Home > Social Justice > Power, Powerlessness, and the Myth of Oppression

Power, Powerlessness, and the Myth of Oppression


Power and powerlessness both lay at the heart of our ongoing cultural discussion of equality among the sexes.  Too often we perceive this as a somewhat binary distinction—one group as the oppressor, the other as the oppressed—and thus one gender’s power tends to be defined by another group’s powerlessness.  Typical of this line of thought is the claim that men have held the majority of the power for millennia, which has made women powerless by default.   However, this oversimplification of sex and gender can be counterproductive in many important ways.  Considering women to have been at the brunt end of oppression for all these years is actually both insulting and demeaning to the female gender.  While there are certainly many genuine cases of both men and women being violently oppressed throughout history, we must avoid the temptation to think of either gender’s history as merely one of oppression.  History is not a story of men oppressing women for thousands of years, and then collectively waking up to the folly of our ways.  Men and women were both being oppressed—by each other, and more importantly, by the challenge of survival in a mysterious and hostile world.

In order to get a full grasp of this complex and fairly volatile issue, we must consider two different types of power and powerlessness, one type belonging to men, and the other to women.  Since the very first waves of feminism, women began comparing their public roles to those belonging to men, and began to perceive a very real imbalance of opportunities for women to excel in the workplace.  This, many people claimed, was testament to the outright dis-empowerment of women everywhere.  A man’s success was viewed as the only power that carried any real currency in society, and so a movement was born—or rather multiple movements, each building upon the triumphs and trappings of the last.  Women’s liberation allowed women to suddenly move into the workplace, more than ever before in history, and is now viewed as one of the most remarkable victories of the human spirit.  Together, men and women began to view the public sphere as the arena of power itself—where all the gaps between oppressor and oppressed ultimately dwell, and the only place where they can be resolved.  As a result, the “invisible power” of women was often devalued, if acknowledged at all.

However, once women began moving en masse into positions of social authority, many began to realize that men’s ostensible “success” in the public sphere was not necessarily a product of male power, but rather of male powerlessness—one of few highly disposable roles that society offers to men.  These roles often require a considerable sacrifice of time, energy, and happiness, as well as frequent abandonment of interest in things like music, poetry, dance, and other artistic expressions.  Such material success often requires men to cut themselves off from all the qualities that are commonly associated with female power—namely love, connection, and compassion—and often replace them with the sort of hyper-masculine pathologies perceived as necessary to ensure financial prosperity such as callousness, ruthlessness, and an unhealthy predisposition to avarice.  These traits started to define success for a great many people, traits that were in actuality a portent of how little power men really had.

When trying to weigh the distribution of power between men and women, we might suggest a very interesting metric: life expectancy.  For example, we can point to the significantly lower life expectancies among African Americans when compared to Caucasians as a valid measure of dis-empowerment—it could be surmised that because African Americans tend to have notably less societal power on average than Caucasians, they are subject to more stress and hardship throughout a lifetime, leading to more exhaustion, illness, and thus reduced life-spans.  But the fact that men of all races can expect considerably shorter life-spans than women is not often regarded as symptomatic of this same sort of power imbalance, despite the fact that there appears to be no real biological reason why this should be the case.

Of course it is entirely too simplistic to say that, since women tend to live longer lives, they therefore have more power—but we might be able to infer that, of the power men and women do already have, women’s power may be more healthfully wielded.

Just as we might look to life expectancy as a measure of male vs. female power, we might also consider suicide rates as an indicator of overall powerlessness.  Here too we find a tremendous imbalance between male suicide rates and female suicide rates, which predict that adolescent men are as much as four times more likely to kill themselves as women—and the ratio only becomes greater with age, with elderly men being more than one thousand percent more likely to commit suicide than women of the same age.  Just as a woman’s power can be characterized as being “invisible” and therefore all-too-easy to overlook, men’s powerlessness has become invisible to the majority of society, even while it is being confused for his power.  Again, it would be simplistic as to think that, since men kill themselves more often than women, they are more powerless than women.  But perhaps we can suggest that the lack of recognition of this powerlessness is what causes so many males to prematurely end their own lives.  The case could be made that the expectations for males to conform to the rigidly defined societal pressures of sexuality, success, and service are much greater than they are for females.

