Sunday, December 13, 2009

some thoughts on Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, part 2

So I want to take one more pass through the political theorem that I laid out in my last post on Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This is a slight modification on what I posted earlier, but I think this is where I really wanted to go with it. I think both posts have something valuable to say, but this one also benefits from being more compact and builds nicely upon an earlier post I wrote on trauma. Okay here goes:

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. [Examples of on-going physical violence -- lynchings, police brutality, structural unemployment, punitive welfare "reform," NAFTA, crumbling schools, and high incarceration rates for minor drug offenses; Examples of on-going symbolic violence -- racist cultural media products including anything from Charles Murray, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Pat Buchanan, etc.; Examples of internalized violence -- depression, addiction, gangs, domestic violence, despair, inaction, cynicism, passivity.]

2. The initial violence causes PTSD in both conqueror and conquered. So of course oppressed people are messed up. And the dysfunction of the initial PTSD is then passed on down to subsequent generations of both oppressed and oppressors (because up until recently, there was no effective treatment for PTSD).

[This is where traditional Marxist analysis totally misses the boat. Marxists analysis too often portrays oppressed people in a retro-romantic way -- as perfect, innocent, well-intentioned folks who could lead the world to peace and prosperity if only the oppressors would stop oppressing them. What that analysis misses is the tremendous dysfunction that is built into every oppressed community as a result of the trauma of the initial oppression (and just built into the fact that human beings are flawed, fallible creatures).

This is not a small point either. Oppressors know about the dysfunction and pathologies in oppressed communities (often because they caused them and continue to benefit from them). And oppressors go to great lengths to point out this dysfunction as justification for why poor people cannot be permitted to gain power. I think we dismantle these critiques by saying that PTSD-like symptoms appear in both oppressor and oppressed communities because the initial violence was an attempt to destroy the humanity of oppressed people -- and ended up dehumanizing both oppressor and oppressed alike.]

3. In order to liberate themselves from oppression, oppressed people need to heal from the initial PTSD and its subsequent impact on individuals, families, and communities of oppressed people across the generations.

4. The way any oppressed people begin to heal from PTSD is through movement, through conversation, through shaking, through roaring, through completing the act of escape, through coming back into their bodies and realizing they are not just object but Subject. And that's really where Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed comes in. It is not only a tool for liberation, unwittingly it is also a tool for healing collective historical PTSD.

5. And that is precisely why white America (and really all oppressors) try to prevent step #4 from happening. Through an elaborate system of cultural messages about what is "proper" and ongoing institutional violence to reinforce that message ('don't talk back, know your place, don't show emotion, for gawd sake don't show anger ever, always show deference -- or you will be unemployed, broke, tazed, jailed, homeless, or killed'), white America tries to suppress any signs, signals, or steps that might lead to a collective shaking off of the trauma of the past. They try to short-circuit this last healing step in oppressed communities because as long as they can prevent it from being completed, they stay in power.


Duff said...

This is freaking brilliant, dude. I'm going to have to ponder this a lot more...thanks for the food for thought, Toby!

RFK Action Front said...

Thanks Duff!!! This is one of my all time favorite posts that I've done. I just felt so liberated by reading Freire again -- like I had woken up from a long slumber. But the ideas in it are so big (compared with the narrow ideas that circulate and recirculate so often in the U.S. political conversation) that it took me a couple tries to finally get my head around the implications of what he was saying.

The importance of dance in this whole process is something I hadn't appreciated until I started writing the post. Dance, the process of becoming embodied, is a revolutionary act. (-: