Paulo Freire on Violence

Paolo Freire - Pedagogy of the OppressedThis is, I think, the third or fourth time I have read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I found it difficult the first time but so worthwhile. I find it much less difficult these days, after having plunged myself into the depths of theory where few can write worth a damn, but it is more rich and full of wisdom than most things I have read. This first post focuses on just a very tiny piece of it — capitalism’s relationships of violence.

I have been thinking a lot about the nature of violence, the various ways it is inflicted on personal and structural levels, and the various ways it must be resisted. I have just finish Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, which I will also be blogging slowly. I rather like starting things here, though, because like Freire I think it is worth grounding theory in the broader idea that the point of it all is for every human being to have the space and ability to realise themselves and the fullness of their humanity. He writes:

But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people’s vocation. This vocation is constantly negated, yet it is affirmed by that very negation. It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressors; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity.

The struggle for humanization, for the emancipation of labor, for the overcoming of alienation, for the affirmation of men and women as persons … is possible only because dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed. (44)

I love both insights — that this is a fact, but one that we can change. Given the relationship of oppression, it cannot be the oppressors who shift it as their way of life and thought is founded on oppression and the violence this requires, it must be shifted through a struggle by the oppressed to regain humanity:

This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. (44)

I always thought that seemed a bit unfair, but what he means is that it is the oppressed who can fully understand the nature of exploitation and violence and through struggle work to create a world without these relations. I don’t mind that everyone will benefit from such a thing.

To return to violence, he establishes clearly the direction in which it flows:

Any situation in which “A” objectively exploits “B” or hinders his self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity, because it interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human. With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? How could they be the sponsors of something objective whose objective inauguration called forth their existence as oppressed? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior of violence to establish their subjugation. (55)

Yet as you can see over and over again through history and into the present discourses around people of colour and the poor, there is a projection of violence onto the oppressed:

For the oppressors, however, it is always the oppressed (whom they obviously never call “the oppressed” but — depending on whether they are fellow countrymen or not –“those people” or “the blind and envious masses” or “savages” or “natives” or “subversives”) who are disaffected, who are “violent,” “barbaric,” “wicked,” or “ferocious” when they react to the violence of the oppressors. (56)

In my research I found this over and over again as well — and you can hear it up and down the US at the moment in reaction to #blacklivesmatter just as you heard in relation to the civil rights movement:

For the oppressors, exists only one right: their right to live in peace, over against the right not always even recognized, but simply conceded, of the oppressed to survival. And they make this concession only because the existence of the oppressed is necessary to their own existence. (57)

What they refuse to recognise is how their position is rooted in a violent historical process that continues to inflict violence:

Once a situation of violence and oppression has been established, it engenders an entire way of life and behavior for those caught up in it — oppressors and oppressed alike. Both are submerged in this situation, and both bear the marks of oppression. 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. This climate creates in the oppressor a strongly possessive consciousness — possessive of the world and of men and women. Apart from direct, concrete, material possession of the world and of people, the oppressor consciousness could not understand itself — could not even exist. Fromm said of this consciousness that without such possession, “it would lose contact with the world.” The oppressor consciousness tends to transform everything surrounding it into an object of its domination. The earth, property, production, the creations of people, people themselves, time — everything is reduced to the status of objects at its disposal.

In their unrestrained eagerness to possess, the oppressors develop the conviction that it is possible for them to transform everything into objects of their purchasing power; hence their strictly materialistic concept of existence. Money is the measure of all things, and profit the primary goal. For the oppressors, what is worthwhile is to have more — always more — even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing. For them, to be is to have and to be the class of the “haves.” (58)

Here Freire signposts how this is driven by capitalist desire for profit and control, the ways it is patriarchal and bound up in multiple oppressions — you can extrapolate how this desire for control and domination of nature have brought us to where we are today.

It also results in their own suffocation, along with a great blindness, rationalising ideologies, a blaming of the victim, fear — all things far too prevalent now as then:

The oppressors do not perceive their monopoly on having more as a privilege which dehumanizes others and themselves. They cannot see that, in the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have. For them, having more is an inalienable right, a right they acquired through their own “effort” with their “courage to take risks.” If others do not have more, it is because they are incompetent and lazy, and worst of all is their unjustifiable ingratitude towards the “generous gestures” of the dominant class. Precisely because are “ungrateful” and “envious,” the oppressed are regarded as enemies who must be watched.

It could not be otherwise. If the humanization of the oppressed signifies subversion, so also does their freedom; hence the necessity for constant control. And 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 its eagerness to possess, unquestionably corresponds with a tendency to sadism. (59)

I want to think more about the connections between control, possession and the reduction of people to the in-animate, to things. But this relation of violence is a key one I think, to be explored further.

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