Part of the problem: Talking about systemic oppression

Last week I wrote a piece about the Jian Ghomeshi scandal and how it is, in my opinion, an inevitable and direct result of our societal “culture” of predatory misogyny. In doing so, I discounted the notion that it is “not all men” and expressed, rather, my belief that as misogyny is a systemic oppression it is, in fact, all men who are a part of it and who bear both a collective responsibility for it and for fighting with our sisters to end it.

While this piece was very favourably received by many women and some men, it also elicited a very strong and very negative reaction from many men, and some women, who objected to it on the inaccurate grounds that it supposedly “blamed” all men for the specific alleged crimes of one man and that it painted all men as equally culpable. A number of commenters themselves felt that they themselves were “good men” who should not have to feel or be seen as “guilty” of acts they did not personally commit.

I think it is important to deal with this defensive response and what the nature of systemic oppression really means in our broader struggle for human emancipation.

No one, understandably, wants to think or to acknowledge that they, personally, may be part of the problem. And that is part of the problem.

The concept of systemic oppression and its implications are either dismissed outright (generally by those on the right) or is misrepresented and misconstrued, intentionally or otherwise. That the right has a vested interested in denying the existence of systemic oppression should be obvious. The dismissal of it by progressives, liberals and leftists, however, is far more problematic.

To begin with systemic oppression is not about individual “guilt.” It is about collective responsibility and an acceptance that, as these systemic injustices are ingrained in our society profoundly deeply, we all participate in them whether we wish to or not and that we often do so entirely unconsciously.

Systemic oppression, be it patriarchal, racist or colonialist also exists whether or not, unsurprisingly, individual members of the dominant group/class wish to think they are a part of it or benefit from and facilitate it.

The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology, as part of its definition of social and systemic oppression, laid out the unconscious nature of systemic oppression very well in a quote that I often use:

“Relationships between groups and relationships between groups and social categories, should not be confused with the oppressive behavior of individuals. A white man may not himself actively participate in oppressive behavior directed at blacks or women, for example, but he nonetheless benefits from the general oppression of blacks and women simply because he is a white man. In this sense, all members of dominant and subordinate categories participate in social oppression regardless of their individual attitudes or behavior. Social oppression becomes institutionalized when its enforcement is so of social life that it is not easily identified as oppression and does not require conscious prejudice or overt acts of discrimination.”

Further to this, and as one single example of how this seeming abstraction (and it is not an abstraction at all despite frequent attempts to paint it as some type of intellectual exercise) plays out in the “real world” can be seen when elements of systemic misogyny like porn culture are so pervasive and ubiquitous they cease to even be recognized as porn culture. Porn culture seeps into the imagery of magazine covers, television, cinema, teen culture and popular culture discourse generally even when what is being viewed, discussed or consumed is not technically porn. This is an example of how an institution of patriarchal oppression is so engrained that it exists widely outside of its most “extreme” or “hardcore” incarnations and becomes impossible to not encounter and even impossible to always recognize for what it is at first unless one is attempting to do so.

When I say all men have participated in porn culture, even the sadly very small minority of men who do not or who no longer use what would be universally recognized as pornography, this is a literal truth. “Good intentions” are irrelevant in this context, and unless one stands up and speaks out against this, full complicity with it is intrinsic.

It is in this sense, among others, that all men can be said to have created and participated in the one of the conditions, among others, that make violently sexually predatory men like Ghomeshi inevitable. He exists along a spectrum of exploitative, oppressive, objectifying and predatory behaviour by men of which he is a relatively extreme manifestation but that is not detached from the other points on the spectrum that enable and lead to him and to even worse predators.

The violent actions of individuals are also, further, tied directly to the less obvious daily forms of social violence and oppression that are not always perpetrated by specific individuals. Stokely Carmichael talked about this in relation to institutionalized racism in the United States:

“Racism is both overt and covert. It takes two, closely related forms: individual whites acting against individual blacks, and acts by the total white community against the black community. We call these individual racism and institutional racism. The first consists of overt acts by individuals, which cause death, injury or the violent destruction of property. This type can be recorded by television cameras; it can frequently be observed in the process of commission. The second type is less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts. But it is no less destructive of human life. The second type originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than the first type.

