This blog is the English version of an OpEd I wrote for EL PAÍS published 21.12.20. The original version in Spanish can be read here.
Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a time of peak oppression. This fact can’t be denied. After the disastrous events of 2020, even those who may be inclined to turn a blind eye to oppression can’t deny the systemic exercise of authority that perpetuates inequality and division.
The COVID pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated oppressive elements embedded within sociopolitical structures. For example, here in the UK where I write, black men are three times more likely to die of the virus than white men due in great part to inequalities in healthcare. Around the world, women as a group have lost hard-won victories – domestic violence, female genital cutting, and unemployment have increased. The historical exploitation of the Global South for resources has made it challenging for already precarious economies in developing nations to cope with the new predicament of lockdown. 71 million more people may have been pushed into extreme poverty in 2020. Terrifyingly, the prolonged abuse of the natural world and biodiversity has proven to have huge consequences to all existence on planet earth.
It is no wonder, then, that oppression has been one of the most discussed topics this year. From undervalued essential workers to ecosystems that thrived when humanity was forced into lockdown, from Black Lives Matter and other mass demonstrations in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Poland, Thailand, to name only a few, to the desire for more female leaders who seemed to manage the pandemic more gracefully, each major issue that COVID has highlighted is framed by oppression.
Yet oppression itself is framed by an even deeper contention, which I refer to as the Crisis of Relationship. I define the crisis of relationship simply: The crisis of relationship is the inability to produce a desired, non-destructive outcome when two or more entities are involved with each other. I use the word entities as the interplay that suffers is not only that between different human groups, but also that between humans and the non-human natural world, as well as between humans and their own knowledge systems. The crisis of relationship is characterised by a sense of division that feels simultaneously unsurmountable and utterly destructive. In other words, at a time when the need to build conscious relationships between different entities is more pressing than ever, we are struggling, the crisis runs too deep.
Deep as the crisis of relationship runs, we still we have to delve into it. It is necessary to understand the framing story (the meta-narrative) that causes oppression not least because oppression-speak is now all too misunderstood and overused. The word oppression has become gimmicky and lost any transformative meaning in the process. It is unfavourably now linked to notions like ‘oppression olympics’ and consequently dismissed. The careless expenditure of an originally powerful word diminishes the urgency of dealing with the tragedy at the heart of oppression, namely the crisis of relationship.
A crisis means several things. It firstly makes you think of catastrophe or emergency but it also signifies a turning point and a watershed moment. Both definitions are relevant when it comes to the crisis of relationship but more important in this context is that a crisis connotes a vulnerable and volatile situation. The future of planetary coevolution is vulnerably hanging by a thread.
Crisis is also a term that is typically used to signify alarm. We speak, for example, about economic crisis, climate crisis, employment crisis, and so on. We don’t associate the term crisis with relationship, because we live in a world dominated by what I refer to as “Europatriarchal Knowledge” which is an approach to knowledge that is binary and othering, and thus classifies relationship as something feminine, emotional, soft – in contrast to the serious(!), masculine(!) and rational(!) sentiment of a crisis.
Yet when we see that beneath each oppression of groups of people and between people and their planet – is a fundamental crisis of relationship, it becomes clear that europatriarchal knowledge cannot help us anymore. We need ways of knowing that foster a sense of reciprocity. By reciprocal, I do not mean everybody holding hands singing kumbaya or hugging trees. I do not even necessarily mean ‘harmonious’, but rather marked by what philosopher John Searle refers to as ‘collective intentionality’ as “the capacity to not simply engage in cooperative behaviour but to share intentional states such as beliefs, desires, and intention.”
The Russian naturalist Peter Kropotkin described it as “mutual aid” in his 1902 book of the same title, which was written in support of reciprocity and against the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mentality. Kropotkin wrote: “In the long run the practice of solidarity proves much more advantageous to the species than the development of individuals endowed with predatory inclinations.”
I’m apprehensive of the definitive evolutionary explanations for human behavior, as Kropotkin’s (and Darwin’s, for that matter) theories infer. Things are never straightforwardly biological or evolutionary. This is a truth that women, people of colour, indigenous and LGBT people who have been at the receiving end of ‘biological facts’ that diminish their humanity know all too well.
Yet one thing that is unambigious, or that at least ought to be clear after this year, is that we are all deeply entangled with each other and with nature. There is a need to get to the core of systemic oppression and address it in a way that could truly help mitigate the problem before it’s too late. To do that we need new approaches to knowledge that aren’t, like europatriarchal knowledge is, themselves designed around crisis of relationship. Luckily both old and new approaches to knowledge are available to those who dream of an elevated world.