Freire: the role of struggle in becoming human

Paolo Freire - Pedagogy of the OppressedPaulo Freire — such a hero of mine for so many many years, and I am finally working on writing something more thoughtful about popular education and struggle, so upcoming posts will look at Freire, Myles Horton, Julius Nyerere, Ella Baker and Septima Clark, maybe some Erich Fromm, maybe some others — exciting stuff.

An intertwined thread I am also working on is violence (oppression is violence in many varied forms after all), its genesis and how we respond to it. I’ve already written about that in Freire’s thinking more fully here.

A recap and summary of Freire’s belief in the nature of radical change and how it takes place:

The pedagogy of the oppressed, as a humanist and libertarian pedagogy, has two distinct stages. In the first the oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit themselves to its transformation. In the second stage, in which the reality of the oppression has already been transformed, this pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy of all people in the process of permanent liberation…. In the first stage this confrontation occurs through the change in the way the oppressed perceive the world of oppression. In the second stage, through the expulsion of the myths created and developed in the old order, which like specters haunt the new emerging from the revolutionary transformation. (54-55)

This book is so rich, I’ve been struggling with how to think more deeply about it in smaller pieces. Roughly, I’ve come up with this starting point, about what Freire believes to be the point of being human, and how our current systems and structures strip away our capacity to fully realise our humanity. With this as a goal for our efforts, the other two sections elaborate how we get there — the importance of people speaking for themselves, of genuine dialogue leading to action, reflection, dialogue, further action. And finally, the role of those of us who choose this path towards a better future, activists perhaps, teachers, writers.

So, to begin with, the meaning of life in a very long quote.

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.

Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human. 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.

Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.

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

I struggle with this last sometimes. It is a bit of an unfair burden, no? But at the same time, the older I get the more I believe it to be true. No one can speak for you, liberate you, that is something you must do for yourself. And those with power and privilege in our system, they are so enmeshed in it, that the likelihood of their being able to fully seek such liberation, to strip away every privilege, every bias, every unquestioned belief to see reality stark as it is, is almost zero. To get anywhere they will need a whole lot of help. All of us are along this spectrum of blindness, and this is where understandings of intersectionality are so important. Ability to recognise where we experience oppression and where we do not, where we must learn and where we must stand firm against those who would try to belittle or pick away at the validity of hard-won understandings of the world…this is really hard. It is only in solidarity with each other, with respect and love and dialogue that any of us can realise our own humanity. This is the foundation.

This book will present some aspects of what the writer has termed the pedagogy of the oppressed, a pedagogy which must be forged with, not for, the oppressed (whether individuals or peoples) in the incessant struggle to regain their humanity. This pedagogy makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation. And in the struggle this pedagogy will be made and remade. (48)

This is so vital because all of us have been beaten and broken by the world we live in, and it works in a particularly brutal way against those groups who are oppressed. Part of the struggle must always be healing these wounds through struggle itself:

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. (68)

So much of what Freire writes about the damage done by colonial, patriarchal, capitalist systems and how it can be undone echoes that of Fanon, Cesaire, Frederick Douglass, many others:

The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to reject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility. Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.

To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity. But the struggle to be more fully human has already begun in the authentic struggle to transform the situation. (47)

And this:

The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being. They discover that without freedom they cannot exist authentically. Yet although they desire authentic existence, they fear it. They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized. The conflict lies in the choice between being wholly themselves or being divided; between ejecting the oppressor within or not ejecting them; between human solidarity or alienation; between following prescriptions or having choices’ between being spectators or actors; between acting or having the illusion of acting through the action of the oppressors; between speaking out or being silent, castrated in their power to create and recreate, in their power to transform the world. This is the tragic dilemma of the oppressed which their education must take into account.

He continues with what I think is the key point — this is hard, painful, troubling, conflictual, and also wondrous.

Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one. The man or woman who emerges is a new person, viable only as the oppressor-oppressed contradiction is superseded by the humanization of all people. Or to put it another way, the solution of this contradiction is born in the labor which brings into the world this new being: no longer oppressor nor longer oppressed, but human in the process of achieving freedom. (49)

What I love, too, is that this is never abstract. It is achieved through work, through action. On both sides.

The oppressor is solidary with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor — when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love. True solidarity is found only in the plenitude of this act of love, in its existentiality, in its praxis. To affirm that men and women are persons and as persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce. … the concrete situation which begets oppression must be transformed. (50)

Above all it recognises that we produce our own realities — the ways in which we do this is uncovered through collective dialogue and collective action. Because it is socially produced, it can be changed. This is the hope of struggle, and always the goal of praxis.

If humankind produce social reality (which in the “inversion of the praxis” turns back upon them and conditions them), then transforming that reality is an historical task, a task for humanity.

One of obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within it and thereby acts to submerge human beings’ consciousness (6) Functionally, oppression is domesticating. To no longer be prey to its force, one must emerge from it and turn upon it. This can be done only by means of the praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it. (51)

It is in trying to understand how oppressive realities absorb those within, generate new forms of domestication, that I find Stuart Hall and Gramsci so useful, also because I think both operated with similar understandings of the need for people themselves to work towards their own liberation. Freire’s descriptions of why we must find voice, and how we understand praxis is the subject of the next post, and the final post engages with the role of intellectuals, and more of Freire’s theory around the nature of what we are up against and how radical practice stands opposed to it.

Other posts on Freire:

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