Marilyn Frye's Characterization of Oppression

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In the following paper, I will critically discuss Frye’s account of oppression by first examining its strengths, and subsequently proposing a possible challenge requiring an alteration of her conception. This essay will generally argue in support of Frye’s account, particularly due to its ability to provide an understanding of oppression that covers the most subtle, internalized and often overlooked forms of societal injustice. One of the primary strengths of her account is its methodical and catholic approach to defining oppression, providing a handful of key and concise characteristics of the often misunderstood word. Before evaluating Frye’s account in detail, this paper will first outline her conception of oppression and consider its strengths in comparison to opposing conceptions of oppression and social justice. Secondly, I will argue Frye’s account is not only comprehensive, but furthermore a convincing exploration of social justice. Finally, I will consider the elements of Frye’s account that could be successfully challenged, thus requiring an extension or alteration of her original conception.

To begin with, Frye outlines and discusses an account of oppression that aims to include scenarios where the oppression in question is subtle and often overlooked by more general or less concentrated accounts of social persecution. The clear, self-evident occurrences of oppression such as the master-slave dialectic and the legislated, enforced persecution of social groups throughout the 19th and 20th centuries no longer exists as it once did. Rather, in the mid-20th century, oppression began to adapt and change as society began to liberalise and embrace a ‘progressive’ mindset. That is not, however, to say that oppression was forced out of existence. Instead, it mutated into an equally pernicious, yet significantly less discernible form. Frye understands the concept of oppression to not only be often misused, but also actively and purposely misemployed in order to verify and justify one’s views of society. Frye defines the elusive term by discussing the primary conditions that are required for oppression to be said to exist -importantly, any of these conditions being present individually is not sufficient, what is rather required is all of these conditions to be present simultaneously. Firstly, there must exist some form of restriction that is placed upon a specific social group. Following from this, the restriction in question must result in harm for the person who is restricted. Furthermore, the restriction must not be random or localized, it must be maintained and imposed by a social institution or system. Finally, and largely unique to Frye’s conception of oppression, the restriction must be the result of one’s attachment or belonging to a specific social group, and there must be a seperate social group that benefits from this systemic restriction.

Accompanying Frye’s outline of the requirements of her account is her eloquent analogy of the birdcage. Oppression is importantly systemic in nature, and thus the cases of oppressive treatment that we see in the modern world can often seem obviously non-oppressive when we examine them prima facie. However, Frye uses the analogy of the birdcage to convey why this perspective is false, as she shows that it is disingenuous to discuss cases of possible oppression in a localized manner, rather we must consider the totality of possibly oppressive situations all at once. It is in this comprehensive perspective -recognising not just one wire but the entire collection of wires that make up the cage- that we can properly understand the systematic collection of oppressive social structures, they are neither unintended nor escapable. It is in this comprehensive quality of Frye’s account that we are able to find its strengths. Through the use of these five characteristics, in conjunction with the birdcage metaphor, Frye’s account draws a strong distinction between harm and oppression, something that those theories that preceded her often failed to do. Furthermore, the widespread inclusivity of her account is markedly unique compared to, for example, Marx’s reduction of the injustices of race and sexuality to class struggle. The catholic nature of her account is integral to its cogency, as it is in precisely this area that previous accounts tend to be limited. This can also be seen in Rawls’ principles of justice. Although not as overtly reductive, Rawls’ theory fails to effectively safeguard oppressed groups from the continuation of those societal structures that oppress them, as his theory is unable to take into account the often elusive social institutions that perpetuate oppression. Rawls’ theory of “Justice as Fairness” is founded upon a thought experiment where individuals construct an ideal social structure from a position of ignorance regarding their social standing. What this theory fails to take into account, however, is how pervasive prejudiced and oppressive beliefs can be within an individual’s understanding of societal structures. These beliefs would undoubtedly influence an individual’s ‘ideal’ conception of a social structure and would thus continue these ultimately unfair and unequal distributions of resources. Therefore, Frye’s account is clearly more comprehensive and thus more convincing than Rawls’ -and many of her other predecessors. In the next section, I will argue the specific nature of its strengths.

