This blog is called the Type Justice Blog because I focus on two main ideas: psychological types and social justice. So far, I’ve talked about how I came to understand myself as an introvert. I’ve also given a philosophical account of what introversion means. But what does justice have to do with it?
One aspect of justice involves living the best kind of life we can. Human beings and societies can reach for our ideals by developing virtues and overcoming vices. The better we understand moral and political philosophy, the better we can grasp these ideals—although sometimes we learn better by practicing our morals than analyzing them. Introverts, with our powers of reflection, can present novel ideas about how to become our best selves and societies. And to be just toward ourselves, introverts should seek out our authentic talents and develop them. This will be a major subject of this blog.
Another aspect of justice has to do with fair treatment in society, or social justice. It means arranging social practices and institutions, or our social world, so that people treat each other fairly and with human dignity. Given the news we've been hearing lately, social justice is an important topic that warrants our notice. Introverts are often able to understand different aspects of justice than extraverts, and we also can contribute our talents of thinking deeply about abstract topics to the discussion. Some of the most important political and moral philosophers, such as Plato, Immanuel Kant, and John Rawls, have been introverts.
And introverts are also oppressed. This is one important reason for this blog, and I’ll take the remainder of this post explaining what oppression means. Then, in a future post, I’ll make my case for why I believe introverts are oppressed in human societies.
What is oppression? When we think of oppression, we probably think about people having their rights violated or being victims of violence. That can certainly be part of it. But oppression doesn’t have to be enacted by the government. It can be as simple as a bully pushing you around or someone not offering you a job. Of course, bullying and declining job offers aren’t always products of oppression. That’s why we need a definition.
Thankfully, some excellent feminist philosophers have done important work on this topic and given us definitions to work with. In her essay “Oppression,” philosopher Marilyn Frye talks about the origin and meaning of the word “oppression.” Frye (1983) says, "The root of the word oppression is the element 'press'...Something pressed is something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict or prevent the thing's motion or mobility” (p. 40). So oppressed people are pressed and confined by forces beyond their control—not natural forces like gravity and the weather, but social forces.
Oppression, she says, is like a bird cage. Imagine someone looking at a wire bird cage and seeing the bird trapped inside. If you only look at a single wire of the cage, you might think that the bird could fly away at any moment. It’s only when you step back and consider the cage as a whole that you see the real situation: if the bird tries to fly around one wire of the cage, it will run into another. All of the wires seem pretty unassuming on their own, but when put together as a system, they make it impossible for the bird to escape.
Oppressive systems disadvantage people systemically. This means that while they may escape oppression one way, it will always hit them another way. In this way, we can see that the design of our society affects whether certain groups are oppressed. At this point, we should go over what social practices and institutions are. A social practice is a kind of activity we do together with certain conventions and standards, like how we communicate and exchange knowledge. A social institution is an organization with rules and a purpose, like schools and workplaces. But because our social institutions are such a natural part of our lives, we often miss these systemic forces that oppress certain groups of people. We often go about our normal lives not even knowing that our everyday actions may be the wires in someone else’s cage of oppression.
In her book Analyzing Oppression, philosopher Ann Cudd (2006) gives us a definition of oppression. Here is her definition of an oppressive social practice:
In short, oppression is the kind of harm that groups inflict on other groups when they set up social structures and normalized ways of thinking that treat those of other groups unfairly. They do this by using physical force and economic domination to narrow people's choices and using popular ideas to shape their desires and beliefs. In essence, oppression creates the kind of environment where people treat others unfairly just by doing what everybody else is doing, or by doing something that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary (see p. 26).
Let’s take an example. Suppose that we live in a society where people are given social status and privileges according to how much money they earn or have. However, also suppose that in this society, some people start off with advantages of wealth that others lack. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call those with the advantages “the rich” and those without advantages “the poor.” Having these initial advantages has important implications. Having more money allows the rich to afford better housing so they can live in areas free of crime, have better schools, and have less negative encounters with the justice system. They are able to find jobs more easily. They have more political influence, which means that they will arrange the social systems to meet their own needs. It isn’t necessarily that they want to harm the poor, but the voices of the poor will be less represented, so their needs are less likely to be heard. As the rich continue to design society to meet their own needs, and continue to compete with each other for wealth and status based on this system, the poor will be at a disadvantage.
In this society, the rich will consistently be healthier, have better marriages, enjoy their jobs more, and report greater overall happiness than the poor. The poor, by contrast, will have fewer opportunities for education, take dirtier and more dangerous and unfulfilling jobs, are more likely to have poor health and broken relationships, and report less overall happiness.
Under the social practice of assigning status and privileges according to wealth or income, are the poor are oppressed? Let’s consider Cudd’s four conditions:
Finally, the poor face Frye’s birdcage. While they might be able to overcome their initial disadvantages by doing well in school and finding middle class jobs, they still have other disadvantages that often create barriers to succeeding in the mainstream world that the rich have created. They make youthful mistakes, just like the rich, such as with sex, drugs, and petty crime. But unlike the rich, who are often able to get a second chance through social support, getting therapy, going into rehab, or getting bailed out, the poor don’t have the resources for this, and may end up with unwed pregnancies, addictions, or time in prison.
The poor have other barriers to their success. If they come from worse schools, they may have a harder time making it through college. If they come from weaker communities and families, they might not have the social support to compete with middle class candidates for prestigious professional jobs in law, business, politics, or technology that require more education and an extended time without earning money. And if they have physical or mental health problems resulting from their early environments, those may hinder their progress or make them at least less competitive with the children of the rich.
In short, they can get around some wires of the cage, but they often stay trapped. We see this best by looking at one social practice with many components, but we could also argue that educating someone based on where they live, or promoting a culture that encourages youthful experimentation with drugs and sex, are social practices that oppress the poor. And, as I’ll share in a later post, this is bad not just for the oppressed, but for members of the oppressor group too.
In conclusion, oppression is a situation where people are unfairly harmed on the basis of their social group membership. These harms come from social institutions and/or practices, and they materially benefit members of other groups at the oppressed group members’ expense.
Of course, just identifying oppression does not indicate a way to solve it. To solve the problem of poverty, we may say that the government needs to pay for better public schools or needs to tax the wealthy to prevent them from having such advantages. We might also say that society needs greater efforts from private charities and non-profit groups, or that we need to build stronger families and communities to give everyone a fair chance. We might even think outside the box and reimagine our expectations, such as giving the rich significantly more responsibility to care for the poor due to their increased privileges, or eliminating money as a means of assigning social privileges. Regardless, identifying oppression can be a powerful way to recognize problems and start discussing how to solve them.
What do you think of this? Do you agree with Frye’s and Cudd’s accounts? Do you think that the rich really oppress the poor in our society? And given this discussion of oppression, are introverts oppressed? That’s the topic we’ll turn to next time. (And in case you’re wondering, we are eventually going to talk about what we can do about oppression.)
Cudd, A. (2006). Analyzing oppression. New York: Oxford University Press.
Frye, M. (1983). Oppression. In A. Bailey and C. Cuomo, (2007), The feminist philosophy reader: 41–49.
I’m Harrison Paul, the Introvert Philosopher. I hold an MA in Philosophy from San Francisco State University and wrote my thesis on using moral education in schools to resist the influence of advertising on politics. I am the author of five-book introvert epic fantasy series Kaybree versus the Angels. I am also actively seeking publication for my nonfiction book The Quiet Minority: Why Introverts are Oppressed and How We Can Stop It and the Aurora Lightwalker series of far-future YA introvert novels.