Oppressed oppressors

Today is the day that we celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King. There will be a lot of things taking place today. President Obama will be publicly sworn in as president. There  will be many activities surrounding that event and the King holiday.

I wonder how many people will give serious thought about what it means to be an oppressor, and how truly crippling it is to subjugate another person. It’s understandable why the oppressed don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what oppression does to the oppressor.  They’ve got a full time job trying remove the boot of oppression from their collective necks.

King spent a lot of time thinking about how oppression deformed the psyche and soul of the oppressor. The movement had redeeming the soul of the oppressor as one of it’s goals. As blogger Darnell Lamont Walker noted in a quote found here, keeping another man down is hard work.

That also appears to be the point that George Orwell is making in the short story “Shooting An Elephant. His narrator/protagonist is a British policeman working in a town in colonial Burma. He is tasked with “dealing with” an elephant that escaped from his owner and is wreaking havoc in the city.

The officer investigates and quickly concludes that the elephant is not a threat to the town, despite the fact that the animal killed one person. He figures that the elephant will attack only if it feels threatened. However, the officer requests an elephant gun and correctly realized that he must put the beast down.

Why? The calculus of the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed makes killing the elephant necessary. Once he asks for the elephant gun, he has to use the weapon. Not to do so will make him appear weak, and weakness is a quality that a person in his position  could not show. So even though the officer knows that it is wrong to kill elephant and that he personally believes that colonialism is wrong, he must act in a way that maintains the power relationship between the oppressors and the oppressed.

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2 comments
  1. Very interesting perspective. Do you suppose that each of us has a bit of the oppressor and the oppressed in us? Perhaps each of us in our own way oppresses some and feels oppressed by others. I related to the George Orwell piece because I can think of many times in my life when I felt like the elephant hunter: torn between what I feel is best and yet doing what I think is expected of me. In fact I spent the first 30+ years of my life oppressed by a religion that expected me to be just like everyone else in the religion. If you didn’t you were letting everyone down, including yourself and most importantly, God almighty.

  2. As a read your blog, it brought to mind how difficult it is to back down once you have committed to something. I know when my children were teenagers I often gave a “No” and then even when they presented a justified and reasonable argument for “Yes”, I felt I needed to stand my ground. I found myself wanting to hang on to the control even when they needed to start making decisions (and mistakes) on their own. I guess Orwell’s 1984 comment on “extinguishing the possibility of independent thought” stretches down to the micro-level as well. Ear piercings can always close up and purple hair eventually washes out.

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