Oppression vs Repression: Approaching History Without Bias

Just a quick one today because I wanted to get this idea down on paper. (Or pixels. Eh.)

I was helping someone with some work on the Normans the other day. Medieval history, my specialty, and of course it was to do with castles. I wrote them a few brief notes, and one key phrase in there was: “castles enabled the Normans to systemically repress the Anglo-Saxon population.” Simple enough, not many people would argue with that.

In the final piece, they wrote that they used castles to systemically oppress them. I told them, and they just shrugged, saying: what’s the difference?

(source: wikipedia.org)

It gives me an opportunity to talk about the way academic historians typically approach history, and the difference between objective and subjective writing. So you know I’m gonna jump on it.

Simply put: subjective writing is written with no attempt to remove personal opinion, interpretation or judgement. Objective writing, on the other hand, attempts to remove the personal opinions of the writer as much as possible, presenting facts neutrally and analysing them in a rational way.

What does this have to do with oppression and repression? Let’s have a look at those two words as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary:

Repression: the use of force or violence to control a group of people.

Oppression: a situation in which people are governed in an unfair and cruel way and prevented from having opportunities and freedom.

See the difference? Repression describes an unassailable fact: if something is brought under control by something else, it has been repressed. It is neutral, rational, comes with no implied emotion or judgement.

Oppression, on the other hand, carries with it a handful of emotive assumptions: the unfair and cruel control of others. It doesn’t necessarily describe the use of control, but it implies the wielding of an unequal power balance to wrongly attack someone else.

In an objective historical argument, we pass no judgement on the actions of people in the past unless it’s a specific part of our argument.

In this case, we were trying to determine whether or not castles were the primary tool the Normans used to secure control of England. In answering that question, we have no need to address potential societal problems or other emotive issues: we are assessing the power of the castle as a tool for conquest, so we describe its use to control the population objectively. The implied unfairness created by using the word oppress just adds needless baggage to our argument and gets in the way of our point, so it’s the wrong word to use.

This stuff doesn’t matter in normal conversation, of course. But when writing an academic argument, it’s an important thing to consider: clarity is the most important thing, and using the wrong word can blunt your point.

(No, I was not helping someone write their university history essay. If you do that, bugger off, I hate you.)

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