If you are, as I am, bewildered at the sight of biological males competing in female athletic events (e.g., track, wrestling, and weight lifting) or by the sight of wealthy, privileged Yale undergrads screaming at faculty members (for writing a memo asking for toleration of diversity in Halloween costumes), or by the prospect of a leading scholar and physician of gender dysphoria being banned from social media platforms for daring to suggest that minors should be required to wait until age 21 before undergoing permanent sex-reassignment surgery), or by rhetoric that implies that the social and economic conditions of ethnic minorities in the USA is virtually unchanged since the 1860s, there are two words that provide at least a partial explanation: subjectivism and oppression. In Europe, beginning just before the 20th century and intensifying after World War I there was a marked turn among philosophers and scholars and by laity to various forms of subjectivism, the notion that one’s personal experience defines reality. This turn to subjectivism gained influence in the USA beginning in the late 1960s and washed over American universities like a Tsunami in the mid-1980s.
A corollary to the rise and triumph of subjectivism is the Late-Modern turn to therapeutic categories for understanding problem. Pastors begin to sound, in the pulpit and in print, more like therapists than preachers of God’s law and God’s gospel. Civil authorities issue policies not on the basis of what is objectively just (after all, who believes in objective truth or reality any more?) but on the basis of how a word might make someone feel. This is how is has come to be considered a crime in some places to “misgender” someone, i.e., to refer to them according to their biological sex (objective reality) rather than addressing them according to their subjective identity. This is how one is able to ”identify” with a sex or an ethnicity to which one does not actually belong. In the therapeutic paradigm, the most important question is not “is this actually true?” but rather, “How does this make you feel?”
This subjective turn, where one’s feelings and self-identification are treated as though they are objectively true even though everyone knows that they are not, helps to explain how we got to such a place. If you are still struggling to understand the categories, think of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. In that story, all the grown ups knew that the emperor was a fool and going about naked but only the child who still believed in objective reality dared speak up and say what everyone else knew to be true. This is where were are. Many of those who teach in universities and colleges, who write our television and movie scripts, who write policy, who run corporations, in short, those who shape our culture, are determined to convince us that the naked emperor is actually well dressed.
How does subjective turn and the Triumph of the Therapeutic (Philip Reiff) intersect with oppression? That is the question and “intersection” is essential to the answer. Under the new subjectivist therapeutic regime, it matters less whether one is actually being oppressed and much more whether one feels oppressed.
What is oppression? The Oxford Dictionary of English defines it as “prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or exercise of authority.” Under subjectivism, refusing to allow a biological male, who identifies as a female—but who is not actually, biologically female—to compete in female athletics is considered “oppression.” By contrast, before the therapeutic revolution we considered the Nazi occupation of Poland (1938–45) or the Japanese colonization of Korea (1910–45) or the Soviet Occupation of Eastern Europe (1945–91) to be examples of oppression. Islamist tribes murdering Nigerian Christians, something about which one reads little in the mainstream press, qualifies as oppression. The enslaving of Africans in Britain and the US was real oppression. The Jim Crow system that prevailed in the American South for a century after the American Civil War was a form of oppression. In these examples oppression is not defined subjectively. It is objectively true, i.e., it is true regardless of how one feels about it, that Poles were abused and cruelly treated by Nazis. Polish Jews were subject to mass murder. Africans were stolen and transported to America and denied the natural liberties (i.e., the relative absence of external restraints) that the American Declaration of Independence says belong to all humans made in the image of God. They were not free to enjoy life, freedom of movement, association, religion, commerce, expression etc.
Under the intersectional definition of oppression, however, one assesses one’s identifies—not what is objectively true, mind you, but what is subjectively and affectively true; how one identifies one’s self and how one feels (hence affectively)—and counts one’s identities and/or victim statuses the various ways one feels oppressed. Hence the image of the “Oppression Olympics.” The intersectional (subjective) understanding of oppression rewards people for finding (or inventing) identities and ways in which one has been oppressed. The one with the most oppression medals wins.
Contra the subjectivist-therapeutic and/or intersectional model, as we have already noted, there is real oppression in the world. Scripture is quite realistic about its source, its nature, and its affects (how it makes one feel) and effects (its objective consequences). Scripture speaks plainly to Christians about the sin of oppressing others and promises a glorious liberation to those who, in this world, for Christ’s sake, are oppressed and we will consider what Scripture says next time.
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido.