Maintaining Oppression

Morton Deutsch

March 2005 with "Current Implications" by Heidi Burgess added in July 2020.

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I (Heidi Burgess) am a updating all of Mort Deutsch's essays on oppression in the summer of 2020, shortly after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a policeman.  That killing has sparked worldwide outrage, particularly at the behavior of police towards Blacks, but also toward what is being called "systemic racism" that permeates American (and other) societies.  A broader version of "systemic racism" is oppression, hence this excellent series of articles seemed worth looking at again.    More...


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Here I consider factors that contribute to the maintenance of oppression:[1]

  • the superior power of the dominant group;
  • the social production of meaning in the service of legitimating oppression;
  • the self-fulfilling prophecies arising from oppression; and
  • the distorted relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor.

The Superior Power of the Oppressor

Elsewhere, I have discussed different forms of power, as have many others.[2] Here, I am focusing on the power to control, dominate, or exploit another person, group, or nation whose power is not sufficient to prevent such domination or exploitation.[3] Such resources as wealth, status, size, weapons, intelligence, knowledge, organizational skill, internal unity, respect, affection, allies and a reputation of being powerful are some of the bases of power. Effective power depends not only on the control or possession of resources to generate power but also upon the motivation to employ these resources to influence others, skill in converting these resources to usable power, and good judgment in employing this power so that its use is appropriate in type and magnitude to the situation in which is it used.

It is evident that a group's possession of high effective power increases its chances of getting what it desires. Therefore, one would expect that the members of high power groups would be more satisfied with their groups and more intent on preserving the status quo than members of low power groups. Given this asymmetry in power and satisfactions, it also could be expected that pressures for change in the power relations is most apt to come from low power groups. The question naturally arises: How do high power groups use their power to prevent or contain such pressure from low power groups?

There are several basic ways: control over the instruments of systematic terror and of their use; control over the state which establishes and enforces the laws, rules and procedures which regulate the social institutions of the society; control over the institutions (such as the family, school church, and media) which socialize and indoctrinate people (also the family, school, church, and the media) to accept the power inequalities; and interactive power in which there are repeated individual behaviors by those who are more powerful which confirm the subordinate status of those in low power. In addition, there are the self-fulfilling prophecies in which the behavior of the oppressed, resulting from their oppression are used by the oppressor to justify the oppression; and the distorted relation between the oppressor and the oppressed.

Systematic Terror

As Sidanius and Pratto point out, in their excellent book Social Dominance, systematic terror can be official, semi-official, or unofficial. "Official terror is the public and legally sanctioned violence and threat of violence by organs of the state toward members of a subordinate group" (as in the South African police toward blacks during the Apartheid period).[4] Semi-official terror is the violence or intimidation carried out by officials of the state but not legally sanctioned by the state (e.g. the death squads in Argentina composed of paramilitary organizations) while unofficial terror is perpetrated by private individuals from dominant groups, often illegally, with the tacit approval of public officials (as in the lynchings of African-American men accused of having sex with white women).

Systematic terror may not be necessary to keep a subordinated group in its place, if the subordinated group thinks the social institutions controlled by the dominant group, as well as their daily interactions with its members, are tolerable. Or, it might be that their socialization and indoctrination by the social institutions controlled by the powerful, have led them to accept and internalize the values and ideology of the dominant group. Even so, a harsh, dominant group in a totalitarian society may find it expedient, as well as self-affirming, to keep salient the potential of systematic terror, through its occasional, arbitrary use to encourage the continued internalization of its values by the subordinate group and the toleration of the injustices it is experiencing.

Control Over the State

In a self-reinforcing cycle, the powerful in any society control the state and control of the state increases the power of those who control it. In the United States and other Western democracies, large corporations and wealthy individuals are the primary funders of political campaigns, political parties, and political candidates; they also own and control most of the mass media; additionally, they provide the support for most of the private policy-planning network -- the think thanks, research institutes, policy discussion groups, and foundations -- which help to set the national policy agenda and to establish policy priorities.[5] The result is an immense bias in the political system favoring large corporations and the economically privileged in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government. The effects of this bias are evidenced in which groups experience the various forms of injustice described earlier in this paper. In the United States, it is apparent that such minorities as African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, the physically impaired, single mothers, and children have relatively little power and are more likely to be poor and to suffer the other injustices associated with poverty. At the global level, a similar process occurs: the large multi-national corporations, the more powerful nations, and wealthy investors are able to influence the processes and practices affecting international trade, aid, and investment to their own advantage and, often, to the detriment of the people in third-world states.