When a black family moves into a home in a white neighborhood and is stoned, burned or routed out, they are victims of an overt act of individual racism which many people will condemn – at least in words. But it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks and discriminatory real estate agents. The society either pretends it does not know of this latter situation, or is in fact incapable of doing anything meaningful about it.”

Likewise, the violence of specific men against women is tied directly to a much less obvious daily culture of violence against women which is manifested also in economic and social ways and tied as well to broad male institutions of oppression like pornography and prostitution and the daily and countless examples of verbal and physically not violent forms of male abuse and entitlement like misogynist language, street harassment, unwanted sexual advances and many others.

The broader “culture” of misogyny and the broader actions of all men in this way contribute to and enable the “worst cases.”

When social links like this and their implications are raised, one of the myriad of responses from those seeking to derail a real examination of how our society perpetuates its own institutions is that stating this, in the case of systemic misogyny for example, will somehow alienate or anger men and that this is “counter-productive.”

Of course attempts by feminists to redress our collective history of patriarchal oppression will anger many men. I think this is a very safe assumption. But it is also ludicrous to ask a liberation movement to frame itself in ways that will please or appease the beneficiaries of oppression. All men do and have benefited from patriarchy and the systemic oppression of women, whether they wanted to or not. Being unwilling to accept this is a serious obstacle to social change.

As a white male from the upper middle class I have benefited from systemic oppressions in countless ways, from my starting point to the literally virtually non-existent institutional or social barriers to advancement in just about any career or field I chose to go into. In a society that so prizes the bogus mythology that everything is achieved by personal hard work and one’s own personal efforts and that has lifted the myth of rugged individualism and individuality to the status of a societal paradigm in North America especially, the notion that the deck is profoundly rigged by issues of both class and systemic oppression and that, in reality, many have been able to get where they are only with the benefit of social forces and by fate of birth is very disturbing and hard for many to accept.

But it is also an easily demonstrable fact. And if we fail to acknowledge it, regardless of how it might alienate at first many of those who have benefited from systemic oppression then we can get nowhere. Calling out oppression and recognizing its systemic nature has to be an end in itself to begin the extremely difficult process of dismantling these institutions of oppression. Calling it out will not end it, it is a starting point. But without the starting point there is no end point. This means, under the conditions that exist in the here and now if we accept that calling out oppression will do nothing other than alienate the oppressors then we are in a Catch 22 from which there is no exit.

Which is why the “hurt feelings” of people unwilling to acknowledge that they play a role in the way our society, their society, functions, cannot be a primary concern for those who seek to be allies to movements of the oppressed, racialized and marginalized.

Just because someone is a “good guy” does not mean they are somehow exempt from the social norms and forces that surround them. That is an absurd contention and the fact that so many will assert it shows that we have a very long way to go.

Systemic oppressions result in very real violence and human degradation. Systemic misogyny, patriarchy, colonialism and racism have horrific consequences that we witness daily in our streets, communities and on the news.

Unless we, especially those of  us like myself who are white men, are willing to acknowledge the fact of our colonialist civilization, are willing to confront the fact of our legacy and continuation of systemic racism, are willing to acknowledge the role men play, collectively and individually, in the creation of a culture of misogyny, then how can we seek to be allies to those communities and movements that are fighting to end the long and terrible history of institutionalized brutality that directly benefited us and whose continuing, daily and pervasive manifestations still do?

This is why talking about, seeking to understand and seeking to acknowledge our collective role in systemic oppression is an absolute necessity. Without doing so, it is very difficult to see how our society and civilization can ever begin to move past it.

Michael LaxerMichael Laxer lives in Toronto where he runs a bookstore with his partner Natalie. Michael has a Degree in History from Glendon College of York University. He is a political activist, a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the NDP, is a socialist candidate for Toronto City Council in 2014, and is on the executive of the Socialist Party of Ontario.

