This week I’ve been in Perth, Australia for a theology conference (more on that soon). Today, though, I picked up Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (trans. Myra Bergman Ramos; Penguin Classics, 2017; original Portuguese in 1968) for the first time and read the opening chapter with interest. Here are some quotes and comments.
Early on in the work, Freire warns against the oppressed themselves becoming oppressors. This is a false liberation. “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 … become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both” (18). “The very structure of their [the oppressed] thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped. Their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors” (19). That is, this path is taken when the oppressed derive their understanding of what it means to be human from the lives of their oppressors, rather than thinking creatively beyond this to a new life without oppression.
Initially apparently in contradiction to this, Freire makes a provocative claim. “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 whose objective inauguration called forth their existence as oppressed? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation?” (29). As I understand it, Freire seems to be saying that the oppressed should not share their oppressors’ vision of humanity, their ends, but sharing their humanity as it is acted out, their means, is different, even inevitable. I think this claim is both helpful and harmful. First, it is helpful because it rightly places the responsibility for violence with the perpetrators. The violence of those who respond in violence from a position of relative powerlessness should never be equated with that of their overlords. Second, however, I think both that this in danger of denying the real agency that oppressed people exercise, sometimes in choosing not to replicate the violence of their oppressors, and that Freire’s implicit distinction between means and ends seems to be somewhat confused. Surely if the truly human is not oppressive then the means of getting their should not be either? That is, the oppression needs to stop being replicated at some point in the chain; otherwise it is eternal.
Perhaps, though, Freire does not here imagine a replication of the same kind of violence employed by the oppressors. “As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression” (30). Maybe this is what Freire meant by reciprocal violence, maybe not.
Freire’s comments on the new humanity (or humanity under construction?) of the oppressors are especially notable, anticipating similar comments (though in regard to quite different circumstances) made today in conversations around privilege. “But even when the contradiction is resolved authentically by a new situation established by the liberated labourers, the former oppressors do not feel liberated. On the contrary, they genuinely consider themselves to be oppressed. Conditioned by the experience of oppressing others, any situation other than their former seems to them like oppression. Formerly, they could eat, dress, wear shoes, be educated, travel, and hear Beethoven; while millions did not eat, had no clothes or shoes, neither studied or traveled, much less listened to Beethoven. Any restriction on this way of life … appears to the former oppressors as a profound violation of their individual rights–although they had no respect for the millions who suffered and died of hunger, pain, sorrow, and despair. For the oppressors, ‘human beings’ refers only to themselves; other people are ‘things.’ For the oppressors, there exists only one right: their right to live in peace, over against the right … of the oppressed to survival. And they make this concession only because the existence of the oppressed is necessary to their own existence” (31-32).
Just how insurmountable oppression might appear is powerfully illustrated by an anecdote Freire provides. “A sociologist friend of mine tells of a group of armed peasants in a Latin American country who recently took over a latifundium. For tactical reasons, they planned to hold the landowner as a hostage. But not one peasant had the courage to guard him; his very presence was terrifying. It is also possible that the act of opposing the boss provoked guilt feelings. In truth, the boss was ‘inside’ him” (38). The surmounting of oppression requires not just an overhaul of external circumstances but psychological revolution as well.
As I continued reading Freire, however, I began to notice a particularly problematic aspect of his argumentation. The initial claim that the oppressed might become the oppressor aside, I found Freire’s framework to be a bit too simplistic, almost reducible to a dualism. There are two classes of people, those who oppress and those who are oppressed. While this might be broadly true of the Latin American situation he was addressing, even there his analysis has its shortcomings. Take this section from an interview he quotes in the book, for example: “The peasant is a dependent. He can’t say what he wants. Before he discovers his dependence, he suffers. He lets off steam at home, where he shouts at his children, beats them, and despairs. He complains about his wife and thinks everything is dreadful…. Lots of times, the peasant gives vent to his sorrows by drinking” (39). Certainly, the situation of this peasant’s family is not helped by that of his own, his dependence on his boss for a livelihood. But neither should domestic violence and other evils be seen against an exclusively economic horizon, where other factors such as racism, patriarchy, colonialism, ableism etc. intersect to form ever new oppressions.
To conclude, a short theological comment. This chapter should be of especial interest to Christians, notably where the church can reduce salvation to “personal relationship with God,” largely overlooking the deeply material and structural factors that hamper human beings from living as truly human. Where the church overlooks its mission to join in with the oppressed breaking their chains (and not just having an inner experience), it understates the power and love of God, who is currently at work in remaking human beings into the truly human, yes from the inside but on the outside too. On the other hand, Christians need to exercise a healthy suspicion of the truly human being achieved outside of new creation. Yes, it should be striven for. Yes, we are to join with those seeking their liberation and believe alongside them for a better future. But, no, we should never accept anything short of kingdom come and the person of Christ as the realisation of the truly human.