Control over Socialization and Indoctrination

The development of discontent among the disadvantaged and outrage among the oppressed are often aborted by the socialization and indoctrination institutions of society. The family, school, religious institutions, and the media socialize and indoctrinate the oppressed to obey authority and to keep them aware that punishment for disobedience will be severe, to view the disadvantages they suffer as legitimate, or to have faith that they will be compensated for them in the afterlife. The rewards and punishments in the here-and-now, as well as the after-life, for acceptance or challenging authority and the status quo are presented vividly and repeatedly in both the myths and practices of the society and its indoctrinating institutions.

Interactive Power

This form of power has been defined by Harvey as "the power to take the initiative in a relationship: in beginning or ending a relationship, and in insisting on its being modified, and in taking a number of communication initiatives like the power to begin or end a specific contact (like a conversation), to insist on being listened to and on being given answer to reasonable and pertinent questions."[6] The socially privileged, typically, assume that they have the right to control the interactions in their relationship with members of subordinated groups. Challenging this assumption can be risky for a subordinate and, as a consequence, they usually go unchallenged. The repeated, everyday experience of being treated as an inferior produces a public image of being an inferior, which may be internalized as an image of self-inferiority. In the socially privileged, in contrast, such interactions will produce a public image of superiority and a corresponding self-image. Such non-egalitarian everyday interactions between the socially dominant and the oppressed help to keep the system of oppression in place by the public images and self-images they produce and perpetuate.

The Social Production of Meaning in the Service of Legitimating Oppression

Under this heading, we will provide some illustrations of how the various institutions of society and facets of its culture implicitly "proclaim the superiority of the oppressor's identity."[7] The oppressors use "history," "the law of nature," "the will of God," "science," "the criteria of art," and "language" as well as the social institutions of society to legitimize their superiority and to ignore or minimize the identity of the oppressed.

Some illustrations (see Noel, 1994, for a more detailed discussion) follow:

... The Declaration of Independence starts with "We the People" but the "we" did not include Native Americans, slaves, women or youth.

... "History," as it appears in the textbooks is mainly a series of events that involve "great men" such as conquerors, kings, presidents, or successful revolutionary leaders. They were the "winners;" the losers, if mentioned, are usually presented in a derogatory manner. The history of women, African-Americans, Native Americans, children, the aged, homosexuals, the physically challenged, and other minority groups are too insignificant to be noted except as problems.

... The pseudoscientific "Social Darwinism" eagerly misapplied such ideas as "survival of the fittest," "hereditary determinism," and "stages of evolution" to the relations between different human social groups-classes and nations as well as social races—to justify existing exploitative social relations and to rationalize imperialist policies. "The rich and powerful were biologically superior; they had achieved their positions as a result of natural selection. It would be against nature to interfere with the inequality and suffering of the poor and weak. Imperialism was patriotism in a race endowed with the genius for empire, for those superior peoples meant to lead inferior peoples."[8]

... All the large-scale religions share the belief in female inferiority.[9] God, according to the Christian tradition, made man in his own image, while a woman is a mere reflection of man. In Hinduism, women are not even eligible for salvation; they must await for another incarnation. In Islam, the testimony of a woman is worth only half that of a man. Everyday, the orthodox Jewish male thanks God "for not having made him a woman." According to Pope John Paul II, women are not allowed to be priests because this would be contrary to both their humanity and femininity.

