Suffering or Oppression? Ask Marilyn Frye.


Suffering or Oppression? Ask Marilyn Frye.


Partha Desikan


I had the opportunity to look at the Spring 2008 issue of Education Exchange, the half yearly publication of the School of Education, Syracuse University for its alumni and friends. I consider myself one of the latter as my daughter is an alumnus of the University from another School and her husband is still working for his Ph.D from the School of Education. The latter permitted me to look at his copy.


It was an education in philosophic perspectives for me to go through an analysis of some aspects of race and gender issues by Professor Barbara Applebaum of the School. She says that it is her practice to begin her course in cultural foundation of education, with statistics about the wage gap that exists in USA across race and gender. She would then question her students why they think such gaps exist at all. In the case of gender related wage gap, some students believed it was a function of women's choices. ‘Women choose to work,' they believe, ‘because, for them, it is a secondary income.' Some others say, ‘Women are not as committed to a career as men are, and they need a flexible job because they want to tend to their children's needs.' Or even, 'Women choose lower paying jobs, because they prefer to work in the service sectors.'


The Professor also has some students who claim, ‘The gap is the result of sex-role stereotyping.' Or, ‘Women get paid less because the work they do is undervalued.' Or again, ‘Women get paid less because there is a glass ceiling and they cannot get past the barriers that prevent them from rising to the top.'


Applebaum says she understands the difference between these two types of answers with the help of philosophical tools and is therefore able to explain the difference to her class. The first group explains the phenomenon from the lens of individual persons, whereas the second group sees the bird-cage. The professor cites the feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye to clarify the issue. Frye talks of some white men, who complain that they are not oppressors, but find that they are really oppressed, because they are white. Frye explains that these men believe that any kind of suffering can be called oppression. She asks, ‘Surely people can suffer or feel miserable without actually being oppressed, can they not?' So, what does oppression mean?


Frye seeks dictionary assistance. From the definitions, it is easy for her to deduce that the root for the word oppress is press. She wonders about things being pressed. Several pictures come to her mind. Being pressed in a crowd, being pressed into military service, a pair of pants being pressed, a button being pressed, the printing press, – these are some of them. But no, she does not quite visualize oppression this way! Then she realizes that something pressed is ‘something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict, or prevent the thing's motion or mobility.'


Frye offers a metaphor, the bird-cage. She tells us that if you look at just one wire of the cage, even if you examine it very carefully, this will mean that you are ignoring all other wires. Using such myopic focus, you may just wonder, why on earth the bird does not just fly around that wire and escape the cage!


Frye then explains the obvious. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one microscopically, but instead take a macroscopic view of the whole cage that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere. This will take just a moment and no special mental faculties. It will only be too obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, not any one of which alone could hinder its flight, while their joint relatedness makes them as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.


The experience of oppression, then, is the experience of living a life that is shaped by barriers that are not accidental or occasional and therefore avoidable by individual choice alone. No, unfortunately no! Rather, such barriers are systematically related to one another in a way that one can be restricted even if one tries one's hardest. ‘In order to understand injustice in regard, for example, to race, gender, sexuality or ability,' says Marilyn Frye, ‘one needs to be able to see the birdcage.'


Professor Applebaum concludes that it is important to understand injustice from a systemic perspective. She points out that philosophical tools do indeed help to make fine distinctions, as for instance, here, between mere suffering and oppression.

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