Now that we understand Frye’s account, it is certainly convincing, as she has conceived of an understanding of oppression that is able to distinguish between systemic oppression and the ubiquitous occurrence of suffering. In order to discuss the specific strengths of her account, it will be helpful to assess how effectively her understanding of oppression evaluates modern day examples. For example, Jamiles Lartey writes in a 2019 article in Oppression in America that “While the US has ended the formal, legal codes of enslavement and segregation… little has been done to change the minds of too many about the racist ideas that those structures rested on.” What Lartey is observing here is the entirely new form of oppression that we see in the modern day, one that is most effectively understood through Frye’s account. Lartey points out that it is the “structures” from which prejudiced perceptions stem that have not been entirely expelled from society, and thus for people of colour, although becoming enslaved in a cotton plantation may no longer be a possible situation, there are still highly damaging impacts that oppressive perceptions can have on their existence. Unfair judgments and treatment of people of colour in this instance would certainly be deemed oppressive through Frye’s account, as they satisfy all five conditions that Frye proposes are required for oppression to fully occur.

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Furthermore, a key strength of Frye’s account lies in its intersectionality. It does not generalize nor disregard the integral differences that can be found in, for example, the oppression that is experienced by an affluent white women and the oppression that is experienced by women of colour. The intersectional comprehensiveness of Frye’s account similarly stands in stark opposition to the vast majority of social justice theorists that precede her, most of which are instead often guided by a liberal philosophy that purports the equality of all individuals, no matter their social standing. This comprehensiveness makes Frye’s account deeply useful in a practical sense. Where most previous social justice philosophers provided us with theoretical, normative conceptions of fairness, justice and equality, Frye’s account is most effective in its practical application. Her conception of oppression allows us to examine subtle and elusive occurrences of injustice that may exist within any facet of our contemporary societal institutions, power balances and distributions.

In order to critically examine Frye’s account, we must now consider the possible challenges and extensions that can be made in response to her conception of Oppression. While this objection has a certain level of logical validity, I will assert that rather dispelling her theory altogether, it instead works as a convincing argument to extend the parameters of her account. The primary critique of Frye’s account that I will propose -which requires an extension of her view, rather than discounting it absolutely- is it’s narrowness. The fifth condition of oppression, for example, excludes cases where one social group does not benefit from the restriction of another. This leads to issues in the application of her account. For example, it is clear from her account that in society, women are oppressed and men are not. Although both certainly suffer harms, by following the requirements she lays out for oppression to exist it is clear that what men suffer is not in fact oppression, and for women it is. However, it seems her account is weakened when we examine oppression of the LGBTQ+ community. For simplicity of argument, let us narrow our discussion to gay persons within this community. Although it seems self-evident that gay people are an oppressed group in modern society, Frye’s account technically would not include them due to it’s fifth condition. Although gay persons experience restrictions, which are harmful, societal, and a result of their membership of a ‘social group’, there is tenuous evidence that the group that inflicts these restrictions and barriers -heterosexual people- benefit from them. Although there do exist counter arguments made against this challenge, it does certainly seem convincing, as there is a wealth of examples of gay people being oppressed in such a way that there is no clear ‘benefit’ from the oppressor. For example, a recent court case in Michigan ruled that adoption agencies that contract with the state can legally refuse LGBTQ+ couples from submitting for adoption. Furthermore, following the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized the marriage of same-sex couples, there has been a significant reduction in employers allowing same-sex partners in civil unions from accessing health care benefits, something that does not similarly impact heterosexual couples. Although only two examples taken from a wealth of instances of injustices, it is apparent that although these cases seem to be the product of societal oppression of gay people, they do not constitute oppression in Frye’s account, as there is no clear benefit or material gain from the oppressors. Ultimately, what is displayed through these examples is not necessarily the inefficacy of Frye’s conception but rather the need to extend and alter her account.

Now that the primary limitation of Frye’s conception of oppression is understood, what is required is not a dispelling of her account, but rather an extension and alteration. The challenge of narrowness is certainly convincing, especially within the aforementioned example of gay persons oppression. Thus, what Frye’s account requires is a broadening of her fifth condition, to better accommodate those instances of oppression that do not necessarily benefit the oppressing social group. As can be understood from the examination of gay persons, it is overly simplistic and reductive to require an oppressive social group to be obtaining tangible benefits from their oppression. Rather, it would be most effective to retain the condition requiring an oppressive social group to impose restrictions and boundaries that constitute oppression, while not maintaining the final condition that necessitates their material benefit from this oppression. The final condition does not seem to strengthen the account, and thus it seems acceptable to dispel it altogether.

In conclusion, Frye’s account of oppression is certainly convincing. It successfully provides a comprehensive and effective characterisation of oppression that is highly relevant to contemporary analysis of social structures. Furthermore, by explicitly necessitating five conditions to be met for oppression to be said to exist, Frye not only provides us with a successful theoretical understanding of oppression, but a useful and practically applicable one too. However, as a result of its failure to effectively apply to gay persons, for example, it is clear that Frye’s account requires an alteration that excludes the necessity of the fifth condition.

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