Delving into the trap of oppressive systems – and seeking ways out

There is much more going on in oppressive systems than the obvious oppression of the oppressed and the battle against that injustice. This exploration unfolds with one foot inside those dynamics and one foot outside, looking in. We need to notice how we think of ourselves and each other, and how seriously we take each other’s history and needs, and the ways systems of oppression are set up, and what paths out seem to work. How much can empathy expand, and what does it mean and encounter as it does so? None of this is simple…

I found Chris Hedges article on identity politics – How ‘Antifa’ Mirrors the ‘Alt-Right’ – spot on in many ways. I also felt it missed the point in many other important ways. It was confusing and thought-provoking – and I recommend it. It made me reflect on what I, myself, think about identity politics. Here’s what I realized about my own views.

If identity was not used for oppression and privilege there would be no identity politics.

If diverse identities were celebrated, supported and creatively engaged – or even simply ignored – there would be no identity politics.

If our identities expanded to fully embrace our humanity or our membership in the great Community of Life or our 13.8 billion year evolutionary nature or our sacred spiritual universality, there would be no identity politics.

But we have the identity-drenched systems and tribes and traumas that we have – and we need to feel and deal and heal with them as creatively and compassionately as we can manage. In the meantime, we need to see as big a picture as we can manage that includes the dignity of whomever we think we are, whomever we think we aren’t, and whomever and whatever else is residing in this world with us.

Because this is where we all live – and how we treat each other will make all the difference in the world… especially as technology empowers individuals and small groups to have profound impact on everyone else, for better and/or worse…



A black blues musician has a unique hobby: Befriending white supremacists

I was a neo-Nazi. Then I fell in love with a black woman

Why I Left The Westboro Baptist Church


1. Of course oppression harms those who are obviously at the bottom of oppressive systems. See Definitions of Oppression, Dehumanization, and Exploitation and Social Exclusion.

2. But oppression also dehumanizes everyone involved in oppressive systems – even explicitly privileged people. See Oppression Dehumanizes. To explore a specific example, consider owning class liberation activist Jo Saunders’ perspective: “We were born just as good as [working class people]—innocent, loving, intelligent, and cooperative. What happened to us was [in some sense] the same as what happened to [working class people]. We were hurt and … the hurt was systematic … and deliberate. It involved the particular cruel conditioning of disconnection from ourselves and others, coupled with pernicious distortions of the truth of humanity and society. Then came the conditioning to build a cover over the terror and insecurity. We didn’t know we were good. We were forced to put on an armor of denial, pretense, assuredness, arrogance, and assertion that we were right and we knew best. Above all, we had to believe that we were needed to control what happened in our world so that the world could be protected.” From a very early age, all of us in oppressive systems – including privileged people – have our humanity and consciousness pruned and molded by family, peers, media, and “tribal” experience to enable us to play the humanly warped roles demanded of us by those systems.

3. Oppressive systems set us against each other, dividing and conquering us as a People – and that alienation is used strategically by certain parties to divide and conquer us for their own benefit. “Politics is not about uniting people. It’s about dividing people. And getting your fifty-one per cent.” – Roger Stone. See Metabolize Polarization and A Personally Transformative Encounter of Left and Right.

4. Oppressive systems – and our need to see diversity in their terms – distort the full meaning and range of human diversity, which is so much more than race, gender, political views and all the rest. See Intersectionality and, beyond that, Human Diversity and Diversity, generally.

5. The oppression/anti-oppression battle distracts us – unfortunately sometimes necessarily! – from a shared focus on our common good and deprives communities and societies of the immense potential gifts available through diverse people and perspectives interacting productively. See Using Diversity and Disturbance Creatively.

I see an intriguing and painful example of these patterns in the instructive dynamic tension between

(a) the fact that historic and institutional discrimination especially handicaps those who have been subjected to it, individually and collectively, such that many efforts to manifest fairness and healing in present-day society tend to involve approaches that seek to counter-balance such handicaps, such as affirmative action and reparations


(b) the idea that ALL discrimination is unfair and reductionist (as embodied in the true but appropriately controversial slogan “All Lives Matter” and the essay Why Discrimination is Wrong), which can raise the cry of “reverse discrimination” among those seemingly or formerly privileged who then feel disadvantaged by the re-balancing efforts in (a) above, especially where they feel oppressive actions (like slavery) were practiced by other people or before their time, leaving them innocent and besieged.

