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Gender & Diversity

Master Suppression Techniques

Master suppression techniques (also known as domination techniques) are conscious and unconscious strategies used to assume power over others. The concept of master suppression techniques originated with a social analysis based on theories of gender and power. It asserts that women and men are valued differently and that men, as a group, generally have a higher status and more power economically, politically and socially than women do as a group. In other words, the analysis suggests the existence of social superiority and subordination.

There are seven suppression techniques:

  1. Making invisible
  2. Ridicule
  3. Withholding information
  4. Double binding
  5. Heaping blame and putting to shame
  6. Objectifying
  7. Force and threats of force.

Norwegian professor and politician Berit Ås defined these master suppression techniques. They were originally formulated based on studies of how female politicians were treated in an environment dominated by male norms.

Those who use master suppression techniques exploit an advantage or position of power they hold to either put or keep other people at a disadvantage. Master suppression techniques are often used in connection with insults or harassment related to gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability.

Master suppression techniques can be used man-against-woman, man-against-man, woman-against-woman and woman-against-man. They restrict victims’ ability to influence their situations and limit their options for action. Feelings of being stupid, being invisible, not being allowed to think whatever you like, not being able to express yourself or choose how you will look, and not being allowed to believe in your own abilities make it difficult for victims to defend themselves. If we are aware of such techniques, there is a greater chance that we will recognise them, react to and deal with them effectively at their source.

Berit Ås calls the first five techniques the “civilised” master suppression techniques. They occur within interaction between people, face to face, and are a subtle form of everyday oppression. Recognising and understanding the civilised master suppression techniques allows a person to understand the remaining two techniques also. Ås calls these last two the “strong” suppression techniques.

MASTER SUPPRESSION TECHNIQUES – Explanations and Examples

1. Making invisible means to marginalise or exclude a person. For instance, ignoring a person’s point of view and then agreeing when someone else says the same thing. Or that when a person speaks, others start to whisper to their neighbours, browse through papers, go to the toilet, or turn their attention to their mobile phones. Body language can indicate that the person speaking is considered “insignificant”. Not only an individual’s, but an entire group’s interests or experiences can be effectively rendered “invisible”.

2. Ridicule means to mock and make fun of a person (or persons). For example, to comment, laugh, sigh, or mimic someone and to make jokes at their expense. Making a person feel absurd, pathetic, ignorant or incompetent. Snorting softly or rolling the eyes are forms of ridicule that are barely noticeable to others, but that are clear to the person at whom they are directed. A whole group can be ridiculed by means of disparaging words and expressions. The person exposed to ridicule is expected to put on a happy face and join in the laughter and jesting. Otherwise, they risk being perceived as surly, bitter and humourless.

3. Withholding information is a way of making a person feel left out. Withholding information means that victims will struggle to orient themselves and to keep abreast of things, and the risk is then great that they will make a fool of themselves or make a mistake. Withholding information can happen when the group makes important decisions or plans in places or at times when not all are present. The purpose is to assume power over others by engineering a lack of knowledge on their part. It can happen between individuals in everyday life, but also in books and in the media when different people’s or groups’ experience and areas of knowledge are not paid equal attention.

4. Double binding involves punishing someone regardless of the way they act. For example, a person’s involvement leads to comments about their being too dominant, while being reserved invites comments to the effect that the person is passive and irresponsible. “No matter what I do, it’s always wrong,” is a common sentiment among those who are double-bound. (Conversely, holding a superior position may entail being doubly rewarded instead, because superordinate individuals and groups tend to be thought of as “doing right” no matter what they do.)

5. Heaping blame and putting to shame involve making someone feel that they are to blame or embarrassing them. This technique may be the result of having been exposed to the earlier suppression techniques identified in the list. A person may experience a sense of guilt and shame without really understanding its cause. The feeling is linked to status hierarchies and to occupying a lower place in the hierarchy than others. Heaping blame and putting to shame may also be associated with things like not being seen as sufficiently feminine or masculine according to prevailing norms. Women and girls who are victims of rape or assault are often subjected to blame and shame through a focus on their choice of clothing, previous sexual activity and degree of intoxication.

6. Objectifying means to assess and appraise someone based solely on their appearance and exterior. Objectifying is a device of the viewer, the one who observes and assesses. A person who is objectified is appraised as someone who is to be looked at, first and foremost. (Compare this with a subject, that is, a person who is accorded prominence because they have their own thoughts, feelings and pursuits, and in respect of whom appearance is of secondary importance.) It is still more common for women and the female body to be objectified, although the objectification of men and the male body is becoming increasingly apparent.

7. Force and threats of forceare more often linked to sexual violence for women and girls, while for men and boys they are more often linked to man-on-man violence that is intended to perpetuate a status hierarchy. The fear of being raped or subjected to other violence is prevalent among women. Many girls and women live daily with the fear of violence. This can manifest itself in considerations like which route to take if it is dark, places where a person can pass without fear of being exposed to comments or insults, how to dress, appearance, etc. For many women, the home is the most dangerous place. Threats of force can also include comments, either verbal or digital, about body and appearance that are linked to supposed sexual activity (“whore”, “bitch”, “slut”, “queer”, “queen”, etc.).