As the world grasps for a moral framework to make sense of the recent events in Israel and Gaza, Remi Adekoya argues that the dichotomy between the Oppressor vs the Oppressed is deeply unhelpful.
As we observe the unfolding of a violent conflict in the Middle East that will reverberate for years to come, an ideological schism is appearing that may be no less consequential in the Western world. Support for the Hamas terror attacks on Israel expressed in some quarters of leftist academia and activism has upset many moderates on the Left, as has the silence of some others. So why do some on the Left believe terrorist attacks on civilians can be justifiable or morally ambiguous?
While today’s dominant progressive narrative is one of “intersectionality”, acknowledging how privilege and oppression factor in one’s race, gender, sexual orientation and a host of other factors, it would appear that when push comes to shove, some progressives divide the world into just two kinds of people: Oppressed and Oppressor, groups that are often ethno-racially defined.
Hence, Zareena Grewal, the Yale professor who justified the Hamas attacks by arguing that Israeli settlers “are not civilians” was not too concerned that many of the murdered settlers were women who were also often raped before being killed. The intersectionality principle which posits that Jewish women face oppression as women for which they deserve solidarity, didn’t kick in here. More important was the fact they were Jewish, thus ultimately members of the Oppressor group. Likewise, the Chicago BLM chapter that endorsed the attacks did not inquire whether some of the Israeli victims had been gay, poor, or disabled – vulnerable categories that they would otherwise highlight. Their Jewishness trumped all else.
According to this ideology, oppressed groups are the weaker, poorer groups who have little or no power because they have been deprived of this by the Oppressors. Oppressed groups are fundamentally noble while Oppressor groups are fundamentally not so.
Oppressor groups are today’s strong, wealthy ethno-racial groups, in particular whites and Jews who are often “coded” as white, as American author Thomas Chatterton-Williams has noted. These groups are seen as having become powerful as a result of their exploitation of, and violence against, others. According to this ideology, oppressed groups are the weaker, poorer groups who have little or no power because they have been deprived of this by the Oppressors. Oppressed groups are fundamentally noble while Oppressor groups are fundamentally not so.
Perhaps the most eloquent articulation of this moral framework was Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed - the third most-cited social science text in history according to a 2016 study. Freire argued that “with the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun …Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed…Force is used not by those who have become weak under the preponderance of the strong, but by the strong who have emasculated them.”
Under thig logic, Hamas could never be blamed for an attack on Israel. Because it was the Israelis who initiated the violent relationship of oppression with the Palestinians. In this worldview, the moral evaluation of an act is dependent not on the characteristic of the act itself but on who perpetrated the act: Oppressed or Oppressor? The Oppressed hold the moral high ground by virtue of being oppressed. Their lives constitute a struggle to no longer be oppressed, as should be obvious to any fair-minded observer. The oppression of the Oppressed is strong evidence of their morality, and that they are not as prone to violence as their Oppressors. Even if historical evidence refutes this, that doesn’t seem to matter, all that matters is the relationship between the two in the here and now. The fact that the Oppressor group is in a stronger position today is seen, by itself, as strong evidence of their greater depravity. In this case, considering it is easy to find evidence of Israeli violence against Palestinians, this seems as confirmation to anyone thinking within this particular moral matrix.
The same moral dualism of Oppressed versus Oppressor framework has been applied to black-white relations. For instance, progressives believe black people should be able to say anything they want about white people, as this constitutes “punching up”, while whites should be very restricted in what they can say about black folk. I see where this is coming from. The n-word is much too extreme and easy an example to deploy here. I, like most people of African descent, do not want to hear white people making even relatively innocent generalized assertions about “black people” being such-and-such, even though we may often make similar assertions about “white people” being such-and-such. I am not innocent of practicing “double standards” and think there are valid historical, psychological, and yes, power arguments for mild versions of them. One must, however, draw the line somewhere. Any form of bullying, harassment or violence against others should be obviously unacceptable. Double standards applied without restraint draw us to the realm of moral nihilism.
Black on black oppression does not quite fit into the Western progressive Oppressed versus Oppressor framework.
Particularly exasperating for me as a Nigerian is that the Oppressed versus Oppressor logic is why Western progressives are hopeless at dealing with situations in which members of an Oppressed group (for instance regular black Africans) are being oppressed by members of their own group (black African rulers). In 2020, the same year Western progressives were emphasizing how much black lives mattered to them and how unacceptable police brutality was, Nigerian soldiers opened fie on unarmed demonstrators protesting Nigerian police violence! People were killed and their bodies carted away by the authorities who denied anyone had been killed.
Black on black oppression does not quite fit into the Western progressive Oppressed versus Oppressor framework. In fact, if anything, Africa’s rulers too are the victims of the oppression of colonialism. They cannot be held responsible for maltreating their citizens as they inherited the violent structures left them by the colonialists; it is white people who are ultimately responsible for the oppression of African citizens by African governments today.
Even though Freire, who was Brazilian, wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed with particular regard for the oppression of people in the global South, including very much by their own elites, Western progressives currently only apply its moral framework to inter-group oppression along ethno-racial lines. Black people being oppressed by white people can expect support from Western progressives, those oppressed by other black people are on their own.
Our moral outrage at injustice, not to mention violence, should not be conditional on the ethno-racial category of the perpetrators. We should feel as compelled to condemn violence against Jews as violence against Palestinians, such as the collective punishment now being meted out on regular Gazans by the Israeli state. If we say one of these acts is somehow ok, then indeed “morality is simply an attitude we adopt towards people we dislike,” as Oscar Wilde suggested.
Ultimately, the Oppressed versus Oppressor framework is highly limited in its practical capacity to solve complex real-world problems that defy simplistic good versus bad divides.
Moreover, if we look at it from the perspective of the weaker groups’ collective interests, one mistake those conditioned in the Oppressed versus Oppressor logic often make is to assume that any individual or group of individuals who claim an act is resistance on behalf of the oppressed group must obviously enjoy the overwhelming support of that group for said act. This does not have to be, and indeed isn’t, the case for the Palestinian people. A poll conducted this July showed 62 percent of Gazans supported Hamas “maintaining a ceasefire with Israel.” We can safely infer from this that most Gazans would have preferred Hamas to not carry out its recent attack. Which of course makes their current suffering under Israel’s reprisals all the more tragic and horribly unfair.
Ultimately, the Oppressed versus Oppressor framework is highly limited in its practical capacity to solve complex real-world problems that defy simplistic good versus bad divides. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt pointed out in their book The Coddling of the American Mind: “As a result of our long evolution for tribal competition, the human mind readily does dichotomous, us-versus-them thinking… we should [thus] be doing everything we can to turn down the tribalism and turn up the sense of common humanity.”
We need to abandon this morally misleading dualism of oppressor vs oppressed, in favour of a truly empathetic vision of the world in which everyone is recognised as having flaws and vulnerabilities, and is judged on their actions, not on which group they belong to.