The privilege of the oppressed
It is better to be the oppressed than the oppressor.
It is better to be the oppressed than the oppressor. This is one of the key arguments that runs across the natural law tradition, from Socrates (“it is better to suffer evil than to commit it”) to Vincent Lloyd’s 2016 text Black Natural Law. In his book, Lloyd draws on the work of Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. to argue that blacks in the United States have an “epistemic privilege” when compared to whites. This is key to understanding what he identifies as the “black natural law tradition.” But the fullness of this privilege should not be seen as inherent. It is a capacity. It requires work to cultivate, and can be easily lost.
According to Lloyd, Douglass argues that “God’s law is colorblind, but it is not oppression-blind,” and there is “a hermeneutical principle [in natural law] that privileges the oppressed.” In the writings of Du Bois, we can see that “[e]ncountering the tragic (e.g., inexplicable suffering) offers an opportunity to reflect… Those who regularly encounter the tragic, such as those who are poor and, as Du Bois emphasizes, those who are black, have increased opportunities to discern the ‘divine spark’ in the human soul.” Being oppressed and faced with challenge gives one a special glimpse into human nature. Experiential knowledge of tragedy and oppression gives one a unique ability to see the world as it truly is.
Lloyd further writes:
“According to Du Bois, blacks ‘see these [white] souls undressed’ because they realize the hollowness of the beliefs that grant whites an aura of superiority–specifically, the false claim that whites are human and blacks are not. Knowing at some level that blacks know this, and that white supremacy is a charade, motivates whites to hold on to their fantasy of superiority and black dehumanization all the more tightly.”
That is, oppressors are incentivized to hide reality from themselves. They must invent false narratives and ideas in order to justify injustice. The oppressed, however, are not so incentivized to maintain such charades. The oppressor knows this, to some degree, and this further incentivizes his maintenance of the false reality.
In the writings of King, we can see further illuminated the idea that, while whites can be more easily deceived into believing (whether consciously or subconsciously) that they are superior to blacks, the place of blacks in society positions them to better see injustice and the inherent equality of all. Lloyd writes:
“While all humans have difficulty recognizing God’s image, whites are particularly challenged in this regard, according to King. Blacks find it self-evident that there is a divine quality in all, that the claims of inequality holding up segregation are false; whites are more likely to be deeply committed to their inherent superiority. The result is that, for most whites, the ‘soul is greatly scarred’ (87). Deep, deep down, whites know that they are not superior. They know that God’s image is in blacks too. But whites must suppress this knowledge…”
Such a view is not unique to those Lloyd identifies within the black natural law tradition. Indeed, the anti-colonialist Aimé Césaire and the conservative political thinker Russell Kirk make similar arguments. They believe that oppression weakens the oppressor. The oppressor can more easily hide the falsehoods of his superiority, while the oppressed more readily has access to the truth.
Desires of the poor
But access to the truth of freedom may also be hindered at times by the conditions of the oppressed and marginalized, as Hannah Arendt argues in On Revolution. Arendt writes of poverty:
“Poverty is more than deprivation, it is a state of constant want and acute misery whose ignominy consists of its dehumanizing force; poverty is abject because it puts men under the absolute dictate of their bodies, that is, under the absolute dictate of necessity… It was under the rule of this necessity that the multitude rushed to the assistance of the French Revolution, inspired it, drove it onward, and eventually sent it to its doom, for this was the multitude of the poor. When they appeared on the scene of politics, necessity appeared with them, and the result was that the power of the old regime became impotent and the new republic was stillborn; freedom had to be surrendered to necessity, to the urgency of the life process itself.”
Over the course of the book, Arendt argues that the French Revolution ultimately failed, because it gave up on the aims that had originally motivated it. In its beginnings, the French Revolution sought to bring more people into political life, meaning that they could participate in political decision-making through spirited and collaborative debate. But somewhere over the course of the revolution, its aim changed: it no longer was motivated by a desire to utilize the life of the mind to engage in political discourse, but by a desire to ensure a satisfaction of bodily desires.
Part of the problem, according to Arendt, was the way in which the masses of the poor rushed onto the scene and took over the revolution. Arendt argues that abject poverty is dehumanizing because it forces a person to become preoccupied with the needs of the body in a way that becomes all-consuming. Food is liberation. And when one in abject poverty is fed, he is still preoccupied by the desires of the body. When he gains access to political life, the only end he can see in that life is the assurance of bodily maintenance, with the “rights of man” being tied to biological assurances and stability.
