Saturday, December 12, 2009

Some thoughts on Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, part 1

I just reread Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and was impressed by how relevant it remains now -- nearly 40 years after it was first published. I was reading the 30th Anniversary Edition and it is actually better than the original because it has now been revised to reflect inclusive language (the tiresome term "man" as a reference to all of humankind has mercifully been replaced by "humanity" or "men and women").

I confess when I first read the book as a 19 year old, much of it was over my head. Even though Freire's genius stems from his insistence on starting with the concrete before moving to the abstract (traditional education usually gets this backwards much to the detriment of students) this is a book of pure pedagogical theory. But now that I've worked in various movements for social change for many years, the words and ideas in Pedagogy of the Oppressed leap off the page and ring true like never before.

One of the things that blew me away about the book is that Freire spends the entire first chapter discussing the phenomenon in which oppressed people often resist their own liberation. This is one of the hardest things and yet also one of the most important things to understand about liberation movements. When the movement begins, the very people who stand the most to gain from the movement will often oppose their own liberation.

This is counter-intuitive to the extreme. If someone has a boot on his/her neck you would think that removing that boot would bring relief and that those who fight to remove the boot would be greeted as heroes. But that is not the case because the oppressed person, in order to feel some sort of control over his/her own life has usually internalized the oppression initially directed from the outside, and because the oppressed person also knows that any oppressor who is willing to use the boot is also willing to extinguish the oppressed person as well -- so the boot then comes to be seen as the better alternative. Frantz Fanon discovered this by studying the anti-colonial movement in Algeria in the 1950s and wrote a whole book about the phenomenon called, The Wretched of the Earth. In many ways then Pedagogy of the Oppressed functions as a sequel to Wretched of the Earth posing the same problem, but answering the question, "so what do we do about it?"

I want to quote extensively from the first chapter of the book and urge you to run out and buy the book or re-read the old tattered copy you have up on your shelf somewhere. It really is as relevant today as ever.

In order to have the continued opportunity to express their "generosity," the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this "generosity," which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. (p. 44)

But almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or "sub-oppressors." ... This phenomenon derives from the fact that the oppressed, at a certain moment of their existential experience, adopt an attitude of "adhesion" to the oppressor.
(p. 45)

The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility. Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. (p. 47)

However, the oppressed, who have adapted to the structure of domination in which they are immersed, and have become resigned to it, are inhibited from waging the struggle for freedom so long as they feel incapable of running the risks it requires. Moreover, their struggle for freedom threatens not only the oppressor, but also their own oppressed comrades who are fearful of still greater repression. (p. 47)

They prefer gregariousness to authentic comradeship; they prefer the security of conformity with their state of unfreedom to the creative communion produce by freedom and even the very pursuit of freedom. (p. 48)

In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their own liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform. (p. 49)

If what characterizes the oppressed is their subordination to the consciousness of the master, as Hegel affirms, true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these "beings for another." (p. 49)

Consciously or unconsciously, the act of rebellion by the oppressed (an act which is always, or nearly always, as violent as the initial violence of the oppressors) can initiate love. Whereas the violence of the oppressors prevents the oppressed from being fully human, the response of the latter to this violence is grounded in the desire to pursue the right to be human. As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors' power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression.
(p. 56)

Analysis of existential situations of oppression reveals that their inception lay in an act of violence--initiated by those with power. This violence, as a process, is perpetuated from generation to generation of oppressors, who become its heirs and are shaped in its climate. (p. 58)

The more the oppressors control the oppressed, the more they change them into apparently inanimate "things." This tendency of the oppressor consciousness to "in-animate" everything and everyone it encounters, in it eagerness to possess, unquestionable corresponds with a tendency to sadism. (p. 59)

Under the sway of magic and myth, the oppressed (especially the peasants, who are almost submerged in nature) see their suffering, the fruit of exploitation, as the will of God--as if God were the creator of this "organized disorder." (p. 61-62)

As a certain point in their existential experience the oppressed feel an irresistible attraction towards the oppressors and their way of life. Sharing this way of life becomes an overpowering aspiration. In their alienation, the oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressors, to imitate them, to follow them. (p. 62)

The oppressed have been destroyed precisely because their situation has reduced them to things. In order to regain their humanity they must cease to be things and fight as men and women. This is a radical requirement. They cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become human beings. (p. 68)

A revolutionary leadership must accordingly practice co-intentional education. Teachers and students (leadership and people), co-intent on reality, are both Subjects, not only in the task of unveiling that reality, and thereby coming to know it critically, but in the task of re-creating that knowledge. As they attain this knowledge of reality through common reflection and action, they discover themselves as its permanent re-creators. (p. 69)

So all of this got me thinking about how how language and culture work in American society to perpetuate oppression today. Without realizing it, our minds have been colonized by the ideology of oppression, and as Freire points out, it is extremely difficult to break out of it. So here is how I think it works in the U.S. (and even around the world) now:

1. Oppressed people are not oppressed by accident or oppressed in some abstract sense. They are oppressed through actual violence in the first instance (the Conquest, Colonization, or Middle Passage) and later through a combination of physical and symbolic violence that becomes internalized.