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  • “…to the literally virtually non-existent institutional or social barriers to advancement…” Yes. Yes. Thank you for articulating that. I think many men focus on denying that they’ve had a helping hand, rather than focusing on the absence of a stopping hand.

  • Sandra Sewell

    Thank you, Michael Laxer.

  • Meh

    Thanks for this article. Really clarified things for me (and helped me with tackling the “not all menz” out there!).

  • AiMo

    Hey Michael. Thank you for your wonderful writing. I’m a cis/het white guy who’s trying his damnedest (and often failing) to be an ally. I’d be interested to know what your position is on giving to charity. I give to several wonderful charities every month (Amnesty, MSF, Amnesty, Greenpeace) that do some great work. I believe that actions are the only real measure of one’s morality and commitment to allyship. How helpful or unhelpful would you say it is to give to charity? I speak out on issues like porn culture and colonialism, but I always feel (with no small amount of justification)that I’m not doing enough. I’ve always tabled the charitable giving as a ‘plus’ in my ledger of morality. Perhaps I’m fooling myself?

    • Amnesty International supports the decriminalization of buying “sex”[read: financially coerced rape]. That is counter to progress in the fight for violence against women in the opinions of many feminists.

      • AiMo

        Thank you – I had heard that Amnesty was considering this liberal feminist horseshit. I didn’t know they had adopted it as official policy. Sigh…

    • Donating to your local women’s shelter and/or rape crisis centre is a much more assured way of knowing you are supporting women.

    • Mar Iguana

      Focus on and contribute only to organizations seeking to end misogyny. Ending sexism would make the charities you now support unnecessary.

      • Mar Iguana

        Here are a few prominent organizations to join/support now:

        Planned Parenthood
        Emily’s List
        NARAL/Pro-Choice America

        Also, on Facebook, you can find many large and small groups that focus on reproductive rights/women’s issues. (Some require a request to join.) Seven are listed here:

        NAF/National Abortion Federation
        Fight Laws Against Women
        Pro-Choice Liberals
        Abigail Adams Brigade
        Rabid Feminism

        The Guttmcaher Institue is an excellent source of current reproductive rights legislation.


        • marv

          Righto. I would recommend financially contributing to the Feminist Current as a destination par excellence for advancing social transformation. We must support Meghan if we want to keep this domain alive and well for the long haul. We don’t want to lose our virtual home if she can’t pay the rent for her physical home. Sustainability!

          • Mar Iguana

            Aw, geez. Quite the oversight on my part. I should have put Feminist Current first on the list.

            Thanks, marv.

    • marv

      Philanthropy normalizes economic inequality. Donations to the needy mask male fabricated capitalism with its concentration of wealth and power that exploits workers and the earth. Benevolence is offered as a primary solution to reducing poverty and environmental degradation. A small amount of wealth gushing up to the rich trickles down to the poor and to green projects.

      Only patriarchal capitalist abolitionist revolutionaries face reality for what it is.

      • AiMo

        I couldn’t agree more. The quandary I always find myself in is this: do I donate to charity, thereby normalizing the idea of ‘noblesse oblige’ and basically just being condescending to the poor, or do I hold on to my money and simply do what I do now – advocate for change? I live in Toronto, and I plan now to divert my money away from Amnesty (at least) and to the Red Door Shelter. But the very idea of ‘charity’ is objectionable to me. Helping the disadvantaged isn’t a ‘choice’ that someone can make – it’s a moral duty. Ideally, charity would be rendered obsolete by A) tax money and B) changing the culture. As I said above, I am trying my best and often failing. But I acknowledge my failings and I will do better. Thanks everyone for the information.

    • hypatia

      You should know that Amnesty supports the legalization of violence against women in the form of legalization of prostitution and protection for pimps and johns:

  • Good writing.

  • Sabine

    An excellent, articulate and rooted-in-common-sense article. Thank you so much Michael!

