Art Carden  

Oppression is a Negative-Sum Game

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Oppression is nothing new, and it has caused suffering that echoes across generations. That one group was oppressed does not mean that members of the oppressing group--or at least their descendants--benefited from it. In a post with which I largely agree at Sojourners, Soong-Chan Rah laments "The American Church's Absence of Lament." Professor Rah goes astray, however, by lamenting "the reality of suffering and pain from which many of us in the United States have benefitted (sic, emphasis mine)."*

Specific individuals benefited from slavery, colonialism, imperialism, etc., but this doesn't mean that entire societies (or large chunks of society) benefited from them. Slavery, Jim Crow, and other oppressive institutions mean not only a lot of wasted time and energy maintaining those institutions but also the waste of a lot of human capital. What inventions and innovations do we not enjoy today because the inventors and innovators were kept in bondage? What cultural treasures do we not enjoy today because many millions were kept illiterate? Here's Wikipedia's "List of African-American inventors and scientists." If we restrict our focus to oppression of African-Americans in American history, we've lost quite a lot.

It goes without saying that the actually-oppressed lost a lot more than the oppressors. Booker T. Washington was right, however: "One man cannot hold another man down in the ditch without remaining down in the ditch with him." Songs of lament are perhaps more appropriate than Professor Rah realizes: while some lost more than others, all have lost.

*Note: this was first linked on Rachel Held Evans' "Sunday Superlatives" blog entry for 11/10/13.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Tracy W writes:

I'm reminded of Adam Smith's argument that the East India Company was a negative for the Indians, the British consumers, and its own shareholders.

GM writes:

Statism with its accompanying rent-seeking and cronyism is oppression, but in a subtle sort of way.

Chris Wegener writes:

I absolutely agree but it goes further than that.
Labor income in the US has failed to match productivity growth since the 1980s. Heritage Foundation graph
While capital has profited and the wealthy become evermore affluent there is a price to pay. The price is the evisceration of the American business model. As people have less and less money corporations have fewer and fewer customers.
As FDR said "the secret to prosperity is not that thousands have millions, but that millions have thousands."
As the American population continues to be impoverished the rich will ultimately suffer as well as their wealth withers.

Stephen writes:

"A culture of American exceptionalism and triumphalism results in amnesia about a tainted history. The reality of a shameful history operates against the narrative of exceptionalism, therefore, this shameful history remains hidden."

Oh, please. Another diatribe from someone who's really going after the successful and growing branches of American Christianity, i.e., the Baptists and Mormons, and not the liberal denominations. As a lifelong Episcopalian, I've had to listen to decades of "laments" from church leaders about exploitative capitalism, racism, sexism, and war-mongering.

If he wants to see lamentation, he just has to read the World Council of Churches' 2012 "Statement on the doctrine of discovery and its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples", which could have been written by any professor at a big-city seminary.

What do you mean there's none to be seen? All I see is laments over the sins of the fathers (not mine, by the way, since I'm an Asian-American).

Andrew_FL writes:

@Chris Wegener- I have to say I find your interpretation of that graph rather strange. Are you laboring under the impression that a broad measure of "productivity" and a broad measure of "compensation" should increase at exactly the same rate? Given the subjectivity of the value of any individual's production (and compensation, for that matter!), one could easily, by weighting different kinds of production and compensation differently, get those two graphs to line up exactly in the level of increase they show. The important point is that the move together, not in completely different directions. Either way, the final statement you make regarding people being impoverished is in complete contradiction to what your graph shows, which does not indicate any "impoverishment" at all, but consistently increasing compensation for our labors.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

I think there's a huge incentive to celebrate victimhood, because people naturally like to feel sorry for themselves and blame misfortune on others. Further, there's a natural sense of original sin that needs to be replaced in our secular times. Lastly, there's a lot of money in this: once a corporation declares themselves guilty, recompense is the logical corollary.

The author notes 'white students didn’t know what to feel or what to say.' What should they say? The implication is they're all guilty, which I find wrong and manipulative.

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