Which is certainly not to say that women do not have their own sets of societal pressures bearing down upon them from all angles, often coercing women to adopt identities they are not at all comfortable with—but these pressures tend to carry different sorts of consequence in the public sphere. This brings us to one of the most universal and fundamental misconceptions in virtually all of feminist thought, what we might call “the myth of oppression.”  In order for one group of people to be truly oppressed, at least one of three possibilities is true: they are either dumber, weaker, or fewer in numbers than their oppressors.  It is doubtful that we could find any sane person, male or female, who would suggest that women have ever fallen into any of these categories—and yet the myth of oppression lives on, a grim parody of the real oppression that men and women have both experienced throughout our shared history.

It is crucial to emphasize the following: though we may find it necessary to reframe our popular conceptions of male/female oppression, debunking the myth of women as perennial victim, at no point are we diminishing the very real experiences of oppression women encounter every day, all over the world.  At every moment women are being demoralized.  Her identity is being commodified, packaged, and sold for a quick profit.  Her sexuality is either being forced upon her or ripped away, her soul ravaged by senseless acts of physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse.  There is no denying that oppression exists in this world, that countless instances of exploitation and inequity persist to this very day, and that women are too often the victims of this oppression. It obliterates my heart whenever i open myself to even a fraction of the full severity of women’s suffering, if even for just a moment.  And it is clear that men everywhere need to recognize these genuine instances of violence, find a way to collectively “man up” and take more ownership and responsibility for his gender’s behaviors, and begin to consciously redefine the male identity, just as women have been doing for generations.

But when trying to identify the source of this oppression, we must be careful not to allow ourselves to get swept away by the difficult emotions surrounding male/female oppression, or succumb to the glib oversimplifications presented by so many feminist thinkers: namely, the popular narrative that human history is one giant plot concocted by men to keep women under his thumb.  Make no mistake, men and women are both oppressed, by ourselves, by each other, and by the forces of history.  The dreaded patriarchy and all it is associated with—the sharp divisions between labor, gender roles, sexuality, temperament, etc.—men and women have created this mess together, out of sheer necessity of human survival, and both suffer under its weight.  Thus, a comprehensive approach to feminism would not frame the issue as a woman’s struggle to escape her historical oppression by men, but as both men and women together struggling to escape the oppression of history itself.

The weakness of men is the facade of strength, while the strength of women is the facade of weakness.  The goal, obviously, is to thoroughly understand power and powerlessness as they relate to both men and women, thus enabling both sexes to move beyond the often-constricting roles we have created for ourselves.  Some may consider it odd or disingenuous to have men discussing feminism—it is not unusual in academia to believe that only women should deal with women’s issues, and only men with men’s issues, as neither can speak to the experience of the other.  These rules of engagement have only reinforced the enormous divide between us, and it is only through self-awareness and inter-gender dialogue that we will strengthen our ability to honor and cultivate the brilliance inherent within both genders.  The fact remains that both men and women are in this together—we created the mess together, step-by-stumbling-step, all throughout history—and therefore such identity politics have no place in this conversation.  There can be no real progress for women without men’s own progress taking place right alongside, just as there can be no real progress for men without honoring and deepening the many victories women have created for themselves in recent decades.  We are defined only in relation to each other.  Only together are we whole, completing the most sacred circuit the universe has ever known—a circuit through which life continues to proliferate, consciousness continues to amplify, and history continues to whisper its secrets to future generations.

Originally published on Integral Life: Redefining the Relationships Between Men and Women. Part 3: Power and Powerlessness (w/ Warren Farrell and Ken Wilber)

Previously:

Redefining the Relationships Between Men and Women

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  1. August 13, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Corey,

    I know that your views here are in line with what Ken writes about and are often thought of as the 3rd school of feminism among integrals.

    However, I want to express that your views are not anything remotely resembling the truth. The interpretation of history as systematic oppression of women arose in a culture of pluralism… but that doesnt make it wrong or bad. Its an interpretation that has a downside, which you illuminate rightly. BUT its an interpretation that is clearly in line with an integral and or evolutionary worldview.

    Any Place that Red shows up as a dominant meme, women are abused and subjugated, anyplace that blue shows up as a dominant meme, women are oppressed. At orange we begin to have equality, at green we begin to actually feel cultural remorse for these atrocities. At integral we have to integrate all this information.

    200,000 comfimed cases of rape in eastern congo
    http://www.catholic.org/international/international_story.php?id=34226

    • August 13, 2009 at 12:42 pm

      “I want to express that your views are not anything remotely resembling the truth.”

