Books · Colonisation · Education · Political · Whiteness & racism

Unlearning diagonal violence & other thoughts

Pedagogy of the OppressedPedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Perhaps I have been reading in the wrong order. I’m very familiar with the idea of dialogic pedagogy, mainly from my PGCE and reading Radical Education and the Common School, which is about liberatory education for children and young people as well as adults (as Freire points out, this idea of education is lifelong, all-encompassing, and positions teachers as learners and learners as teachers). I fervently believe that this idea of learning is the golden key shining in our hands towards a world we can all joyfully and peacefully and lovingly inhabit.

That said, I have issues with this book! Maybe it’s just me being too slow to get it. It’s so technical! In drawing on Hegel and Fromm, it even makes ordinary words like love and death into jargon. When Freire is describing the pedagogy he is speaking about, he spends many words changing every day language into Marxist technicality, and I am begging for examples and clarity.

Part of my fruitful struggle with this text involves trying to apply Freire’s framing developed out of teaching adult literacy in post-colonial contexts to the (to me) more familiar field of intersectional identity politics. Freire characterises the ‘oppressor consciousness’ as identifying being as having, which leads to the objectification and exploitation of the oppressed, a reflection that speaks to many facets of gender oppression. Even more vividly, he points out that members of the oppressor class who:

join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation[…] as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin: their prejudices… which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know[…] A real humanist can be identified more by [her] trust in the people, which engages [her] in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favour without that trust

He distinguishes humanism from ‘humanitarianism’, the false and self-serving generosity of the oppressor:

Pedagogy which begins with the egotistic interests of the oppressors (an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism, itself maintains and embodies oppression. It is an instrument of dehumanisation

I feel the importance of these points to feminist movement can’t be overstated! The need for ‘allies’ to trust & respect the agency of ‘the oppressed’ and to avoid making others dehumanised objects of their ‘generosity’ or more likely of an appropriative, consuming gaze seeking ‘self-improvement’ is a hard lesson to learn for those in relative positions of privilege in kyriarchy.

On the other side, Freire characterises the ‘oppressed consciousness’ as ‘housing the oppressor’, tending towards self-depreciation, ‘fear of freedom’, ‘silence’ and emotional dependence. Susceptibility to the manipulative and divisive tactics of ‘cultural invasion’ by which the oppressors maintain their position is a feature of this consciousness. Aspiration to become the oppressor leads to ‘horizontal violence’. A labourer promoted to overseer treats her subordinates as badly as the boss did; a person who articulates radical ideas is silenced for the sake of keeping a larger group safe.

The oppressors do not favour promoting the community as a whole, but rather selected leaders

These oppressed/oppressor archetypes are so useful, but need to be critically reconsidered in a context where we are all both oppressed and oppressor (Foucault, via Aoifeschatology : “why is your view of the social order so pure?”) I might add many examples of violence that are not exactly horizontal, but more DIAGONAL, in that they kick downward from one axis of oppression to another, maybe we can say across an intersection: a white musician asserts her sexual agency by playing on racist stereotypes, a cis feminist insists on misgendering trans women to exclude them from woman-only space and so on.

Freire states and re-states that the oppressors cannot liberate the oppressed: the oppressed must liberate the oppressor (because they are dehumanised too, by the act of oppressing others) by liberating themselves. Parcelled with this comes the idea that the ‘banking’ style of education, the authoritarian way of stuffing receptacle minds with alienating matter, can never be useful to liberation: propaganda is ALWAYS unacceptable. And also in this parcel: we cannot liberate first and educate-for-liberation afterwards. ONLY dialogic pedagogy can liberate. Along with this too, Freire’s idea of praxis as reflection and action, neither one without the other.

Although Freire decries ‘sectarianism’ (I feel ‘dogmatism’ better captures what he means) Right (obstructing any process of emancipation, protecting the domination of elites) and Left (relying on the ‘historical process’ to bring about revolution), he uses a lot of rigid ‘master narrative’ Marxism to make his case. I feel the need to interrogate rationalist, scientific-materialist aspects of his text and to question the idea of ‘unveiling objective reality’ and of humans ‘transcending themselves’ in practice: when Freire quotes Mao I ask how we can account for Mao’s violence and dehumanisation of the people: I look for the seeds of tyranny. Where does decoding experience shade into a new hegemonised discourse, where does it grey into emptiness?

The very dryness and technicality of this text makes it hard for non/semi-academics like me to feel out and interpret across boundaries. When I was hanging out in the London Review bookshop on Friday with a friend I spotted this book. I’m imagining joyfully that hooks has written something here that updates ideas such as Freire’s with her usual clarity and accessibility and considers liberatory education with a much needed feminist lens.

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