  • Dave Shark

    Michael, you are so right that men play a prominent role in the construction of patriarchal oppression, and so often we are unwilling to admit to the scope of the vast power that we wield over the world. We need to come to terms with that. Especially older men–let’s not forget that the largest group of Canada’s 1% are men in their mid-50s. We need to acknowledge that in our society, male privilege is closely coupled with age privilege, and middle-aged white men have built their fortunes on the backs of young hard-working women. It’s time that we let go of our power and allow women to claim the political might that they so richly deserve.

  • Lola

    Great ideas, I think I will borrow some of them when talking to people who “not all men” me!

  • derrington

    Michael – could you send me a couple of toe nail clippings so that I can grow a nation of men like you from a petri dish in my kitchen?

  • Thank you for this piece. This sort of commentary from male allies is exactly the kind of constructive support I would like to see more of.

    There has been a rupture in the barrier of silence around sexual assault and violence thanks to the profile of both Ghomeshi and some of his victims. I am hoping that the increased visibility of gendered violence will extend to the deeply entrenched racism surrounding violence against aboriginal women and the excruciatingly shameful inaction around the crises of the missing and murdered canadian women. Today as we collectively remember the citizens who lost their lives in military service, I dream that someday we might also honour the women – whose numbers match ( or exceed those lost to military efforts – who have lost their lives to systemic violence.

    On a small editorial note: the quote from the Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology has this sentence, “Social oppression becomes institutionalized when its enforcement is so of social life that it is not easily identified as oppression and does not require conscious prejudice or overt acts of discrimination.” Are there so words missing? Does it read “its enforcement is so [much a normalized part] of social life” or something to that effect?

  • Dolkar

    Thank you Michael. This defensiveness of “good men” who feel they are being individually blamed when systemic oppression is discussed is an enormous barrier to many “good men” moving into their potential as allies. I have encountered this time and time again from “good men” who could be fabulous allies if they could just get past the defensiveness of their individual guilt. [Deep sigh.]

    Your writing is clear, precise and insightful as always. Yup, I’d like to clone you too!!

  • David

    Thank you Michael for saying what is also in my heart, that blame and judgment is more the problem than the solution, and that we must evolve to a higher social consciousness of shared responsibility ( ability to respond ) to overcome frightened reactive habituations. I also am of the ranks of upper middle class white privilege and have been searching for decades to find traction in my life, to set a pivot to leverage against the forces that unknowingly are tearing this world apart.

    My growing spiritual perspective has me letting go of that yearning to blame and be judgmental, as I see this as part of an evolving and balanced consciousness, that increasingly more men and women are finding traction with — yet it flies in the face of seeming millenniums of rationality and patriarchal ‘success.’

    Yet we will never know how much more success we would have had over the ages, incorporating women’s perspective in the very center of social systems, but we can guess that WWI’s extremely punitive measures against Germany might not have occurred ( so that WWII might never have been formulated in that egregious suffering ).

    Progress ( as it is ) has been at the expense of shortchanging women and our innate grace of inner guidance that feelings and emotions, long before Descartes and Bacon accentuated the male ( thinking ) over the female ( feeling ), which furthered the metaphoric rape of the world and literal rape of women and children

    We, are coming into balance as fully human, integrating and accepting those shadow selves ( both good and bad ) that we have not allowed space to exist.

    I have a lot of compassion for all the women ( and men ) suffering about ‘never enough’ domination, that underlies all of USA patriarchy, which oddly is far more perverse than the EU patterns it arose from. I see this as coming out of the rapacity of unbridled greed which plays to the worse of human weaknesses, that of shamefully feeling unworthy and insufficient and unlovable — unless you consumptively buy and place materialistic objectified and commodified existence, as superior to humane relationship and ( spiritual ) subjectivity.

    Yes, the very model of capitalism is inherently usurpacious and demeaning of collective humanity, as it forces a stair-stepped pattern of increasing victimization all the way down, feeding off the weakest and least able to voice their objections ( to ears conditioned to ignore them ).

