How to Oppress a Human Person
When the word “oppression” is said, there are certain associated movements or events of history which typically spring to mind; certain names are inexorably attached, in the present Western Geistesgeschicte, if such a thing may be said to exist, to the notion of the forcible deprivation of basic human rights: Nazism, Communist Russia, Communist China, slavery in the United States, segregation, Women’s Suffrage; Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, so on and so forth. This is normal: when people dedicate themselves wholly and effectively to some cause, be it good or evil, they alter the world around them; they dent the intersubjective consciousness – that which is publicly acknowledged by or present within the not-necessarily-distinguished knowledge of the general populace – far beyond their immediate sphere of influence, because their actions, by impacting so many lives, are worthy of being clearly articulated, put into words, and spread to others; their actions impact the perception of truth, for good or evil (and those that did evil oftentimes help man to the good and vice versa). However, there are many other ideas, actions, movements, and individuals who ought to be so named and recognized, particularly on the side of evil, as having made ripples in the intersubjective consciousness, but who slide underneath the radar; either for a lack of efficacy or for a subtleness of persuasion, an influence felt but not clearly known; for many oppress without it being known that they do, that they intend the subjugation of freedoms under their own agendas.
But the question must be asked: must every oppression be consciously articulated and recognized as an oppression in order to be an oppression? A preliminary look at this question reveals that the details of its answer must be manifold, and that in order to understand what is meant by the question itself, it must first be examined as to what is meant by “oppression.”
The English word “oppression” is derived directly from the Latin “oppressare,” meaning “to press down.” Typically, in contemporary parlance, it is used to signify the deliberate usage of authority or power to inflict cruelty, unjust restriction, and adversity upon those undeserving of such treatment. However, the meaning of the etymological root suggests something inherent in the action itself; this is likewise suggested in the less-common connotation of the English, in which something is said to weigh heavily upon someone. The act of oppressing says nothing about intention or abuse of authority; an insensate object, a large rock for instance, may oppress a man rather severely without any intention or authority, and indeed without any active power on its own part, but merely encountering a man between its own mass and its activated passive power to be pulled earthwards. Likewise it is possible for a man to step on another’s throat with the intention of reaching medicine for the latter; the fact that the latter’s throat comes between the unthinking benevolent, whatever his noble aspirations, and the ground, most certainly ends with a man not breathing very well; his throat is most certainly oppressed.
That is not to say that Hitler was really just trying to help the Jews. But just because Hitler was an evil man with evil intentions, it does not mean that all oppressions are intentional; the essence of oppression is more universal. It is important to realize this, not for the sake of alleviating oppressions unrealized by those oppressed which are clear in their unjust subjugation, but for those that are subtle; much less for the direct and inhumane suppression of man’s bodily goods, and much more for the saccharine evisceration of man’s spiritual good. In other words, racism, slavery, sexism, the Holocaust, the Russian gulag, African genocide – none of these institutions, however destructive, however much they denigrated the basic dignity of the human person, were not nearly as oppressive to those whom they targeted as to those whom they convinced it was right to do the targeting in the first place, nor are they quite so smothering as the overwhelming materialism which threatens to sweetly suffocate the human person. Truly, it must be asked: which is worse for the soul, to be treated as an animal, or to treat others like animals? To have dignity taken away, or to give it away freely?
Since most people will generally not accept being treated like a human today and an animal tomorrow – nor will most people accept treating others as such – the processes of dehumanization typically advance by one small step after another. Hitler did not simply wake up one morning and announce to the German people that the Jews are not fully human. He first told them how great they are; so much so that it was easy to see how inferior the Jews are. Similarly, the general public of the United States of America have not been told first how unborn children have no right to life, but have been first indoctrinated with a perverted notion of liberty. Jews were seen as an affront to the German national glory; unborn children are seen as an injunction against the licentiousness, wrongly portrayed as liberty, of the supposedly emancipated woman. Just as the racial supremacy of the Germans’ needed the Jew and the black man to vilify, to contrast against their greatness, so too do the abortionists and radical feminists demonize morally firm Christians and faithful Catholics.
But as horrible as these institutions are, were, or will continue to be, it is not those usually classified as oppressed who suffer the most, for the essence of oppression consists in the unjust impediment to the fulfillment of what is right or fitting, what can be termed the “ought” of a being. A prisoner or victim of any sort may maintain his spiritual dignity regardless of how much he is physically, emotionally, or intellectually abused. Contrariwise, those who forfeit their connection to the transcendent by willful subjugation to some lesser good typically cast away all the dignity that can be associated with man’s ability to choose. Why? Because in rejecting the transcendent, one rejects himself, the “ought,” the essence of his being. He reduces himself, as much as possible, to mere animality, to a materialism which subjectivizes morality. If a man is convinced to do such, he is far more oppressed than any minority has ever been.
