Complicity in Oppression

While George Orwell served in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma during British rule, he gained a firsthand understanding of the cooperation between the oppressors and the oppressed that is required for oppression to succeed. In his short story The Hanging, Orwell shows how contrary it is to human nature to break out from the expectations imposed because of ones position in the power hierarchy and affect change.

In this story about the execution of a Burmese man, something dreadful happened — more dreadful than the hanging itself. “…dog, came bounding among us with a loud volley of barks, and leapt round us wagging its whole body, wild with glee at finding so many human beings together”. The dog did not understand that these people were not really together. At least not equally together, but stratified by ethnicity that is power — the British superintendent, the Indians who do the work of the jail, the Burmese prisoners. The dreadful thing was that the dog viewed them as equally human.

The narrator, while keeping the dog under control by leashing him with his handkerchief, experienced this same dreadfulness as he began to see the people through the dog’s eyes. As the group continued to walk to the gallows he became more and more aware that the prisoner was a live human being. That they all — superintendents, jailers, observers, prisoners — were live human beings who “understand the same world”. Yet, he was not comfortable with this glimpse of their shared humanity for very long and joined the others in their thoughts of  “oh, kill him quickly, get it over…”, emotionally distancing himself from doomed man, rather than connecting to him in his plight.

It isn’t until the deed was done that the dog was let go to discover what had occurred.  His first reaction was fear as he “retreated to the corner of the yard…looking timorously out at us”. In his retreat, the dog became ‘conscious of having misbehaved himself’. Misbehaved how? By his playfulness at such a somber occasion? Apparently not, as demonstrated by the laughter shared by everybody in the power hierarchy as they continued on with their daily routines. Seeing people through the narrator’s eyes, the dog corrected his behavior and slipped away with the wardens — joining in the complicity with the oppressors and the oppressed.

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One Response to Complicity in Oppression

  1. RIVER TALK says:

    I am reminded of Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”. The power hierarchy seeks exclusion over inclusion. Its power thrives because of the distinction between “us” and “them”. This twisted dynamic plays out in every season of Survivor. Do we watch because we like to see those in power sometimes get kicked off or because we like to see them wield that power to eliminate others? Leaders control their tribes through lies, strategy, tricks, and pitting one against the other. And, they can’t even claim a greater common good, they do it for cash. To affect change, all we have to do is not watch. Doesn’t seem like humanity has come very far in 60 years, Survivor starts season 26 next month.

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