    We *increasingly are incorporating the women’s humane perspective, yet time seems to slow down in the midst of these trails and tribulations ( slavery, suffrage, civil rights ), and while each generation must find the courage to move forward and demand more of male-dominated social dysfunction, we all too easily miss how far we have come — because we still have so far to go. As Frederick Douglass discerned:

    “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

    *NOTE: the yrs since Reagan have reversed much of the progress made, when mob psychology was deceitfully played to make exceptional selfish exploitation and eviscerate and blame the impoverished and disadvantaged, for deserving their plights. Recent ‘innovations’ have made warmongering criminality, bankster fraud, and torture ‘acceptable’ — in many folks’ traumatized minds. This frightened terrorized conditioning fuels a deep yearning for authoritarian following, as our brains functions have been manipulated to devolve into egregious and primitive patterns ( greed at any cost ).

    It is compassionately understandable, that most men ( and society itself ) are too often and too easily socially conditioned to play the reptilian brain’s role, eliminating shades of gray thinking, foreclosing innovation and empathy and connection and altruism — as emergent survival skills ( to decide quickly ) mandate that relatively inhumanity. Fear makes us stupid and wanting to be ignorant, while it also drives the propped up and unsustainable economy.

    Women are more innately tied to relationship ( evolved mammalian ) thinking, yet can also be driven into primitive survival mode thinking, when fears take them over. Love is the antidote to fear.


    • Dolkar

      David, yes, much of what you say is true. But don’t fall into the trap of believing that women are more “innately” tied to relationship, or to any other sort of “connected” and “altruistic” humanity. All these things arise in the context of our social conditioning – whether this conditioning suppresses or enhances our “innate” human qualities, who’s to say – and all these are qualities that males as well as females are quite capable of.

      Besides, if we don’t believe that all humanity is capable of goodness (in the context of a “good” social system) then we are sadly doomed.

      • Dolkar

        In fact, I’m wondering if it isn’t the socially constructed ideal of masculinity, which is built upon the false concept of the complete freedom of a separate individuality, that is the very reason males tend to have such a difficult time acknowedging their place in a social fabric of oppression. Masculinity wants to view itself as “free, separate, independent and self-created” – not a product of interdependence, relationship and conditioning. Within that worldview, all social criticism is taken as personal criticism. Hence the defensiveness and inability to truly understand oneself in context.

        • David2

          That’s fascinating. That’s so true. I hate the idea of being classified. “Oh he’s this type, or that type.”

          I don’t want to be identified by what other people do. “Free, separate, independent and self created.” Yes. I would find all those terms very flattering. I hate discovering the extent to which I’ve been conditioned without even thinking about it. Makes me feel powerless to choose who I am.

          • David2

            Oh we have 2 Davids. I’m not the guy you commented on initially Dolkar. I’ll be David2

  • David2

    Hmm. Ok. You’ve won me over. I can get around my gut reaction to your last article. It is a hard truth.

    I can understand that the visceral reaction to being told you’re part of the problem is itself part of the problem.

    To me, however, the problem with our porn culture is not that it exists but that it’s a predominantly male endeavor. There’s nothing wrong with eroticism as long as women are not shamed for having sexual drives themselves, as they are in our current society. The solution can’t be that we have no porn, but that our porn is friendly to everyone.

    A man cheats on his girlfriend and he’s an asshole, a term without sexual connotation. Turn it the other way around and she’s a slut. But is the solution that the word ‘slut’ should never be used, or that it should be applicable to either sex? I’m not sure myself.

    Furthermore, rather than men never making lewd jokes or talking about women’s bodies, would it be better if women could be comfortable doing the same without fear of being labeled as ‘sluts’?

    • Mar Iguana

      Why not try to become equal to women instead of making women become equal to men, which requires us being soooo much less than we are?

      • Morag

        Yes, Mar Iguana. It’s incredible, isn’t it?–these suggestions, from “progressive” minds, on how to make the world a better place for women? In this envisioning, men never change, but instead drag women down to their level so the sexes are “equal.” Preserve and protect our porn, prostitution, abuse, misogynistic insults, etc., but ensure that women are fully participating in these (un)holy traditions and institutions.


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  • Jem Leav

    This has to be one of the best and most honest articles that I have ever read. Thank you so much.