posttitle = Oppressive cultures: you don’t get to know what you know titleClass =title-long len =58

Oppressive cultures: you don’t get to know what you know

Third in a sequence. Earlier posts:

  1. “I can tell for myself”: how direct knowing is different from knowing because you took someone’s word for it.
  2. How did you forget to tell for yourself?: nobody can take this knowing from you, but they can get you out of touch with it, and here are dozens of examples of ways that happens.

This post continues the “why isn’t everybody already in touch with what they can tell for themselves?” question and highlights how in addition to all of the little moments named in the previous post, many cultures have a more background pressure against knowing what you know.

A lot of contexts require everybody, to greater or lesser degrees, to diminish either our sense of “I can tell for myself” or our honesty—where by honesty I don’t just mean “not lying” but “saying what seems true and most relevant”. In these contexts, if we name what is obvious to us, what happens is some mix of:

  • others ignore or deny it (or its relevance)
  • we get punished (socially or materially)
  • we get removed from the context

Consider the child who highlights hypocrisy in their parents or teachers, or the institutional whistleblower, or the challenge of highlighting the baselessness (let alone falseness) of assertions being made by politicians or religious leaders, or a domineering boss at work (whether the claims are about the work itself or about society). And of course in extremely oppressive regimes, saying the obvious gets people killed. And I don’t want to say these are the same, or equally bad, but they have similarities.

What do we tend to do when we’re in oppressive contexts?

If we can leave to a better alternative, and the stakes are high, we tend to leave. Bessel van der Kolk, who wrote The Body Keeps the Score, has said “healing from trauma amounts to learning that it’s okay to know what you know and feel what you feel.” Part of why a lot of trauma occurs in childhood is that we don’t have the option (psychologically or physically) to leave. If we’re in an environment where we aren’t allowed to know what we know, and we have an option to go to one where we can, this tends to be better for us. It can be scary to leave an unhealthy relationship (even if it’s just warring blindspots, not abuse) but once we take the plunge, things do often lighten up. Part of why people stay stuck though is that there may not be a better option, and even if there is it can be hard to imagine.

If we can leave to a better alternative, and the stakes are low, we might try honesty. It’s like leaving but we get the chance to find out if things can shift first, and even if we later leave (or persist in our honesty until we get removed) then at least those in it will have heard someone say things others are denying. Saying things in ways that will be maximally hearable is a skill, and this is a good opportunity to practice that skill, since sometimes one way of saying something will be rejected but another will produce huge relief for everyone involved. However, there are contexts where no matter how we express it, there is no way for us to succeed at communicating what we’re trying to communicate without that resulting in getting punished or at least kicked out. So, we’d best be as honest as it feels safe to be, then gtfo.

But if, logistically or emotionally, we’re stuck in the context, or if our alternatives are even worse…

…then we must learn to shut up.

And one way to do this is to maintain an inner sense of what we can tell for ourselves, in dissonance with what the world is telling us—lack of honesty. When it’s not safe to be honest, honesty may not be a virtue at the moment.

Another way to do it is compartmentalization, silo’ing off certain knowledge from the rest, to keep it from bursting into awareness at inopportune moments while retaining access to it in other contexts where it’s welcome. There are religious scientists who have an integrated worldview, but others just pull up one set of beliefs at church and another incompatible set in the lab, conveniently glancing over the implied tension when the pastor says something they know isn’t physically possible, or their boss gets them to agree with something that only makes sense in a reductionist materialist universe.

a woman shown in two scenes: a church and a chem lab. Next to the church is the quote: 'In seconds, Jesus turned gallons of water into fine wine. This was one of the first signs of his divine powers.' Next to the chem lab is the quote: '

The other main way is to untether our sense of what’s so from our own sense of “I can tell for myself”, and allow others to overwrite our day-to-day impressions. (As far as I can tell, what we can tell for ourselves doesn’t get lost altogether, but it gets exiled and we don’t know how to find it and often don’t know there’s anything to look for.) My sense is that this one is on a continuum with the compartmentalization one, where it depends on the relative size of the parts and the extent to which certain knowings are available in some contexts vs never. And someone who is compartmentalized is necessarily disconnecting from any part of them that knows about the incompatibility of worldviews.

What affects which approach we end up taking to shutting up when what we know isn’t welcome?

When the choice of how to shut up is conscious (which I think is uncommon, because most people get hooked into automatic responses here) I think we tend to choose to try to keep in touch with our knowing and drop our honesty, but people generally tend to end up in the untethered state sooner or later because the dull stupor of unconscious conformity is more stable as an attractor than a conscious strain against the desire for what’s obvious to be said. Those attempting to be in touch with what they know will be tempted towards honesty, and will thus need to self-restrain or be restrained by the environment. I could be off here, but that’s my impression. As a teenager, even as I railed against certain injustices and absurdities in school and in the world, I was still completely going along with many others.

I’m attempting to talk about system dynamics that have some commonalities but such a wide range of applicability that it’s a little difficult to speak about them all at once. Obviously the situation is different for the class clown, who can inhabit some moderate level of disruption for a long time, than for a political dissident who might disappear in the middle of the night for just failing to salute quickly enough or expressing a tiny doubt to a comrade. And it makes a difference if someone can complain to their spouse about their dysfunctional work environment, even if at the workplace they have to pretend to like it. 

