Norman Phelps

The Phenomenon of ‘Sub-Oppressors’: Resolving Conflicts of Interest Between Oppressed Groups Within the Framework of a Liberatory Politics

By, Norman Phelps


If it is to be relevant to the real world, a liberatory politics must include an adequate treatment of a phenomenon that Paolo Freire identified as among the most intractable facing activists: the oppressed often become “sub-oppressors” because they have been taught by society that being an oppressor is the only path to self-respect and a fulfilling life. Freire’s observation is particularly important for persons with disabilities and nonhuman persons, as three examples will illustrate: 1) Workers in industrial chicken farms and slaughterhouses are among the most exploited in the United States. 2) Many advocacy and support groups for persons with specific medical conditions sponsor or advocate research using nonhuman people. 3) Many supporters of the Tea Party and other reactionary movements live in the poorest sections of the country and are themselves in a condition of precarity, and often actual poverty. And yet, they support politicians who advocate the dismantling of Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs designed to better the lives of the poor and the elderly—two groups whose members are more likely than the general population to live with disabilities.

A politics of liberation should approach sub-oppression and the conflicts it engenders in accordance with three principles: 1) It must promote a holistic sense of community, subordinating identity-group loyalty to loyalty to the community of sentient beings—although campaigns against specific forms of oppression and exploitation should still be pursued for strategic reasons. 2) In a conflict of interest between members of two oppressed groups, every effort must be made to protect the interests of both groups.   To the extent that this may prove unattainable, priority should first be accorded to the group that is more severely oppressed, and second to the group that has less power. 3) As an overarching principle, moral consideration should flow from the bottom up, which is to say that the liberatory enterprise should begin with the most distressed and most disempowered and work its way up the social and economic ladder.


Norman Phelps has been an animal rights activist for nearly thirty years. He is the author of The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible, The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights, The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA, and Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation Is So Hard and How We Can Win It (due out in April, 2013), all published by Lantern Books. He has contributed articles to The Journal of Critical Animal Studies, and a chapter to the book Earth, Animal and Disability Liberation. He is a frequent speaker at animal rights conferences, including the annual ICAS conference, the Farm Animal Rights Movement’s annual conferences, and Their Lives, Our Voices.


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