      Wow, not even resembling the truth? Well, i’m honestly not sure how to respond to that. Thanks for stopping by, i guess?

      “Any Place that Red shows up as a dominant meme, women are abused and subjugated, anyplace that blue shows up as a dominant meme, women are oppressed.”

      I thought i made this point clearly enough in the piece, albeit without color-coded language. I tried to remain very sensitive to the fact that debunking the “Myth of Oppression” does not in any way minimize the “Facts of Oppression.” In fact, one of the points i am trying to make is that the “Myths” can actually REINFORCE the “Facts,” and that the best way forward is for men to begin looking to their own personal, cultural, and social growth with the same introspective intensity as women have been for decades, while both men AND women work together toward a genuinely integrative model of sex and gender.

  2. August 13, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    There is no Myth of Oppression… that’s the view that I’m targeting as ‘not resembling the truth in anyway.’

    I appreciate your blog post, and respect your point of view. I just don’t agree. Women are being systematically oppressed around the planet today. We don’t have to look into history.

    Nicaragua recently passed a series of laws attempting to make abortion not only illegal, but impossible to justify under any circumstances including rape.

  3. August 13, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Some Myths of Oppression, off the top of my head:

    a) Society is composed of equally rational agents
    b) A disproportional amount of rational agents (men) willingly choose to abuse other rational agents (women).

    Therefore:

    c) Men are intrinsically oppressive
    d) Women are inherently oppressed

    Which leads to:

    e) If women want equality and to be valued by society, they have to surrender their femininity and learn skills in the public sphere
    f) If men want women to have equality and value in society, they must surrender their masculinity and even neuter themselves psychologically (e.g. the 90’s “Sensitive Guy” shtick)

    The Myth of Oppression is very real, and can be found in the majority of liberal women’s studies classes in universities around the country. Which is not to say that this interpretation is not an exceptionally important rung in the developmental ladder–it certainly is–but while i am making a bit of a straw man out of some feminist thinking here, this has been the predominant narrative in universities for some time now.

    And i will continue to insist that the only way we can actually begin to help the 200,000 women who have been brutally victimized in Eastern Congo is to STOP demonizing or feminizing men, and begin seeing all of this another heart-wrenching example of the very real horrors of development that are occurring at every moment all around the world.

  4. August 13, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    “The Myth of Oppression… can be found in the majority of liberal women’s studies classes in universities around the country.”

    Hmmm…. You took inventory? Speaking as an academic and student of intellectual cultures, I assure you that feminist scholarship is not what you claim, nor has it been such anytime in the past decade.

    It is far, far more subtle and subversive than you would like to imagine.

    Your version of this argument would be more useful if you ramped up the intellectual honesty.

    • August 14, 2009 at 10:18 am

      You’re right, i was being glib. I should have been more general and said something like “The Myth of Oppression is still deeply woven into our ongoing cultural conversations around sex and gender, wherever you find them. It is by no means the ONLY interpretation being offered by feminist thinkers, but it remains a highly influential one nonetheless.”

  5. kfkonner
    August 13, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Me thinks its admirable to try and locate the weavers of the webs we are still caught up in, put a finger on what is going on between genders, what oppression encompasses. It’s like trying to find which gong sound will create a new world structure. Very difficult task. Very very important.

  6. August 14, 2009 at 3:02 am

    I find I agree with this entire article.

    I have experienced the mutual limitationing of both genders in college, while I am one of two guys who attends the course. The subject I’m learning is youthwork, and it is dominated, pardon the pun, by the woman kind.

    I usually find such integral ideas good to hang on to.

  7. August 14, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    Thanks Corey for more directly stating your main ideas. I really enjoy your writing, and the details you give are intriguing.

    I still feel that the phrase ‘Myth of Oppression’ is wrongly placed. You seem to be talking about gender dynamics in western societies. Oppression itself is pre-rational…

    According to Wiki, The definition of Oppression is: 1. the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner. 2. an act or instance of oppressing. 3. the state of being oppressed. 4. the feeling of being heavily burdened, mentally or physically, by troubles, adverse conditions, anxiety, etc.

    The Oppression of women actually happened, has been documented, and is still happening. The Feminists have not overstated the case.

    Saying that both men and women are oppressed and therefore gender specific conclusions are mis-led is not a valid argument.

