act racist?

If well-intentioned ignorance is an acceptable excuse, what about once the results are made known? If we are given good data by social scientists that demonstrate that women are disproportionately negatively affected by some policy that was not intended to harm women's interests, does the policy become sexist once we are informed of disadvantage or does the lack of intent give it a permanent pass?

In the shadow of Jim Crow, these questions were easy enough. The intentions were out there for all to see. But now that this is no longer the case and claims of racism and sexism are viewed with skepticism, if not derision and dismissiveness from some powerful quarters that have used white guilt exhaustion to fuel their agenda -- even though, in some case, they are real. How ought we define oppression?