Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, starts with the following anecdote:
A well-known scientist… once gave a public lecture on astronomy…. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
The universe, of course, does not work in this way, but oppression does. Large oppressions are made more palatable through small oppressions. The more powerful members of the oppressed class are allowed to oppress those less powerful than themselves if they accept the oppression of those who are more powerful. It’s oppression all the way down.
For example, in Saudi Arabia, a repressive society by most measures, there are no laws against domestic violence. A man may beat his wife without legal repercussion. One way to interpret this is that men in Saudi culture are allowed to oppress those less powerful than themselves (women) as a reward for submitting to the oppression of those more powerful than themselves (religious and political authorities). Though in less stark terms, we see these same patterns in the US.
The relatively more empowered member of the oppressed class – an average Saudi man, in the above example – thus makes an interesting, and likely unconscious calculation. He agrees to accept oppression if he is also allowed to be a petty oppressor himself.
This is not only about gender. In the American South, a few landowners controlled vast plantations and had tremendous wealth (think of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Django Unchained). Almost everyone else, black or white, was poor. Yet poor whites – the relatively more empowered members of the oppressed class – were willing to accept the oppression they were subjected to by rich whites because they were allowed to oppress all black people.
Like women, people of color are offered up for oppression as rewards to members of society who would otherwise challenge the most powerful. To throw off oppression would not only mean no longer being subjected to oppression but also being unable to exercise it. Some would prefer to be both oppressed and oppressor than to give up their power over others.
Oppression begins to unravel when the people at the bottom, those who are far more oppressed than oppressor, reject the bargain. But their power is limited. What is far more threatening to the power structure is when the more powerful members of the oppressed class decide that they are ready to give up their ability to oppress. These are white people who are anti-racist. They are men who are anti-sexist. They are straight people who are anti-homophobic.
Rejecting the bargain of oppression is a revolutionary act. If you feel contempt for a stranger on any grounds (race, gender, skin color, religion), you are a pawn in someone else’s system of oppression. Resist it.