    Are you aware that the Nazis killed 3 million Christians? Would you call this the Myth of Antisemitism? Of course not… that would be inaccurate and insensitive.

    I also think Ken Wilber’s Critique of Feminism does not accurately restate the views of feminism. (something he complains about his critics) It is stated in Hyperbolic fashion and would not hold up to academic rigor (as stated by OvO).

    I want to re-iterate that many Pluralistic ideas are deeply compatible with an integral worldview… Of all the first tier memes Green offers the most balanced view of history.

    • August 14, 2009 at 3:05 pm

      Hey Jason, thanks for hanging in there with me.

      My only quick reaction to this is to say that, as i mentioned in the email i just sent you, saying there are such things as “Myths of Oppression” is not the same as saying that “oppression is a myth.” It is a turn of phrase that i am using to be kind of provocative, but also to try to make a massive cultural subject into object and reframe our mutual struggle as a DEVELOPMENTAL struggle, rather than as the story of women trying to free themselves from under the inherently-abusive thumb of men.

      If i wrote a post about the “Myths of Spirituality,” would you take that to mean that i am arguing against spirituality itself? Or that maybe there was something about the “actual” nature of spirituality that is being OBSCURED by myth?

      Another example: Ken’s “Myth of the Given.” This doesn’t mean that there are no givens–everything that came before humanity (holonically speaking) is a given to humanity. But there is no single monolithic capital-G GIVEN being imposed upon the universe. In the same way, there is no single monolithic capital-O OPPRESSION being universally imposed upon women by men. There is oppression, no denying that–but as long as women are painted as perpetual victims and men as perpetual perpetrators, we will never be able to see that oppression for what it is: the heart-breaking violence inherent to development itself.

  8. August 14, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    🙂 Corey, your restatement in response to me is funny, but I do agree with it.

    Jason, your remarks here resonate with me.

    My sense is that a good way to keep fading ideas strong is to debunk them as they become weaker–and especially to debunk them in ways that are hyperbolic, shadowy or just not analytically or factually whole. Scholarly opportunism is blood in the water: it invites people who want to agree to instead take a devil’s advocate position in order to require you to be more honest.

    Thus we are putting all our energy in to strengthening an old thesis/antithesis, both sides of which are of course valid.

    My own strategy is to seek out the leading edge and throw my energy in to supporting and broadcasting it. If I have a vague idea that feels innovative, chances are many others out there have already had it. That’s what the Web of Science and Google Scholar are for.

    Warm wishes from an avatar whose owner happens to be female.

    • August 14, 2009 at 3:12 pm

      0v0: hahaha well, continue to call me on that kind of stuff…. it’s an awfully slippery slope into this sort of hyperbole, and i am often guilty of wearing roller skates.

      • August 14, 2009 at 3:29 pm

        At the risk of oppressing you, I must say you’re sweet.

        One more remark despite the risk of turning this in to an epic comment thread.

        Aggregating your own words, one could say you are trying to: do a massive reframing to free us from a myth that feminist scholarship in particular is responsible for perpetuating?

        I see a certain assignment of blame and a certain assumption of agency.

        I am asking you to consider seriously that feminist scholarship is not the culprit but the key. It has done what it needed to do but you are blaming its old aspects rather than recognizing and learning from its new ones.

        The first time I was called out for using the myth of oppression was in a Women’s Studies class where I guest lectured about some ethnographic work on gender in Central America. The feminist professor and several students critiqued me strongly for overlooking women’s constitutive role in the gender relationship, and told me my own framing of the “problem” was backward-looking. One student did a deft resurrection of Nietzche’s master-slave relationship stuff (which I later re-read with delight). That was in the year 2000.

        Anyway. Take a closer look at these purportedly myth-ridden Women’s Studies conversations.

        As you know, Integral could do a better job of appreciating the feminine side of analytical power. There is a reason I mostly don’t bother to jump in to conversations.

  9. August 18, 2009 at 10:08 am

    Hello there 🙂 I found your article very interesting. I believe that real oppression does exist in the world, has existed historically, and continues to affect women in many places around the world. The cited case in Nicaragua, the situation in some Arab countries, etc. However, the fact that that dichotomy (man-powerful/women-powerless)is too simple to describe the complexity of relationships between the male and female gender. Both men and women, like you point out, struggle against history, together, but that results in violence more often inflicted on women, which is something that can’t be ignored.

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