... The behavioral and social sciences have often legitimized the oppressors' claim to superiority. Well-known psychologists have used the results of intelligence testing to proclaim that African-Americans, Jews, Eastern Europeans, and people from the Mediterranean area are inferior to Anglo-Saxons. Piaget and Kohlberg indicated that women have a less developed moral judgment than men. Sociologists (e.g., Banfield) have considered the lower classes to be pathological; anthropologists have employed the term "primitive" to characterize indigenous societies; psychiatrists have considered homosexuality to be a mental disease, women to suffer from "penis envy," and that children were fantasizing their abuses.

... The historians of art, music, and literature have much neglected the contributions of women and have frequently credited their works to men; "art" and "literature" are created by the dominators. African art is "primitive" art, even though copied by Picasso; "gays" write "homosexual" novels; and female film directors produce "women" movies. It has long been accepted for minority artists and performers to work in their own group's genre-for example, for blacks to create and perform jazz music. Only recently have blacks been permitted to express themselves in the "higher " genres of classical music, ballet, or opera.

The Contribution of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies to the Maintenance of Oppression

The myths of moral, intellectual, or motivational superiority of the oppressor, which often are used to legitimize the subordination of oppressed groups are typically supported by self-fulfilling prophecies. As Sidanius and Pratto point out: "Societies are set up in ways that make life relatively easy for dominants and relatively difficult for subordinates."[10] Subordinated groups are less like to live in circumstances which encourage and stimulate the development of one's intellectual potential; which foster the motivation to be ambitious and to achieve economic success; which motivate conformity to the social norms against deviant and criminal behavior; which foster intragroup cohesiveness; and which contribute to the development of physical and mental health. These deficiencies resulting from oppression support the mythology and stereotypes promulgated by the oppressor and, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, enable the dominant to justify their oppression by characterizing the oppressed as being "dumb, lazy, or immoral."

Of course, there are oppressed groups who do not fit these stereotypes. Such groups, which have high intellectual and economic attainments as well as much intragroup cohesiveness, are often viewed as potential competitors. They are stereotyped as "cunning, deceitful, overly ambitious, and clannish." These groups tend to be morally excluded or marginalized so that they have only restricted or limited participation in the important institutions of society -- political, legal, educational, etc. They tend to be segregated from the dominant group and their economic activities are primarily in stigmatized occupations and often they have to be very ambitious, cunning, and clannish to survive and thrive. As I have suggested elsewhere (Deutsch and Collins, 1951), these groups are seen as potential competitive threats to the dominant group and the responses to such threats often take the forms of intolerance, exclusion, or extermination.

The Distorted Relationship Between the Oppressed and the Oppressor

The Oppressed

Imagine the situation of an oppressed or abused child, wife, employee, or citizen. Each is in some critical way dependent upon the oppressor — the parent, the husband, the employer (company or organization), or the governing undemocratic power. Suppose the oppressed has needs or desires of which the oppressor strongly disapproves (e.g. physical affection, self-esteem, autonomy, self-determination) or only allows their expression in distorted dissatisfying, abusive forms. The reaction of the oppressed is apt to be one of frustration, anger, and anxiety if the oppressor indicates, even subtly, that the oppressed will be severely punished if the oppressed expresses her desires, frustrations, or anger. One way of reducing the anxiety aroused by the temptations to manifest the forbidden desires is to build an internal barrier to their expression by internalizing the threat through identification with the oppressor. Doing so leads, at one level, to guilt and self-hatred for having these desires. At a deeper level, it leads to guilt and self-hatred for abandoning one's self, as well as rage and a sense of moral superiority toward the oppressor who is responsible for this abandonment. As a result of these processes, submission and obedience to the oppressor, as well as depression, are commonly found among the oppressed when they are interacting with oppressors or when they are in oppressive situations.

However, it should be recognized that many who experience oppression in some aspects of their life do not necessarily experience it in other aspects; so that they are not necessarily submissive, and depressed personalities racked by guilt, self-hatred, and rage in all situations. Damage to the personalities of oppressed people will be limited, even when exposed to pervasive oppression, if they are also part of a supportive, cohesive community whose values oppose oppression.