This does not necessarily end when this poor man becomes wealthy. Arendt writes:
“When, in America and elsewhere, the poor became wealthy, they did not become men of leisure whose actions were prompted by a desire to excel, but succumbed to the boredom of vacant time, and while they too developed a taste for ‘consideration and congratulation,’ they were content to get these ‘goods’ as cheaply as possible, that is, they eliminated the passion for distinction and excellence that can exert itself in the broad daylight of the public. The end of government remained for them self-preservation, and John Adams’ conviction that ‘it is a principal end of government to regulate [the passion for distinction]’ has not even become a matter of controversy, it is simply forgotten. Instead of entering the marketplace, where excellence can shine, they preferred, as it were, to throw open their private houses in ‘conspicuous consumption’, to display their wealth and to show what, by its very nature, is not fit to be seen by all.”
According to Arendt, the satisfaction of bodily desires continued to be the driving force when the American poor became men of wealth. They did not pursue the life of the mind or learn to engage in true political discourse. Rather, they focused on continued material accumulation as their primary objective. They did not truly transcend the condition of poverty. Rather, that condition expanded with access to material goods and wealth.
Here, we might think of Tony Blevins, the recently ousted Vice President of Procurement for Apple. If Douglass, Cooper, Du Bois, and King represent one set of possibilities for the transcendence of marginalized status, Blevins represents another. In a recent tik tok video, Blevins was asked what he does for a living and responded, “I have rich cars, play golf and fondle big-breasted women, but I take weekends and major holidays off… [And I have a ] hell of a dental plan.” As the head of Procurement, some have portrayed Blevins’ role as “working with supplier and other partners to secure the best deals for Apple… [He] had a reputation for touting fierce negotiation tactics to get Apple the best possible prices, so the company significantly reduced its manufacturing costs and increased net margins.” One former Apple employee said that Blevins would change out staff “to keep them from developing supplier relationships that might dilute their focus on saving Apple money.” To put it simply: Procurement under Blevins was responsible for buying everything that Apple needs to run its business and sell its products, and his primary aim was to pay those other companies as little as possible so that Apple could increase its margins. Under this view, excellence for Blevins was no different in kind from Arendts’ characterization of the poor: he sought to ensure material wealth and biological satisfaction. (This might be contrasted with achievements for procurement within some city governments and other institutions, “in cost savings, in delivering better services for residents, and in accomplishing ambitious city goals like building wealth in communities of color.” And while none of this is strictly political excellence, it does demonstrate the small-mindedness with which many perceive procurement organizations.)
None of this is meant to argue that those in poverty are incapable of being lifted from their positions, given space and support to thrive intellectually, and entering into a full political life. But it is meant to highlight how, (according to Arendt and others) for this transition to occur, they will need to be given space to dream beyond material satisfaction. And this may take considerable time and work.
One thing that makes the institution of slavery in the New World different from the abject poverty of the Old World was that slavery wasn’t maintained simply through an unavailability or withholding of material resources, of sustenance and satisfaction of the body (notwithstanding the ways in which capitalist and certain free market systems encourage forms of oppression such as slavery). Rather, it was upheld by a clearly intentional and unjust conception of the human person. And so part of what distinguished the enslaved person of the United States from the abjectly poor person in France was that the former had a longing and a desire for the realization of his personhood that was entirely set apart from access to food and wealth. This is partly what makes the liberation of Frederick Douglass different in kind from the liberation of Robespierre. It’s clear in the writings of great Black thinkers, and especially thinkers of the “black natural law tradition” throughout the American history of enslavement, that “liberation” meant something other than bread and money, even if bread and money were required to enable this liberation. (Martin Luther King Jr. radical economic positions are unfortunately frequently overlooked.)
The need for healing
Consider the four individuals highlighted by Lloyd: Douglass, Cooper, Du Bois, and King. They were writers, speakers, and educators. Cooper focused much of her life on community organizing and education. Born into slavery herself, Cooper emphasized the need for “Christian Education” that cultivated the character of the student. Such an education should be given to all people. She famously opposed Booker T. Washington’s approach to education as vocational preparation, and instead aligned with Du Bois in promoting a classical form of education “designed to prepare eligible students for higher education and leadership.” One could not simply be lifted from oppression and immediately be ready for political leadership and the form of liberation promoted by Arendt, Douglass, and others. One needed formation, cultivation, and education.
