I’ve heard many accounts of why groups of people will dwell on past incidents where they were oppressed, victimized, or made to lose, and generally the explanation is that it’s a sort of propaganda technique.  When people feel that they are in danger, or are being pushed down the status ladder, they push back.  If you want to motivate people to exert their strength, you need to create the perception that their strength needs to be exerted or else… something will occur.

What I realized, thinking about this a few days ago, is that if you look at people who are truly being kept down and oppressed, the rhetoric involved is truly different.  There’s a certain degree of overlap, of course.  But the emphasis on making people feel uplifted, courageous, and effective is much greater.  Rather than dwelling on fears of powerlessness, people seek to instill feelings of power in themselves and their listeners.

When people are outnumbered, when the odds are against them, they seek hope and affirmations of their power.  It’s only when people have power but aren’t motivated to use it does the rhetoric shift to emphasizing powerlessness – to create anxiety, and to convince people that they need to fight to maintain advantage.

“Remember the Alamo” isn’t a bad example.  Fighting forces which truly lacked the advantage (or at least perceived themselves to have lacked it) wouldn’t choose a defeat as a rallying cry.  They’d try to accentuate the positive.  Only a force which is secure in its power needs to be made less so, to induce people to fight harder with the advantages and resources they actually have.

This came up as I mentally reviewed some of the abolutionist / suffragist speeches I had once read, and realized how relatively little talk there was about how they were victimized.  Certainly it was a major thread – but it wasn’t exaggerated or as emphasized as political narratives so often are in the modern era.  I also considered some of China’s internal propaganda and its government’s tendency to bring up memories of past oppressions only when that nation is rapidly rising in power.

Powerless people need to be convinced of their power.  Powerful people need to be convinced not to be complacent.

I think this principle sheds a great deal of light on the political narratives of oppression I encounter regularly.

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