The Oppressor

If we were to examine the oppressors psychologically -- the child abusers, the husbands who batter their wives, brutal bosses, and political tyrants -- I believe that we would find that the oppressors need the oppressed. Their need to control and dominate the other, their intolerance of the autonomy of the other makes them dependent upon having vulnerable, weaker others for the definition of their own power. Their own deep sense of vulnerability (anxieties about helplessness and impotence, guilt about forbidden desires and rage, self-hatred for vulnerability) leads to strong needs both to deny one's vulnerability (by projection of one's anxieties, guilt and contempt onto others who are more vulnerable) and to have the power to control those who are vulnerable or can be made to be more vulnerable. The oppressor needs to be able to make demands, which are arbitrary and unreasonable so that the obedience of the oppressed is due to the oppressor's power and not to the agreement of the oppressed. The oppressor's intolerance of the autonomy of the oppressed is "neither idle nor freely chosen; it is a function of dependence on the vulnerable others for the definition of his or her own power."[11]

One can, of course, be more powerful in a relationship (such as a parent-child, employer-employee relationship) without being an oppressor. Power can be used "for" the other rather than "against" the other.

The Psychodynamic Relationship Between the Oppressor and the Oppressed

There are structural similarities between the sadomasochistic and the oppressor-oppressed relationship. Each side of the relationship has some of the latent qualities of the other side: the sadist when he is whipping the masochist is also whipping himself; the oppressor when he is controlling the oppressed is controlling himself. The masochistic, when whipped, is also having the sadist within himself punished. Similarly, the oppressed who is being controlled is also having his rage controlled.

It seems obvious that not all oppressors have "oppressive" personalities nor do all the oppressed have "oppressed" personalities in the sense that they do not consistently prefer and seek out relationships where they can be the "oppressors" or the "oppressed." Nevertheless, I suggest that in any longstanding oppressive relationship, both the psychodynamics within its participants as well as social expectations will contribute to its persistence and resistance to change. Thus, in Afghanistan (despite the ending of the rule of the Taliban and their exposure to different models of family relationships on TV), many wives will continue to wear burkas and also to believe that their husbands have the right to beat them if they disobey them.

I conclude this section of my discussion by stating that any attempt to end long-enduring oppressive relations will have to address the psychodynamic issues which lead people to resist changing unhappy but familiar relationships. Some of the anxieties and fears that have to be addressed for the oppressed and oppressor are listed below:

1. Both feel anxious in the face of the unknown. They believe that they will be foolish, humiliated, or helpless, in a new unclear relationship;

2. Both fear the guilt and self-contempt for their roles in maintaining the oppressive relationship;

3. The oppressed fears that their rage will be unleashed; the oppressor is in terror of this rage;

4. Both fear punishment, if they change; the oppressed from the oppressor, the oppressor from the oppressed and other oppressors; and,

5. Both anticipate loss from the change: the oppressed will lose their sense of moral superiority and the excuses of victimhood; the oppressor will lose the respect and material benefits associated with being more powerful.

Thoughts on the Oppression of Women
Contributed by Pat R., a Reader

The topic of sexual or gender oppression for women cannot be addressed properly without including the topic of emotional and intellectual oppression that is rarely seen as such from the perspective of males.

Emotional abuse is something that has afflicted men for as long as women, and to which they have all but become immune. As a result, emotional abuse which does affect women is not seen as the source of harm it is in the social and political environment of ideas or interactions.

The recent study and results conducted by the Girl Scout Research Institute shows how easily women are intimidated, by men or women, or more correctly, boys or girls. Those basic fear patterns do not change, but girls learn methods of avoidance as they mature, characteristic with the outcome in that analysis and evaluation.

Prevailing attitudes show that it is only when women are physically harmed are authorities apt to take women's safety seriously, and to date, little emphasis has been given to their emotional security which secures the confidence about which they conduct their affairs. It continues to be a problem in the U.S., and is likely, still a problem the world over. It is also one of the reasons that women do not abandon patriarchy altogether as a "system" disadvantageous to women who still need and perceive the lack of support for autonomy by society without the benefit of the patriarchal wing that offers some degree of sanctuary.