Here, we might see a caution when it comes to the “epistemic privilege” of the oppressed. As part of the process of liberation, the oppressed must come to an understanding of the ways in which the limitations of their world (whether forced or circumstantial) must be transformed and transcended. This might include a transformation of even their conception of liberation. Epistemic privilege is not a guarantee of the oppressed. It is not automatic. It is a capacity that must be cultivated. It is an achievement.
This may be a process similar to the process of healing from trauma. Part of the problem of trauma is that it can limit our capacities to process and understand. It can mar our vision. As Besel van der Kolk writes in The Body Keeps the Score, “traumatized people become stuck, stopped in their growth because they can’t integrate new experiences into their lives.” Van der Kolk continues:
“Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on–unchanged and immutable–as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.
After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their life… This explains why it is critical for trauma treatment to engage the entire organism, body, mind and brain.”
The traumatized person spends a disproportionate amount of time and energy on survival, even in situations where they are not presented with imminent danger. They cannot orient towards safety in the world, because of the impacts of the traumatic event(s). Indeed, they are even often prevented from understanding or articulating their trauma, because attempts to do so can result in re-entering the trauma, re-traumatizing themselves, and thus getting trapped within it again.
One can see here similarities between the development of the American poor into Tony Blevins, and the change for the trauma victim when they leave the immediate context of their trauma. For both, a change in circumstance does not necessarily result in a change of self. Tragic circumstances can continue, even when their original contexts have been left behind.
Van der Kolk argues that the traumatized person must go through a re-learning/re-training process with every part of themself in order to truly heal and to be able to relate to the world outside of that ever-present experience of being trapped in a danger from the past. This involves much more than an intellectual understanding. The “entire organism” must be healed, in all “the imprints of the trauma on body, mind, and soul.” One must “reestablish ownership of your body and your mind,” taking it back from the effects of the trauma.
As with all marginalized groups, the traumatized person does have the “epistemic privilege” which Lloyd discusses. The experience of suffering grants one special access to the depths of the human condition. But that privilege is not automatic, and it is not experienced throughout the marginalized community. Rather, it can only be fully accessed via the process of healing. The process of healing enables the development of this capacity. The traumatized person who becomes a healed survivor (or, as Henri Nouwen might put it, a “wounded healer”) has access to knowledge about the world which the non-traumatized person cannot understand without help. The survivor can then make use of their privilege to enrich human understanding and experience for all.
The magnification of harm
A failure to heal not only inhibits epistemic privilege, but can also extend the trauma. This can be seen in practices like “trauma dumping,” whereby one gains a certain conceptual knowledge that one is traumatized and has an ability to speak about it, but has not sufficiently processed and healed in order to speak about their trauma in a way that is truly helpful for themselves and others. Talking about trauma in ways that are not “trauma informed” can serve to re-trigger the sharer and also listeners. One of the great challenges of significant trauma is that it takes a lot of healing work to be able to even discuss it in a way that truly supports healing for all. Those who have not done this work do not yet have full access to their epistemic privilege.
Trauma victims and survivors are not the only group whose marginalized status can inhibit their ability to see and understand the world as it is. Consider another group: certain immigrants to the United States. I have spoken with a number of Filipino-American friends about their families’ views on immigration, and many have shared an anti-immigrant sentiment among some Filipino family members, especially towards those they deem “illegal immigrants,” immigrants who arrive in the United States without having applied for a visa first. Those family members have, for example, expressed callous and unempathetic responses to those crossing the Southern border in search of better lives.
If one unpacks the experience of those family members, this disposition might make sense. The process to immigrate from the Philippines to the United States can take an extremely long time. Filipinos have among the longest waitlists. One must apply for an immigrant visa and then wait to be approved. For many immigrants from the Philippines, this process took ten or more years. And if there was an issue with their application, the “clock” may have had to start over. Some waited more than twenty years. This was what it took for them to come to the United States “legally.”