2. In order to break out of oppression, oppressed people have to realize that they are oppressed and begin to dismantle the oppressive structures in their own minds as a first step toward making the commitment to transforming the reality around them.

3. [This is where it gets fascinating:] The first signs of the transformation of consciousness, I believe consist of 1.) anger upon recognizing the system of oppression; and 2.) any display that the oppressor no longer gets to make the rules.

Which is why American culture tries to squash any sign of anger, independence, or collective consciousness in oppressed peoples (African Americans mainly but also any person of color, women, and youth).

The Republican Party spent most of their advertising dollars in 2008 trying to convince America that Michelle Obama was an "angry black woman" and then, when that didn't work, they doubled down and tried to argue that Barack Obama was "an angry black man." That's what the whole Rev. Wright thing was about and why that 2 second "god damn America" clip got played several thousand times during the campaign. Every single commentator on Fox News has called Barack Obama an "angry black man." Those code words are intentional. "Angry black man" is a dog whistle to tell white America to go get their pitch forks to suppress the attempt by African Americans to achieve any sort of liberation consciousness. Historically, if Africans Americans in the United States displayed any sign of anger or unwillingness to express deference to white people, they were lynched. White America has always used violence to reinforce the cultural conditioning that keeps them in a position of privilege.

Why the hell do you think we invaded Grenada? Because the Reagan administration could not permit a black former slave colony from becoming a socialist paradise. The Reagan Administration knew that if African Americans in U.S. cities could look to the south and see a successful black socialist nation that it would radically change the political dynamics here in the U.S. The pictures of rich white American medical school students kissing the tarmac upon returning home was symbolic in more ways than one. They had been rescued from their overpriced med school in Grenada and their white privilege was still there waiting for them when they returning home.

Why does white America freak the fuck out anytime an African American player in the NBA or NFL wants to wear a dew rag or corn rows? Allen Iverson is about 3 feet tall and over the last decade has been one of the most successful players in the history of the NBA. But he's never gotten the endorsement deals like Jordan or Tiger. Why? Because he wears corn rows and hip hop fashion -- and that shows that he does not accept the conditions and rules set down by the oppressor culture. White sponsors simply will not permit that "bad attitude" (code words to tell people to ostracize those oppressed people who fail to display deference). God forbid Iverson ever gets angry about playing time -- even after making the All Star team ten times, every sports commentator on TV instantly rushes to the mic to tusk tusk and explain in various coded phrases that Iverson needs to learn his place. Iverson makes his own rules because he is confident in his own proven abilities. White America cringes and tries to force him to STFU because his independence shows that he is breaking free from the cultural mindset imposed by the oppressor.

What is more, there are a whole series of words that no one is permitted to say in polite society in the U.S. without risking instantly ending the debate and being excluded from further conversations. Those words include:
  • nationalize
  • class
  • reparations
  • redistribution
  • Marx
  • any mention of any strategy other than MLK-style nonviolence by progressive.
The common thread among all those words is that they each reveal a burgeoning consciousness and a crumbling of the oppressor mindset that tells us that all policy must be devoted to protecting the rights of capital.

So anyway, if you've read this far, thank you. And please go out read or re-read Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. The life you liberate may be your own.

Update #1. Freire, near the end of the preface to Pedagogy of the Oppressed writes:

From these pages I hope at least the following will endure: my trust in the people, and my faith in men and women, and in the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love. (p. 40)

It's a fascinating thing to write. His book is about educational theory. But at the end of the day, for Freire, education, revolution, and liberation are really in service of creating a world in which it will be easier to love. I think he has summed it up perfectly. That is the revolutionary project. A society built on systems of domination, distorts and impedes love. As we dismantle systems of domination, we create space for a world in which it will be easier to love.

Update #2: There is so much to say about Pedagogy of the Oppressed that I wrote a part 2 to this post which you can read (here).

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