Neither married nor unmarried women are yet as free to express themselves without some measure of male support and endorsement. Yet, the critical area of emotional dynamics continues to leave them sporadically vulnerable due to dismissing the nature of such danger, and its effect, as revealed by the Institute's report.

Unlike men, for women, emotional danger or vulnerability often leads to physical danger and vulnerability which they are unable to combat due to their size, strength, and power. So this form of intimidation has long been known as a sure method of female oppression. Where men are confident of their ability to protect themselves, women are not. Therefore, emotional vulnerability for women is nearly the same as physical vulnerability of men.

Where men fear outbreaks of violence, women must concern themselves not only with the potential of physical violence but the emotional violence that can lead to physical violence.

Without addressing the fact of emotional violence upon women, they are necessarily relegated to the oppression of which they are aware, and complain, to mostly the deaf ears of men who prefer not to constrain themselves, mostly because their emotional volatility is often a part of the defensive strategy they must use for self protection among other men.

These differences in the approach to human relations, and their impact in ignoring them help to create the dynamics of intractable conflicts and disputes that arise in groups, or even in personal confrontations. Women use emotional violence with each other because they know it works, and that all women share the same self defense conditioning, and is usually enough to prevent having to resort to physical violence.

That these problems are not taken into consideration in gender relations remains a mystery, and neither men nor women can be as effective as they could be without this type of social/emotional oppression.



Note: This was originally one long article on oppression, which we have broken up to post on Beyond Intractability. The next article in the series is: Overcoming Oppression: Awakening the Sense of Injustice.

Current Implications

I am a updating all of the parts of Mort Deutsch's essays on oppression in the summer of 2020, shortly after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a policeman.  That killing has sparked worldwide outrage, particularly at the behavior of police towards Blacks, but also toward what is being called "systemic racism" that permeates American (and other) societies.  A broader version of "systemic racism" is oppression, hence this excellent series of articles seemed worth looking at again.

This particular essay, when read alone, is pretty depressing.  It tells us that oppression is maintained by a large number of very powerful forces, none of which seem easy to change.  Though that is depressing, it is also important to understand: changing systemic racism or any other type of oppression is not going to be easy.  It is very deeply ingrained in all aspects of society—among the oppressors and the oppressed.  While marching in the street appears to be generating some changes (e.g., removing statues, changing names of organizations, or other symbols such as flags or mascots) most of the changes made so far are superficial.  They do little, if anything, to displace the social and psychological structures and dynamics that Deutsch describes here, all of which are very relevant to the current situation. 

However, the situation is by no means hopeless.  Deutsch continued his original essay (of which this is only 1/6) with three more parts that do talk about ways oppression can be overcome.  So, please read on to the next essay in the series: Overcoming Oppression: Awakening the Sense of Injustice.

Back to Essay Top

[1] This essay is only a small piece of an essay Morton Deutsch wrote on oppression. For further readings on oppression refer to the following essays: Oppression and Conflict: Introduction, Overcoming Oppression: Awakening the Sense of Injustice, Overcoming Oppression through Pursuasion, Overcoming Oppression with Power, The Nature and Origins of Oppression, and What Forms does Oppression Take?

[2] Deutsch, M. (1973). The resolution of conflict: Constructive and destructive processes. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

[2] In Deutsch (1973), I have made the point that although this form of competitive power is much emphasized in discussions of power, another form of power is equally important: cooperative power, where it is to the benefit of each other, if the other's power is enhanced.

[3] Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (1999). Social dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression. NY: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Perrucci. R., Wysong. The New Class Society. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 1999.

[5] Harvey, J. (1999). Civilized Oppression. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc, p. 43.

[6] Noel, L. (1994). Intolerance: A General Survey. Montreal: Mc-Gill-Queen's University Press, p. 7.

[7] Deutsch, M. (1973). The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. Pp102-3.

[8] Noel, op. cit.,

[9] Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F., op. cit., p. 227

[10] Lichtenberg, P. (1990). Community and Confluence. Cleveland, OH: Gestalt Institute of Cleveland Press, p.26.

Use the following to cite this article:
Deutsch, Morton. "Maintaining Oppression." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: March 2005 <>.