There is some justice in both perspectives at a theoretical level (and in the lives and felt experience of those holding those perspectives), which creates opportunities for political strategists to manipulate polarization, organizing opposing factions to systematically ignore the views of the Other. True fairness would require both sides to fully hear each other, to deeply understand the nuanced complexity of the oppression/privilege dynamics in which they are both trapped – socially, historically, psychologically, economically, etc. – and to step far enough out of both ideology and self-interest to then comprehend the experience of the Other. From that humanized perspective their different experiences and views provide grist for co-creating solutions that address the deep needs and concerns of all parties and for working together on shared aspirations that may take them far beyond both historic and current oppressive dynamics into greater mutual benefit and shared quality of life. See
Story Sharing
Healthy Polarity Dynamics
All Concerns Addressed
Generating Shared Orientation

A version of this understanding is embodied in the essay by Shariff Abdullah, excerpted below:



Do I want to ‘Create a World That Works for…’ Nazis and Skinheads?

I have ten responses:


• It’s the wrong question.

• “Nazi” and “Skinhead” and “White Supremacist” are labels. Anyone can move beyond labels. Do not deny someone who is wrong the opportunity to transform. Don’t hold the ‘Other’ to their labels.

• No one is born a “Nazi” or a “Skinhead”. Or a sexist. Or violent. Or depressed. I want to create a world where everyone can overcome their limitations, not be held to them. It is quite a challenge, but I have to be able to “see” past the robes, the swastikas, the other masks of separation and fear. I have to be able to “see” the Divine birthright of all people, all beings.

• When people are filled with anger, or powerlessness, or emptiness, or despair, they are driven to exclusivity and extremism. (Please see Chris Hedges’ excellent article: “How Antifa Mirrors the ‘Alt-Right’”, in Truthdig.)

• When people are encouraged to transform, they can become powerful, they can develop a clear identity, they can become whole. And they can then drop their separatist labels.

• Everyone has experienced pain. I have experienced my share of pain. And, I would take out my pain by causing pain to others. By causing pain to YOU. (Yes, people like you, the person who is reading this right now.) With the help of my friends, some wise teachers, and the Grace of the Divine, I was able to transcend my pain. I would be a hypocrite if I denied that possibility to others.

• You may have heard my “rats in the cage” story. When I was in college, this was a psychology experiment we would conduct: get two rats and put them in a cage. Make the cage big enough, with adequate food and water, and the two rats will cohabit peacefully. Then, send a mild electric shock through the metal floor of the cage. The two rats will immediately attack each other. Their rat story: “I’m in pain, and there’s another rat. He must be causing my pain in some way.” Our challenge: to become smarter than a rat. While that may sound funny, for those who are running on their fear and anger, it’s pretty hard to elevate their consciousness while believing they are under attack.

• The Shadow of the Other, and each of our Shadows, presents itself to us for OUR healing, not just the person we may oppose. Not just society as a whole. We can’t fix “them” unless we are willing to fix “us”. And the opposite is also true: we can’t heal ourselves without also being willing to heal our “Other”.

• “We, the People” does not mean “We, the People Who Agree with Me”. In order for us to have a society, “We” have to transform our notion of “the People” – beyond nationality, beyond borders, beyond race or ethnicity, beyond class or circumstance. Our challenge is to make “We, the People” become synonymous with “humanity”.

And Finally…

Many times, people come up to me and say, “Thank you for your work!” I am quick to remind them, “Hey, this is YOUR work, too!”

For those who don white robes or swastikas, who march in the streets, spreading fear and anger… we have to carry them, on our backs, to a new society.

And, for those who give all their attention to “opposing” the supremacists (which makes them stronger), who spend all of their time denouncing the ‘Other’ while spending little or no time envisioning a transformed society for all… we have to carry them on our backs, also. Our hope is that all of us “rats” figure out how to turn off the pain… for us all.



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