As the mass of writing on privilege and systemic oppression expands faster than the known universe, it is becoming difficult to have any idea of which arguments have already been beaten to death. In particular, I could not figure out whether anyone already pointed out what, in my mind, is a fairly straightforward callback to classical rhetorics, so I guess I might as well jump on the bandwagon.

Let's start with a short walk down the taxonomic tree of communicative tools. Rhetorics famously comes in three branches, genres or flavors. Two of them are about the internal states that the speaker can induce in the listener: first is Logos, the cognitive work of argumentation itself, and second Pathos, the appeal to emotion, the evocation of affective and symbolic thought.

The third and juicy one is Ethos, which is not about the listener, but about the image that the speaker projects of themselves and of their relationship to the listener. Its most universal dimensions are closeness and dominance; they are universal enough that ethologists can easily recognize them in non-humans.

Dominance is obviously the one of relevance here. During a dialogue, each side can claim one of three positions: dominated, equal, dominant. Social norms and clich├ęs tend to define where each side starts on that scale when they have no prior history of interacting. But a dialogue, whether between people or groups, is always a negotiation of that relationship. During that negotiation, one can bring to bear some external resources - including material power, e.g. wealth or force - but the battlefield is very much in the mind.

Interestingly, each of the three positions comes with its own set of rhetorical tools, both cooperative and aggressive:
- The dominant position can use authority to persuade, impose or simply shut out someone out of the dialogue.
- The equal position allows to claim a symmetrical "peer" relationship: for instance, suggesting that both sides in the dialogue should stand together, or oppose each other respectfully.
- And the dominated position comes with the tools of sympathy and radical critique: asking for special care, or acting beyond and against norms.


Caricature is a radical tool, and accepted as such. Mocking the elites is a right - some would say a duty. Mocking one's equals is playful or petty, depending on intimacy. Mocking inferiors is, at best, tasteless if public (yet enjoyable, and hence traditionally done behind closed doors).

Caricature is a weapon against the powerful, but it also signals that the mocker is not their target's equal. It is a claim for the *dominated* position. In that sense, it reinforces the power relationship: it might help strike within the dominant group (e.g. to replace a disliked political candidate by a preferred one), but it will not change the respective standing of the dominant and dominated.

This is why some groups that are effectively in a dominated position, from a material and social standpoint, may refuse to be considered as such. That is typically a claim for equal ethos. The economically liberal poor seem to be working against their own interests, by rejecting policies that would help them but, doing so, would signal that they need the help. Most rejection of care, attention and especially charity is this sort of ethos play, known to every teenager.

The tactics can go the other way: it is possible to claim a dominated image so as to be allowed to criticize in ways that would be unacceptable from one's peer or superior.

Since caricature does not signal equal ethos, it is a terrible tool when trying to equalize a power imbalance. Most of the apparatus of dominated ethos, such as victimization, has the same problem. It is available only for as long as one can claim to be dominated, but it is also a powerful method for obtaining temporary benefits, and hence it can provide an incentive to work against equalization. This is especially seen in very asymmetrical conflict, e.g. terrorism. More comical examples include both sides of a debate trying to out-victimize the other by claiming to be the most oppressed right now.


Caricature is also a good demonstration of how ethos tactics can prove extremely dangerous when there are multiple power differentials at play, and they don't align.

For instance, dominance can go one way in terms of perceived social standing, but the other way in terms of sheer strength. Populists often appeal to their audience by designating a minority group that they claim holds superior power, therefore making it an acceptable target. But of course, even when that group's advantage is not entirely fictional, it will rarely stand a chance in an actual contest of force with the majority. How real the minority group's advantage truly was is what draws the thin line between a revolution and a pogrom.


Hence, my bourgeois critique of radical critique: do what you do, but be aware that your tactics require you to maintain your dominated image no matter what, and do notice that multidimensional dominance does not necessarily come with a strict transitive ordering.

In other words, contrary to what Internet seems to suggest, politics is unfortunately not quite as simple as finding out just how privileged you are by tallying your score on the oppress-o-meter.