What is oppression? Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary defines oppression as, “An unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power “and/or” a sense of being weighted down in body or mind.” Strong vs. weak, being free vs. being property (slave), and/or white vs. black are just a snippet on the much longer strand of oppression that covers and, at times, silences the world. Both societies and cultures throughout the world are often segregated into groups based on the perceived characteristics of the stronger groups in power. Wiley notes that, “The politics of identity is the struggle over the qualities attributed, socially and institutionally, to individuals and groupings of individuals. Some may argue that these qualities are the essence of human nature, at least for the groupings to whom they are assigned” (1994:131). At times, society as a whole can be viewed as an inhumane battleground due to the fact that binary groups are often pitted against one another and forced to fight like two pitbulls contained in a wooden cage. Life is often presented as an ongoing struggle between the haves and the have-nots. History has shown that at the end of the fight, the big dog (strong-we) will always overpower and silence the small dog (weak-we). As Lemert asserts, “This is self-evident. As a result, in the United States the strong-we claim to universality rested on the weak foundational necessity that the “other slaves,” the darker ones, not ever be able to assert their own “we” position”(1994:107). History shapes how opponents on each end of the spectrum internalize their individual self-worth in terms of “Self” and “identity”. Those who have/had privilege, which are referred to as the strong-we, are encompassed with the “Self” thought/concept, yet their opposition, the weak-we, are enriched with the “identity” thought/concept. To truly enjoy the perks and benefits that are associated with the “Self” concept, one’s history and physical traits must resemble and encompass the beliefs, values, and status symbol of those in the privileged class.
“Members of the first group, being usually light in their experiences, are dark in their broodings over the fate of Self; while members of the second group, being dark in their experience, treat the Self lightly because they consider Self unsafe or uncertain (or both), somehow. The concepts “Self” and “identity’ have less in common than is normally assumed because they belong to two different series of historical events”(Lemert 1994:102-103).
For those who view themselves as having an identity, history is a must inside of their identity. A strong-we believes that history should be forgotten so that we, as a society, can move on. However, for the weak-we, history is knowledge and knowledge is power. If history can stand the test of time, what’s done in the dark always comes to the light. Because of that, opposition and oppression are no longer just observable to those who are around to view/experience them first hand.
In popular culture, the forces of the strong-we versus the weak-we and/or “Self” versus identity are often played out on the movie screen. For example, in 2011 the film, In Time, which stars Justin Timberlake, exhibits the classic example of the strong-we silencing and oppressing the weak-we while at the same time falling to recognize that weak-we individuals were “human” beings at all. In the movie, all humans have been genetically modified by the wealthy timekeepers so that they can run a “just” society. No one physically ages over 25 years of age. From the strong-we’s point of view, they’ve done their subordinates justice because they’ve placed all humans on an even playing field. According to Lemert, when it comes to the views of the strong-we, they “Assume “Self” and “identity” are at least good enough identical that their difference, if any, may be ignored” (1994:103). A strong-we believes that history has no bearing on a situation because at the end of the day, everyone in society is a human being. There is a thin line that separates remembering and acknowledging one’s history, but if the two cards are played right, erasing and forgetting one’s history becomes the win-win in the end for the strong-we individual. “Can individual human persons identify with Humanity itself without a too severe loss of historical coherence? A strong-we thinks, yes; a weak-we, no. Whichever choice is made, an entirely different history is told- one with a Self: one without” (Lemert 1994:106). The strong wouldn’t stay strong if they allowed everyone to be truly equal, so what did they do? They implemented the currency of time. They hardwired the human DNA to be built with an internal working clock. Your arm held your official time which was given in centuries, years, minutes, and seconds. Your clock didn’t start running until you turned 25. Once you turned 25, you had one year on your clock down to the second and once your time was up, you died. If you were lucky enough to get a job for the day, then you could earn some extra time on your clock (5 hours, 12 hours, a couple of days, and up to 1 week). Everything was bought and sold via the time on your arm. However, the rates changed daily depending on how giving the powerful felt that day. For example, in the movie, Justin Timberlake’s mother had 1 hour and 37 minutes on her clock. Her bus ride earlier that day cost 1 hour of time, but since then, the price had risen to 2 hours per ride. She begged and pleaded with the bus driver to let her on and her son would be there to pay for her when they made it to the stop. He didn’t care! She asked her fellow passengers, but no one would give her any time because it was so valuable and people couldn’t afford to share. For the strong-we group, this placed them into the ultimate power position because they not only controlled, but also owned, all the time and the overall society. Like barriers around a house or a country, the wealthy-we’s (strong) keep the poor-we’s (weak) out with a series of zone checks (financial roadblocks) and the policing “time watchers”. Time watchers make sure that order is upheld by keeping the binary groups, the haves and the have-nots, isolated and segregated from one another. “Whatever’s one’s own we, one is either in and of it, or not. There is a forbidden territory between any particular weak-we and the strong-we” (Lemert 1994:121).