What is truly terrifying is the looming possibility that the whole person, physical and spiritual, will fall under an oppression of Huxleian proportions. The drive to socialism presently happening in the United States, with businesses being nationalized at an alarming pace and the power of federal regulators growing with leaps and bounds, is frightening not because its economic policies might fail; it is frightening because there is a slender possibility of them succeeding. Poverty can indeed bring much suffering, in the forms of hunger, lack of shelter, a lack of educational opportunities, and general physical discomfort; soulless affluence – the kind that inevitably insists on every human being acting in accord with arbitrary and selfish goals, the kind that demands all others conform to some materialistically-based standard of supposed perfection – can bring the suffering of not only a complete lack of spiritual, soulful, truly human freedom, but the irrevocable suffering of eternal damnation. How much control does the government of the United States now have over its people? Much privacy has evaporated under valid security concerns, the protections against which have been manifested by illicit means. Everywhere men have to fight for the right to own firearms, and while the battles are not all being lost in courts, they are certainly being lost in wallets – how long before owning a gun is a privilege of the wealthy? Certainly, Big Tobacco companies are evil corporations who deserve punishment, regulation, and some sort of accountability; but the measures implemented to try to curb the nationwide addiction to smoking will only destroy the small companies, those who do not laden their products with harmful chemicals. G.K. Chesterton, addressed this mentality over 70 years ago when he said that, “The free man owns himself. He can damage himself with either eating or drinking; he can ruin himself with gambling. If he does he is certainly a damn fool, and he might possibly be a damned soul; but if he may not, he is not a free man any more than a dog.”
Sadly, however, the problem Chesterton was confronting, the Puritanical association of virtuous living with joyless living (cf. John Oesterle’s introduction to his translation of St. Thomas’ Treatise on the Virtues), has slipped into a more diabolic form; for “joy” has been stripped of its transcendent meaning; the world is taught to enjoy all the material pleasures it can, but without the contextual elevation of any such pleasure that makes it meet for the soul of man. Sex is pleasurable, but it is not joyful if not in a fruitful matrimonial marriage; beer is delicious, but if it is not in moderation, it is defiling. Yet as the West increasingly focuses on materialistic progress, on the works of science and technology, on the substitution of a human being’s “ought” with an ungrounded “can,” the transcendent, the joyful, is cast out by an avaricious, sickly-sweet, materialistic oppression. More and more, the effort to silence the voices of those who oppose such insidious and deceitful subversion of the moral fiber of the American people, the bribery by a “better quality of life,” grows stronger, wider, and less acknowledged. The IRS’ threat to revoke tax-exempt status from churches wherein political immorality is denounced is not a separation of Church and State; it is quite possibly a prohibition of the free exercise of religion, for Christian faith compels the believer to speak on behalf of that which he believes. The shameful behavior of those at Notre Dame who denied any attempt at genuine dialogue, who rejected those who actually espouse the teaching of the Catholic Church, who hold it not merely on paper but in their hearts and minds, is another prime example. To arrest an 80 year old priest (or at least be complicit in his arrest) for refusing to bend like a weed in the wind and then refuse to intercede on his behalf simply because he wanted his voice to be heard is an oppressive and tyrannical act of cowardice; oppressive not so much to the good Father, but to those caught up in the whirlwind of the kinder, gentler, more compassionate culture of death that Barack Obama promises.
In 1993, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave an address to the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein, entitled We have ceased to see the Purpose. The man, whom everyone anticipated to lavish praise on the Western culture, unequivocally condemned the selfish, self-centered, fruitless living of a society entranced by its interests: “No, all hope cannot be pinned on science, technology, or economic growth. The victory of technological civilization has also instilled in us a spiritual insecurity. Its gifts enrich, but enslave us as well. All is interests, we must not neglect our interests, all is a struggle for material things; but an inner voice tells us that we have lost something pure, elevated, and fragile. We have ceased to see the purpose.” Solzhenitsyn was certainly right, and still is; but what man has ceased to see, even beyond the purpose, is the end; for a purpose is of this world, and indeed, man’s purpose essentially is and ought to be the attainment of salvation. But the end is the eternal repose in the presence of God, without seeing which, limitedly as man may in this limited life, he will not see the purpose, at least not for very long.
Fortunately, this terrifying threat of a life without joy, without faith, without truth, is a threat that cannot overwhelm those that seek the truth in earnest. No amount of lies can sustain the human person; no amount of materialistic intoxication can fully erase the “God-shaped hole” in the heart of man. It might seem a depressing fact that the number of Catholics in the United States is declining: but the fact is that the number of genuine Catholics is rising; for the nominally Catholic will wither away in their lack of faith, while the orthodox, the faithful, the Catholic who attends Mass with devotion and reverence – he, with the faith the size of a mustard seed, will move mountains. The world and the flesh think they have infiltrated the Church. The sad truth is that many within the Church have retained the name, but have fallen out, into the world; and meanwhile a true springtime of renewal is at hand, one that does not seek to water down the faith for “ecumenical” purposes, which does not seek to direct faithful eyes away from God and towards fellow man, but which restores the transcendent brick by brick.