In 1962, Soviet authorities permitted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to publish his first book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. More than two decades before Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was attempting to loosen the oppressive machinery that had systematically persecuted artists and writers who were not obviously toeing the party line.
Solzhenitsyn's groundbreaking novel told of an ordinary prisoner's single day in one of Stalin's oppressive forced labour camps, a story that grew out of the author's own dehumanizing experience in the Soviet Gulag. Here prisoners worked without pay for meager rations, living under harsh and hazardous conditions with inadequate clothing and shelter. The inmates were sent here for activities that would scarcely be regarded as criminal elsewhere. Ivan was unjustly imprisoned as a spy because the authorities refused to believe he had escaped from a German concentration camp.
The tales of oppression during the last century are countless, with the litany of oppressors familiar to most of us: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Pinochet, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin. Some were motivated by sheer hatred of others—perhaps a visible minority group. Others sought to implement a grand historical vision that would liberate their people—and perhaps all people everywhere—from the oppressions of the past. The sad irony, of course, is that many efforts to end oppression engendered even greater oppression on a larger scale and with more efficient means. During their heyday hundreds of millions lived under genuine oppression at the hands of the followers of totalitarian ideologies.
What is oppression? Thus far I have used this word (or a derivative) nine times, assuming readers know its meaning. According to the OED, to oppress means to "govern tyrannically, keep under by coercion, subject to continual cruelty or injustice." There is general agreement, at least in the English-speaking world, that it is unjust for a government to infringe on such fundamental freedoms as speech, press, assembly, and religion. If Aung San Suu Kyi is kept under house arrest by the Burmese government for expressing opposing political views, we properly conclude that she and her followers are being oppressed. When the former National Party government in South Africa deliberately followed a policy of systematic discrimination against the majority of its citizens, the rest of the world correctly identified this as oppression. And, in the case of the fictional Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, unjust incarceration, coupled with severity of treatment, definitely amounts to oppression.
But what if my church community disapproves of a choice I make? If my chosen course of action was perfectly legal, is my church's expression of disapproval oppressive? Under the reigning liberal worldview, North Americans increasingly tend to assume that the law should prohibit only that which obviously harms another and that individuals must be legally free to do as they please provided no one else is hurt in the process. If government, or any other community, sees fit to depart from this principle for whatever reason, it acts oppressively. If it officially favours some personal choices over others, it is guilty of oppressing those who choose differently. If it favours (heterosexual) marriage over other sexual or nonsexual relationships, it oppresses the unmarried or the polyamorous in so doing. More significantly, if some communities impose standards on their members that go beyond the public law of the state, some will argue that the individuals penalized for breaking these standards are being deprived of their rights and are thus oppressed.
Every so often we hear of a university refusing to approve a Christian student group because the latter requires its members to be believing Christians who support the group's mission. In a misguided effort to encourage inclusivity, such universities—or their student governments—effectively discriminate against overtly confessional groups. Now the U.S. Supreme Court has decided, in the case of the Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, that Hastings School of Law at the University of California may refuse to recognize any student group imposing standards of belief and conduct on its leaders. So who is oppressing whom? Is Hastings, backed by the U.S. judiciary, oppressing the CLS, or is the CLS oppressing aspiring leaders of the group?
In his defence of human rights, Michael Ignatieff, current leader of Canada's federal Liberal Party, goes so far as to argue that rights must always belong to individuals and not to groups. The very language of rights "cannot be translated into a nonindividualistic, communitarian framework. It presumes moral individualism and is nonsensical outside that assumption." Rights have meaning "only if they can be enforced against institutions like the family, the state, and the church." They function furthermore to defend the autonomy of the individual "against the oppression of religion, state, family, and group" (emphasis mine).
Of course, no one denies that members of a group can indeed suffer mistreatment at its hands. Nevertheless, there is more to Ignatieff's approach than meets the eye, as his use of the word oppression already indicates. Individuals must constantly be vigilant against the pretensions of the groups of which they are part, jealously guarding their personal freedom. Yet the word enforced necessarily implies an agent who can protect and advance this freedom over against threatened encroachment—and the only agent with this capacity is the state itself.
McGill University's Douglas Farrow notes the libertarian preference for John Stuart Mill's harm principle: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Of course, no flesh-and-blood society has ever existed for which this harm principle forms the primary (much less the sole) basis for freedom. A mature, differentiated society includes multiple non-state communities, each of which has its own identity and standards for membership. These standards necessarily impose constraints on those subject to them. To belong to an Orthodox Jewish community requires one to follow Torah and, more specifically, centuries of rabbinic interpretation of its precepts. If one violates these, one can expect to face sanctions from the community.
Is there something intrinsically oppressive in communities imposing standards on individual members? Though few would go so far as to assert this overtly, the logic of the harm principle must eventually give a positive answer to this question. If so, the state must intervene to "protect" these individuals from having to submit to standards unrelated to this principle. As Farrow correctly understands, this formulation must cut out "the oppressive middle term between the individual and the state," that is, the nonstate communities that command the loyalties of ordinary persons, thereby narrowing the range of our legitimate obligations to only two: those owed to ourselves as individuals and those owed to the state. Farrow continues: "This begs the question, however, as to what does or does not harm another, and who will decide that." Again, the state must take on this role of liberating the individual from the supposed oppression of those institutions that have come collectively to be called civil society.
Although Mill's writings strongly appeal to libertarians, Farrow perceptively concludes that "Mill's ideas aren't really very libertarian after all." Although liberalism has claimed to expand the sphere of individual competence, it has done so by reducing the multiple communities of which we are part to mere voluntary associations, which, ironically, threatens the wellbeing of the individual herself. If every constraint on the individual is potentially oppressive, and if every community is a voluntary collection of individuals, those communities not obviously contractual in character, such as marriage, family, institutional church, and state, must be viewed with deep suspicion—indeed as downright oppressive. Yet we cannot live without them.
Solzhenitsyn once wrote that "a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either." Indeed, a genuinely human society is characterized by a plurality of social forms and obligations, the most crucial of which cannot be reduced to the individual will. Not only is such a pluriform society necessary for human flourishing, but it is a potent bulwark against genuine oppression by a totalistic individualism backed by a potentially expansive state.