Freire: Finding Voice and Praxis

Paulo Freire - Pedagogy of the OppressedThis second post on Paulo Freire’s thinking is shorter than some of the others. Perhaps just because as a writer I wanted to highlight these beautiful thoughts about words, speech, dialogue — the wondrous space created between us through communication where things can come to life that are greater than the sum of my thoughts or yours. This is the promise of collective thinking and action, and over and over again I have seen it fulfilled. Equally beautiful, equally important, is the necessity for us to name and understand things before we can change them, and of finding our own voice in this process.

Always, there can be no speaking truth to power without a corresponding action:

Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed—even in part—the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world. (87)

He continues:

Human existence cannot be Silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.

But while to say the true word—which is work, which is praxis—is to transform the world, saying that word is not the privilege of some few persons, but the right of everyone. Consequently, no one can say a true word alone—nor can she say it for another, in a prescriptive act which robs others of their words. (88)

We all must speak. We all must act. But it is not just the speaking of words, it is the process of it and the underlying principles. Above all, the desire that we collectively realise our own humanity, and that this process demands love. In a footnote, Freire echoes Che Guavara’s famous sentiment:

I am more and more convinced that true revolutionaries must perceive the revolution, because of its creative and liberating nature, as an act of love. For me, the revolution, which is not possible without a theory of revolution—and therefore science—is not irreconcilable with love. On the contrary: the revolution is made by people to achieve their humanization. What, indeed, is the deeper motive which moves individuals to become revolutionaries, but the dehumanization of people? The distortion imposed on the word “love” by the capitalist world cannot prevent the revolution from being essentially loving in character, nor can it prevent the revolutionaries from affirming their love of life. Guevara (while admitting the “risk of seeming ridiculous”) was not afraid to affirm it: “Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality.” Venceremos—The Speeches and Writings of Che Guevara, edited by John Gerassi (New York, 1969), p. 398. (89)

Thus love forms one basis for this radical dialogue in which we engage. Another prerequisite:

…dialogue cannot exist without humility. … How can I dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own? How can I dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from others—mere “its” in whom I cannot recognize other “I”s? (90)


Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all.(90)

Out of love, humility, and faith emerges the ideal we strive for, what Freire calls the ‘dialogical man’:

The “dialogical man” is critical and knows that although it is within the power of humans to create and transform, in a concrete situation of alienation individuals may be impaired in the use of that power. Far from destroying his faith in the people, however, this possibility strikes him as a challenge to which he must respond. (91)

He (she) responds through, patience, dialogue, a process of learning and acting together. Through this:

Humankind emerge from their submersion and acquire the ability to intervene in reality as it is unveiled. Intervention in reality—historical awareness itself—thus represents a step forward from emergence, and results from the conscientização of the situation. Conscientização is the deepening of the attitude of awareness characteristic of all emergence. (109)

Freire then writes, summarising for me at least just why this book is so important:

If this view be true, the revolutionary process is eminently educational in character. Thus the road to revolution involves openness to the people, not imperviousness to them; it involves communion with the people, not mistrust. (140)

This also perhaps explains why I wish Freire had had the same impact on European leftist movements that he did elsewhere in the world (though never enough I think, because this is hard). Imagine revolutionary politics based on love, faith in people and humility. Enough to make you weep.

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