(On which note, if you’re reading this and you feel like you’re stuck in an acutely oppressive context with no way out… first, that sucks. I’m sorry. Second, given that you’re reading this, you apparently have fairly free internet access, so have you considered anonymously making friends with some people online with whom you can speak your mind? That will probably be clarifying in its own right, and then they might also be able to help you figure out how to improve your situation overall! I also recommend lots of journalling, to strengthen your own perceptions of what you’re seeing even if nobody around you would allow those thoughts to stand. Even if part of what you’re seeing is making it hard for you to see other things, it still can be a helpful step to see those parts more clearly.)

Oppressive cultures kinda suck for everyone

It’s easy to miss something important about this situation: while the people in power have more power, perhaps more material or social luxury as a result of what can and can’t be said, and (tentatively, for now) more security in this situation, they too are subject to the overwhelming need to avoid pointing out certain obvious things (otherwise they’d get fired or deposed or shamed or whatever, or they would undermine the structure that allows them to maintain power and safety). Thus they are also subject to the strain of dishonesty unless they allow their sense of “I can tell for myself” to be dominated by the context and whatever it says is and is not the case. The feeling of knowing that what we’re saying is bullshit and lies… sucks. The Emperor who had no clothes did his best to convince himself, not just the people, that he was indeed wearing special fabric visible only to those worthy.

Everyone doesn’t get to know what they know, unless they’re willing to constantly lie (such as some psychopaths or sociopaths might be) and even in that case they still don’t get to know the unsayable together with others, which means it’s hard to actually get clarity on what they’re knowing and seeing. Certain things can be named behind closed doors among those at the top, but surely not everything—eg not many fears or doubts. In this way, oppressive contexts oppress the oppressors as well—some voices in feminism emphasize that men also suffer under patriarchal systems, and this is part of what they’re pointing at.

There’s elements of this oppressive vibe even in current societies that are relatively liberal (“liberal” in the precise sense of the term, that does not mean “progressive” or “radical” but refers to pluralistic tolerance and the willingness to allow contrary views to coexist). This is in part due to grappling with the paradox of tolerance, and in part because we still really haven’t figured out how to have entirely non-oppressive cultures at scale. So large-scale societies tolerate people speaking to what they can tell for themselves somewhat, but not fully.

Partial tolerance in liberal contexts

We mostly tolerate people saying weird stuff in public (even if it gets ignored or laughed at). But the way that certain obvious comments are decried (or censored) as misinformation is an example of this kind of dynamic happening at scale. Did the virus come from the Wuhan lab? I have no idea, but it seems obviously worth considering, and any attempt to claim that it’s not even a worthy hypothesis… we can tell for ourselves that that is bullshit, unless we’ve been coopted by some ideology, whether scientism (“don’t question the scientists”) or wokism (“don’t say anything that could sound racist”) or some vaguer “don’t question the authorities” ideology. We can tell likewise tell that “there is no evidence” is evidence of bullshit.

We mostly tolerate people saying weird stuff in private. Where things are very politicized, people may be worried (realistically or not) about getting cancelled, fired, or outcast from their family or community, for saying what seems unquestionably obvious to them—things they can tell for themselves. But they don’t get purged from society as a whole, so we can point out that that’s a function of the oppressiveness of the smaller context, not society.

We mostly tolerate people going and doing their own thing and not participating in whatever the main norms are, as long as they don’t bother people. If they try to share their theories, they may be dismissed for not having the right credentials, but again, that’s not an issue with society at large but with the subset of society that cares about those credentials. These days, it’s not that hard to establish yourself as having perspectives worth listening to (if you do) by making a blog or substack. At a societal scale, this has gotten much better over the past decades. But in some ways academia has gotten worse, with even tenured professors losing their jobs for saying the obvious when that’s seen as unsayable by some worldview with the power to pressure the administration.

We mostly tolerate people creating pockets of other cultures, among family or friends or companies or spiritual centers, where much more honesty and grounded knowing is encouraged. There is some suspicion towards these, in part because when they fail they sometimes end up having weird shit happen because they questioned all the norms, in part because when they succeed they end up having the confidence that they can tell the emperor has no clothes, and in part because even if things are working fairly well and they’re not causing big problems, some of them end up with moderate dysfunctional guru dynamics anyway.

…which I’ll cover extensively in future posts in this sequence.

But first, some foundational stuff: The primacy of knowing-for-oneself

By the way! I’m running some online workshops for the New Year, on how to orient to what’s most meaningful in your life. It’s a 5h session where you can choose your own adventure and get live support from me and other coaches if/when you get stuck. Formerly called the Goal-Crafting Intensive, currently called the Beyond Goals Intensive while we overhaul the content to be more in line with what we’ve learned over the last few years. Learn more about the evolution and sign up here. I’m happy to talk about this “I can tell for myself” stuff there, and help you notice areas of your life where you might not be listening to yourself. But that’s just one option—we’ll focus on whatever feels most alive for you!

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.

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