Should Oppressed People Know Better?
December 3rd, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

For many years, I’ve labored under the illusion that oppressed people should be wiser, kinder, more just, and more empathetic than anyone else. As a Jew, I was taught early on that we have to fight for justice because we have known persecution. This teaching goes back thousands of years and finds its expression in the dictum in Torah that “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). I try to live by this dictum. It drives my work in a multitude of ways.

So the belief that Jews should “know better” than to engage in bigotry and ignore systemic injustice has been axiomatic for much of my life. Out of this belief, I’ve extended this ethical demand to all other oppressed groups: people of color should “know better” than to be homophobic; queer people should “know better” than to be ableist; disabled people should “know better” than to be racist.

Lately, though, I’ve begun to shift my perspective. This shift began during a discussion about the persecution of Africans in Israel. As happens so often, a discussion of Israeli government violence turned into an indictment of all Jews, with all kinds of anti-Semitic canards getting thrown around: Jews own the media, Jews haven’t learned from history, Jews think they’re better than everyone else, there is good reason that people are anti-Semitic because Jews fit the stereotypes, and on and on. The anti-Semitism was like several punches in the gut and brought up tremendous wells of pain and fear, but it was the repeated demand that we Jews “should know better” that I found impossible to answer.

I didn’t know what to say. In fact, I felt as though I really weren’t permitted to say anything at all — as though I had just been placed outside the conversation altogether. And I felt shame — despite the fact that I don’t live in Israel, have never visited Israel, have nothing to do with Israeli policy, and feel appalled by much of what goes on there.

I realized, for the first time, that it is extremely shaming to say to persecuted people “you should know better” – as though people in an oppressed group aren’t capable of all the same ignorance and bigotry and violence as non-oppressed people, and as though they have to be held to a higher standard. I’m becoming less and less enamored of the idea that it takes oppression to create empathy and a passion for justice. Given that dehumanization is at the core of all oppression, it makes no sense to me that oppression would automatically create greater empathy or a greater commitment to justice in anyone. After 2000 years of dehumanization, persecution, and near-genocide, are we Jews really supposed to be kinder and gentler than anyone else? After hundreds of years of systemic and violent racism, are people of color really supposed to be kinder and gentler than anyone else? After centuries of violence, segregation, and humiliation, are disabled people really supposed to be kinder and gentler than anyone else?

That’s not how human beings operate and yes, oppressed people are mere mortals, like everyone else. Pain is not a gentle teacher and nobility does not automatically emerge from suffering.

There is something about the “you should know better” standard that feels curiously oppressive. It’s as though non-oppressed people get a pass, because they haven’t learned what suffering is, but oppressed people are supposed to be nobler and better, because they have. This perspective ignores two basic truths about human life: a) all people suffer and b) it doesn’t take suffering to know that you shouldn’t spill blood or treat another human being unjustly.

What does it to take to do love and justice? It takes being in touch with one’s humanity. It’s a choice to do love and justice. Yes, we should use our suffering and put it in the service of humanity, but that is a choice open to all people equally. It is not simply the province of people who have suffered more than others. Telling dehumanized people that they should be more human than other human beings is simply unjust. It’s creating a standard that other people apparently don’t have to meet. And it ignores all of the pain and terror and anger and despair that drive the injustices we perpetrate on one another.

So to anyone to whom I have said, “But you should know better!” I deeply apologize. It is shaming. It is othering. It is giving power to a double standard that creates division. I am dismantling that standard in my own life and I will speak to it when I see it. More division is not what we need. Healing these divisions cannot happen when we continue to reinforce them. I will strive to do better.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

3 Responses  
  • Michael Forbes Wilcox writes:
    July 17th, 202410:06 amat

    Rachel, thanks for your thoughts on this. I agree with what you say. There is nothing inherent in being persecuted that should lead people to be “better” than others.

    Yet, there is no denying (at least in my mind) that people who have been persecuted seem to have a greater capacity for empathy for others who are mistreated.

    I am a child of the 60′s and I was there when the Civil Rights Movement flowered (so to speak). I was involved, as were many of my friends. I didn’t know about my autism then, but I knew I was different in some way. So were many of my allies. Different in some way. Some were black, many were Jewish, some were just odd, like me.

    I think that when you have been a victim of prejudice it is easier to relate to others who are, and to join cause with them, because it seems like the same fight.

    That is not to say that we hold ourselves to a higher standard; only that we are, in some sense, fighting for ourselves as well.

    So no one (including ourselves) should hold us to a higher standard, but if we choose to join forces with natural allies, that is more than understandable.

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt writes:
    July 17th, 202410:06 amat

    It takes energy to be empathetic – and I, for one, have far less energy than ‘normal’ or ‘well’ people.

    Why should I be better than people who are healthy?

    I try – for my own reasons and because of my own values – but I resent it because it costs me so much more.

    I can’t believe that young black males in the ghetto are being made more empathetic by their treatment in society – it makes no sense.

    So I agree with you. We all need to work on our empathy, but oppressed people can’t necessarily afford to. And it costs them a lot more.

  • Jessica Burde writes:
    July 17th, 202410:06 amat

    Among people I know there is definitely a correlation between experience and understanding. That is, people who have been systematically oppressed are more likely to understand that oppression is actually a thing that happens. I think that understanding is a key factor in developing the kind of empathy you are talking about here, because it’s damn hard to feel for suffering that you don’t know is happening.

    But knowing that the oppression I suffer from is real is not the same thing as knowing that the oppression other people suffer from is real. And there are more ways to learn that oppression is a real thing than just experience.

    I do think that someone who suffers under some form of oppression and recognizes it is more likely to be empathatic to others than someone who believes the world is generally fair and there are no structural oppressions left (yes there are such people–God help me but my daughter had one as a teacher last year). But that says nothing about people who suffer oppression being better or nobler, and everything about the people who think there is no oppression being oblivious to what is going on in the world around them.

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