One might expect that the immigration challenges of these Filipino-Americans would enable an “epistemic privilege” that sees the challenges of immigrants generally and works towards more compassionate and humane treatment of migrants and refugees. But for some, this lengthy and difficult process did not result in a broader sense of compassion and empathy towards other immigrants. It did the opposite: it bred a resentment towards immigrants who more quickly enter the United States “illegally.” So rather than advocating for such immigrants, some immigrants from the Philippines look on them with condescension and resentment. Their own challenges have caused them to be unable to see the plight and humanity of others. Their challenges contracted, rather than expanded, their compassion and empathy. (It’s important to note that this is not true of all immigrants from the Philippines, and may only be true of the small number of individuals with whom I have spoken.) Their “epistemic privilege” remains underdeveloped.
This can make sense through the lens of shame. Brené Brown has found through her research that “most of us judge others whom we perceive as having the traits we dislike in ourselves.” That is, the aspects of our own lives which we judge or dislike the most are often the aspects we judge or dislike most in the lives of others. For example, struggles with one’s own immigration story might cause one to judge and condemn the “less good” immigration stories of others.
Similar dispositions can be seen in some NFP advocacy as well. As a number of women had shared with me, NFP advocates at times take their experiences of suffering and leverage them to gain compliance from others. The message received at times is, “This was really hard for me, and I did it. So you shouldn’t have an issue with it being hard for you.”
Unpacking all this takes time and effort. Consider also the impacts of internalized homophobia, something with which I continue to struggle personally, something which has manifested itself in my life at times through judgmentalism, shame, and the oppression of others. Over the course of my life, I’ve had to make significant changes to my approach to my sexuality, after realizing the ways in which I had internalized harmful messages from various parts of my communities that caused me to harm myself and others. But this has been an iterative process. I continue to identify ways in which these messages still play various roles in my life. What was placed into me for decades does not come out overnight, and it will not just go away with time.
Part of the challenge here is that healing involves a lot of work, but it is not always clear what that work consists of. The experience of oppression imprints itself upon the person in countless ways, and untangling the ways we developed to survive from the ways we came to understand our true selves may be a lifelong process. Sometimes the wounds are so deep that one can’t truly “move on” from them. Instead, one must learn to move forward with them. One must come to integrate a sense of self that looks much different from a self that never received those wounds. This is an injustice. But it can also be an opportunity, one which cultivates such capacities as Lloyd’s conception of epistemic privilege.
From victim to victimizer
Another part of the challenge is the victim’s capacity to become victimizer. One can see this in the ways that Netflix portrays Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout: her experience of sexual assault becomes her justification for the harms she causes through her company. Similarly, Princess Margaret in The Crown is depicted as someone with a real sense of helplessness that she weaponizes and then inflicts upon others. This is a key narrative arc for shows such has Breaking Bad and The Good Wife: how victims who fail to integrate and transcend their victim status can slowly become victimizers over time, how persisting in a victim status can continue the cycle of harm rather than disrupting it. And this is a key message among the conversion therapy survivors with whom I have spoken: “I was harmed, but I also have to process and be accountable for the ways in which I magnified and then inflicted those harms upon others.”
Brown also discusses how shaming messages are often extended in twisted ways. This can be seen with some women who have struggled to accept their bodies and then extended their struggles to those around them. Brown writes of one of her interviews:
“The first woman had great contempt for the person she used to be. She told me, ‘I was fat and disgusting. I can’t believe I ever looked like that.’ She went on to tell me how much she disliked overweight women. She told me that her mother was very slim and was constantly ‘on her’ about her weight. She said that she has two daughters and she watches everything they eat. She said that her oldest daughter (who was seven at the time of the interview) was already on a diet. She told me that it was better that she told her daughter that she was looking fat rather than her school peers. I sensed that this woman, despite having lost weight, still had a great amount of shame attached to her weight issues. She appeared more rooted in shame than grounded in self-acceptance.”
In this instance, the woman was aware of the cruelty she experienced when it came to her weight. But though she recognized that cruelty, she did not grasp its full impact on her life or how she was extending it herself. In her mind, she was helping her daughter. She wanted to protect her daughter from cruel messages. But she failed to grasp that her method of protection was the harm itself.
I have done all of this in my own ways, too, and I continue to struggle with the confusing mix of what I must do: be accountable for the harm I have caused, be compassionate with myself and heal as someone who has experienced deep harm, accept the dual role of victim and victimizer, change, and break the cycle of harm. I have not fully cultivated the deep epistemic privilege which might be available to me, in part because I have not yet worked through all the ways I need to hold these things together in my life. I struggle with the ways I have continued the cycle of harm and still don’t know how to end it. Anything that I learn and share here feels very provisional. It is not that I have figured things out, but that I am trying to do so. The only way to move forward is to keep trying. If you feel trapped within this cycle and are struggling to find your way out, know that you are not alone.
