Marilyn Frye got her Ph.D. from Cornell University. As of this writing [April 2005] she is a Professor in, and Associate Chairperson of, the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University.
There are two main points I'd like you to get out of this reading: (1) the "cage" image of oppression; and Frye's discussion of what counts as oppression — and in particular her argument that there are oppressors and that (2) their woes, whatever they may be, do not constitute oppression.
The cage image is important because it gets us out of the sterile "Yes, but" kind of argument, i.e.,
This kind of argument could go on forever, with each point being dismissed with some rejoinder.
What Frye points out is that oppression is a systemic issue. Oppression doesn't come because people face this or that specific barrier; oppression comes because people are in a cage with no escape — something that can only be seen by stepping back and looking at the whole picture — all the multiple barriers together —, not the individual wires of the cage. The wires don't make the cage; their systematic arrangement does.
Note that this does not mean simply that "oppressed people face a lot of obstacles". Yes, they do, but Frye's cage image is meant to communicate that these obstacles are systematically arranged so that no escape is possible (or likely, anyway), not matter how great the effort. True, the simple number of obstacles is a barrier, but let's suppose that an oppressed simply decided that s/he was going to work extra hard to overcome them. S/he might then get hit with the criticism that s/he was "too driven" or "had no sense of humor", etc.
Another implication of this way of thinking is that we need to be concerned with the average treatment of people in a group, not with individual exceptions — what I call the "lottery mentality" that sees the one winner and doesn't see all the losers.
In Frye's discussion of what constitutes oppression — whose pain counts as "oppression" — she is trying to distinguish clearly between the oppressed and the oppressor, not letting her point get clouded by people who claim that oppressors are oppressed as well. "Get a grip," she says in effect to oppressors. "You're oppressing me. Don't confuse the issue!" There is some obvious merit to this way of looking at things.
Notice that her perspective leaves open the question of integration vs. separation. Even if Hegel's slave rebels against his master, it doesn't follow that the slave wants to live with the master, even if the latter reforms.
The difficulty of Frye's position is that it does not help us conceptualize very easily the difficulties that these supposed oppressors experience, so it is hard to see on what grounds the oppressed and the oppressors can talk to each other. Certainly "Quit oppressing me!" is the beginning of a conversation, but it isn't the end. This is particularly true if the "oppressor" is caught within a system where s/he doesn't have any good choices either. It doesn't help to call h/her an oppressor and ignore the general system in which s/he is trapped as well.
This is especially apparent when we see the problem of two oppressed groups at war with each other. For example, the landless movement in Brazil (the MST) started when a group of landless people were thrown out of an Indian area where they were trying to settle. Who is the oppressor here? The landless, who need land? The Indians, who want to preserve their own? In my view, it's less important to assign blame than it is to recognize the system in which both are trapped.
One way of reconciling Frye's perspective and that of other liberation theorists is to think of Frye's perspective as regarding tactics and the other perspective as regarding an overall strategic vision. Overall, we can't afford to dismiss anyone's oppression; each person is important, and each person wants h/her particular difficulties recognized. (For an argument to this effect, see Axel Honneth's 1995 work, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts.) Nevertheless we can still argue that we need to take on the worst oppressions first.
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