Due to a history of oppression, segregation, and, at times, discrimination, a weak-we individual would unlikely take the position of a strong-we individual because in order to do so that individual would have to erase a part of their own identity. On the other hand, there are often strong-we individuals that are privileged yet they’ve either failed to accept or recognize that they were privileged. If that type of strong-we individual began to recognize that they were privileged and they tried to take the stance of a weak-we’d individual, their “Self” status would be downgraded, from the stand point of the strong-we, to that of an “identity” status. As Lemert notes, “The weak-we position is not universally available. Were the position a matter of definition, one might say this is so by definition. Still, however much a native strong-we might wish to identify with a weak we position, he would find himself not only out of Taylor’s moral limits of undamaged human personhood, but quite literally in the dark” (1994:121). This is exactly what happened in the movie- Mr. Weiss, a wealthy man, who had 116 centuries, 39 years, 4 days, 26 minutes, and 9 seconds on his clock, had grown fed up with this never ending life sentence during his 110 years of life. Being that he was of privilege and wealth, he knew how the system worked and, more importantly, that the wealthy timekeepers had enough time for the whole world and no one had to die, but it would ultimately lower the control and status that the strong had over the weak. When it comes to granting rights to the oppressed class in society, Lemert asserts that when, “The Americans gave all weak-we groups in the U.S. their moral independence. Thereafter, the respective strong-we positions were crippled. Having granted civil or state status to others, strong-we cultures legitimized weak-we identities” (1994:108). The man broke all the rules and he educated Justin about the time zones, how the value of time increased as you would leave the poor zones (inflation and deflation as a form of suppression), and ultimately that no one had to die. While Justin was sleeping, with only 15 minutes left on his clock, the man gave him all of his time. The man decided to “time-out” so that this young man, whose mother had also timed-out, could change the world. This is the perfect example of a strong-we person coming down to the level of a weak-we person. The poor didn’t have cars, they barely had food, and they were isolated by 15 zones. This type of structure, with the added help of the time watchers, kept the unjust society in order. It cost Justin a little more than 5 years to make it to zone 15 where the rich people resided. This high cost alone ensured that the strong would never be infected by the likes of the others. From a strong-we’s standpoint, we are not like them and they are not like us. Because of this, Wiley notes that, “If the structure and identity are not kept separate, it is easy enough to smuggle traits of the dominating elites into the (alleged) nature of the self” (1994:145). In order for power and prestige to remain with the dominant class, there must be lines drawn to keep the dominant in and the subordinate out and oppressed.
Things inside the affluent zone were super expensive, but because no one on the privileged side ever ran out of time, the rich got richer while the poor just died. On that side of town, no one wore the same clothes for too long, cars cost 50 years plus, and to gamble at the casino with the high rollers would set you back 100 years per hand. Mr. Weiss, the man who controlled all the time in those 15 zones, believed that the poor were savage brutes, who needed to be continuously monitored, because they were a waste to the good of the common society. Mr. Weiss, like most strong-we individuals, based his claims on half-truths while forgetting that he placed those people into that unfair and unjust environment. As Lemert concludes, “No proponent of the strong-we position can admit the legitimate claims of those in the weak-we position, whatever he may see or believe. Such an admission destroys the moral claims whereby a local culture presents itself as though it were universal” (1994:116). Mr. Weiss’s daughter, Sylvia, was obsessed with every aspect of the poor from how they lived, how they acted, how they talked, and even what they ate. She believed like many strong-we individuals that the poor were in their situation because it was their fault and all they had to do was stop being criminals and try harder. That was a fine way for her to think while she was privileged with an abundant supply of time, but when she was robbed/stripped of her time and forced to become one of the outcasts, her views about her old utopian society quickly dwindled away. In the end, she became the ultimate poster child for the have-nots due to the fact that she finally recognized that her and all of those in zone 15 were the privileged. This sparked a revolution which lead her not only help the have-not’s but to become a have-not in the process. The oppressed in the movie, like those throughout history, were silenced, forced to believe that that was no other way, and their overall freedom was lost. “To be free is not simply to be left alone by others; it is also somehow to be your own person in the sense that you have defined who you are, decided for yourself what you want out of life, free as much as possible from the demands of conformity to family, friends, or community” (Bellah et al. 2001:307).
Oppression, segregation, and/or discrimination are the dark aspects of society which are deeply rooted in the identities of the underprivileged weak-we. Like many scholars, Wiley notes that identities are social constructs because “Identities individuate and allow us to recognize individuals, categories, group, and types of individuals. They can be imposed from without, by social process, or from within” (1994:130). When identities are imposed by a social process, the outcome produces two separate and unequal groups. The stronger of the two groups, the strong-we, have privilege and “Self”. The weaker of the two groups, the weak-we, not only face oppression and opposition from the dominant group, but they are also forced to forgo and forget any past historical events just to have an “identity” and be accepted in a somewhat unjust society. Life itself is hard enough, but once those who have privilege an a strong sense of “Self” try to oppress those who have a strong historical background with their identity, we as humans demoralize ourselves which lowers our own self-worth all because we failed to see the identities of others. As Lemert asserts, “The strong-we position, its inherent instability notwithstanding, is founded on a code of silence about the impossibility that any one self could be universal. The code entails a double prohibition: first, against recognition of ones own complexity and, second, against the public legitimacy of any weak-we identity” (1994:115). From the stand point of the strong-we, the claims that are made by the weak-we identity are not legitimate because the strong-we fails to see how complex they are because they’ve always had privilege. For the strong-we, the shoe has never been on the other foot.