And if you, like me, have been both victim and victimizer, might this also bring its own form of epistemic privilege? The acceptance of one’s role as victimizer demands humility, empathy, and compassion towards others who have sinned, who have caused harm. How can I reject the humanity of someone else for the bad things they have done, unless I am also choosing to reject myself for the same reasons? At times, the wholesale rejection of others can be a manifestation of the shame we ourselves feel. Learning empathy towards others can be an exercise of learning empathy towards ourselves.
This, of course, is not incompatible with seeking and insisting upon accountability, change, and centering the experience of the victim. But it does involve looking at the victimizer and speaking to them, as if speaking to yourself: “You must change, and you can do the work. You are more than the sum of your sins. You have engaged in this harmful behavior, and also that behavior does not have to be who you are. You can still offer good things to the world, if you choose to do so.” I don’t just advocate empathy towards others as an act of altruism. It is also serves self-interest. Acceptance and rejection of others tends to grow in proportion to our acceptance and rejection of ourselves.
Here, the messy work of Christian communion has something to offer. One key difference between “cancel culture” and what Christianity has to offer is that, in the latter, accountability is not the point. Things do not end with accountability. Rather, accountability is a necessary step on the pathway towards healing for all. True accountability (including accountability with oneself) acts in the service of change. True accountability is part of an exercise of hope. This is partly why, when addressing scandals such as the misogyny and misconduct at Word on Fire Ministries, I have presented recommendations for change and healing. The point isn’t to just assign blame, berate, or “cancel.” The point is that they can (and thus should) do better, and expressing hope with some ideas on how this can come about.
Community as organism
The work of true healing and change is not simply an individual and singular task. The natural law tradition has focused on the privilege of the oppressed. It has also considered society as an organism. Even from Plato’s Republic, the state has been considered as a soul. And extending this analogy, to the work of healing from trauma, to society as a whole can give us a vision for both healing society and also enabling access to the privilege of the oppressed.
As noted earlier, van der Kolk argues that healing from trauma must involve the “entire organism, body, mind, and brain.” It is not enough to have an intellectual understanding of one’s trauma and how to move forward. The entire self must be engaged in a process that will take on going effort over an extended period of time.
The same approach must be taken in responding to historically oppressed and marginalized groups. Legislative changes regarding slavery are not enough to heal the organism of this country. Such changes might be analogized to that intellectual understanding of one’s trauma. This is certainly a necessary step. But it is not sufficient. Van der Kolk quotes the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio: “Sometimes we use our minds not to discover facts, but to hide them.” The “memory” of trauma can be hidden across the body, and can be unexpectedly triggered when one unexpectedly finds oneself in a context that shares features of the traumatic event. Healing is complex, in part, because it can take a long time to discover all the places which require healing. For many, these discoveries cannot be exhausted in one life.
Similarly, though the United States may have a certain intellectual understanding of the injustice of slavery through legislation against it (albeit one limited by portions the Thirteenth Amendment), the impacts of those injustices are hidden across the body politic. If left unaddressed, they can (and do) wreak havoc on our communities. They prevent us from engaging with the world as it truly is, marring our ability to recognize and respect human nature.
Further, the traumatized person may never truly become un-traumatized. One remains forever changed. Healing does not consist of a going backwards. Instead, one must become a new kind of person. And this speaks to new opportunities, both for individuals and also for our communities. Lloyd writes:
“For King, suffering also has the effect of cleansing the soul. Suffering forces reflection about who one is and what the world is really like. Its effect is to allow us to ‘grow to our humanity’s full stature’. What once seemed obvious is now called into question through suffering. Put a different way, suffering is redemptive because it opens the human heart to God’s law. The hold that the ways of the world have on us is loosened, and we are able to better spot those social norms and laws that are unjust.”
Or, as the Catholic memoirist Mary Karr once put it, “as deep as a wound is, that’s how deep the healing can be.” The healing required because of the history of this country (and also the history of our Church) is deep. But if we can place the marginalized and the oppressed at the center of this healing, and empower these communities to find the epistemic privilege that is their inheritance, then we can open up new possibilities for the future and create a stronger and more vibrant community than could previously be imagined.