Written by Tim Takechi
Life in the 21st century seems so much better than the 20th century, wouldn’t you say?
In the 20th century, we saw mass genocide of Jews in Europe; genocide of Armenians; large scale murder in the Soviet Union, Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda; two world wars; nuclear proliferation; the Cold War; bloody conflicts in Vietnam, Korea, Latin America, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa; and countless other man-made atrocities.
Whew. Things aren’t perfect now, but they’re better. Right?
That sort of depends on your perspective. If you live in a country enjoying relative political and social calm, the world is not that bad of a place. If you live in a war-torn nation like Afghanistan or Somalia, that’s a different story.
For people living in America, whether the world is better today than in the past can only be left up to speculation.
Nevertheless, there is very little doubt that on a global scale; war, genocide and despotism are prime examples of “oppression.” When people talk about ending oppression, these are the problems we first think about.
But while we ponder these unpleasant thoughts, contrast all the above things with some other elements in our society that have been described as “oppression:”
Federal, state, and local laws
What do all these things have in common? For one, they’re all pervasive in society (though not every segment of society plays with Barbie dolls). Second, they’re pretty harmless on the surface.
In today’s media saturated world, you can find a blogger or two who will complain about just about anything. At least one person out there in the world is angry with everything from ketchup packets to laundry detergent.
Subsequently, at least one person out there is willing to describe almost anything as “oppression” or “oppressive.”
All you need to do is attend a college lecture, read the writings of a post-modernist author, or study feminist philosophy. You should find the word “oppression” somewhere.
Marge Piercy, a famous American poet/social critic, once wrote a poem titled “Barbie Doll” where she describes how Barbie dolls socialize little girls to adopt stereotypical feminine behavior in order to please the patriarchal hierarchy.
Excuse me? I thought Barbie dolls are play toys for kids, not tools of systematic oppression.
That shows that almost anything that you once thought was “harmless” is anything but.
But you should be able to draw the line somewhere, some of you may be wondering. I mean, Nazis and Barbie dolls can’t possibly belong in the same category. That’s ridiculous!
It is indeed ridiculous. Which is why we should be careful how we use certain words.
There is no arguing that language has power. Complex systems of language are what separate human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Additionally, labeling is a form of power. The ability to describe and attach labels to things (including people) can be the most powerful tool to control someone. If we can categorize people, we place them in boxes. And once they’re in that box, how can they get out?
Need an example?
Take a look at racist language. People use derogatory labels to exercise power over others. But what happens when those labels are turned on its head?
Consider the “N” word. Why is it okay for the “N” word to appear gratuitously in a rap song but not in a piece of literature written by Mark Twain? The “N” word (I am even hesitant to write it out on our blog) is without a doubt the most contentious word in the American English language. Today, is that word “oppressive” or “empowering?” Is it offensive or part of our common vernacular? Who decides?
Need any more proof that certain words hold extreme power?
As the “N” word carries polarizing power, so does the word “oppression.” We must be very careful how we use this word. When we use it, we should make sure we really mean it.
When we were little, our parents told us that “hate” is a strong word. Anytime we used “hate” to describe a brother, sister, or broccoli, mom or dad (or whomever raised you) would immediately remind us never to use that word. Use angry or dislike. “Hate” is a word reserved for very extreme emotions that very rarely any of us will ever feel.
Which brings us to the question that is posed in the headline of this article. Is “oppression” an obsolete word in today’s world? The more accurate question may be: Is our usage of word “oppression” obsolete in today’s world?
To answer both questions, no and possibly.
“Oppression” is defined as “the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner.” Using this dictionary definition, there is no question that oppression still exists in our society. War, totalitarianism, unfair laws and social injustices still persist today.
But how about our common usage of the word “oppression?” That is definitely up for debate (the intelligent and civil kind of debate, not the screaming and shouting type).
We can argue day and night over individual cases of systematic oppression (just open up a newspaper or turn on the TV for inspiration), but that will not get us anywhere constructive. What should be fair to say is that we do not want the word “oppression” to become obsolete.
You know when you use a word too often is starts to lose its meaning? For example, the word “awesome” is defined as “inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear.” Today, we use “awesome” to describe anything from a skateboarding trick to a kill in “Halo 3.” The word “awesome” is actually a very strong word that has been diluted by popular culture.
We do not want “oppression” to suffer a similar fall to irrelevancy. The more casually we use it, the more likely it will lose its linguistic power. “Oppression” should be used to describe injustices imparted upon helpless people, not a tasteless joke you heard in the gym locker room.
If we are not careful, the word “oppression” will become obsolete just as it needs to be used the most. And it that ever happens, we only have ourselves to blame.