Pedagogy of the Oppressed and “Progressive” Reforms: A different perspective.

If we take seriously the concept of Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, programs like affirmative action can never constitute authentic praxis, progress, or even a “pedagogy of the oppressed” as he defines it. Primarily, the issue lies with the doubled assumption that the oppressed seek to rise to the station of the oppressor, and that the oppressor must deliver unto the oppressed the methodology of their own salvation. As such, programs like affirmative action emerge out of the consciousness of the oppressor, in the ideological structures that are erected by the oppressed, in such as way as to make the oppressed the object of the humanism of the oppressor. As opposed to transforming the situation of oppression, which is the aim of any true project of liberation for Friere, these projects transform the way in which the oppressed is objectified, a transformation which still manages to perpetuate the existential situation of oppression, though this time hidden within “progressive” reforms. Thus, these projects only serve the interests of the oppressors while still maintaining the oppressor/oppressed dialectic, though hidden more subtly from view.

When the oppressed are dissatisfied with the measly handouts given by the oppressor through these falsely generous systems, the oppressor cannot understand why the oppressed can’t be happy with what they’re being given. The oppressor assumes that everyone can fight their way through their disadvantages and work up to their level, while simultaneously ignoring (or being blind to) the way that they continue to deny the humanity of the oppressed and therefore their capacity to self-determine. This is the first reason why affirmative action fails for Freire: it is a project that emerges out of the egoistic consciousness of the oppressor, which allows for the capacity for self-determination only on the terms of the oppressor.

Second, true Pedagogy of the Oppressed must emerge from the Oppressed but it must be carried out with the Oppressor. Since the existential situation of oppression robs the oppressor of their humanity (they can only self-determine in ways that reduce the world to objects for their use, and thus become only what they have) as well as robbing the oppressed of their humanity (they are denied the capacity to self-determine in ways except those which the oppressors give to them), a Pedagogy of the oppressed must seek to restore humanity to both the oppressor and the oppressed.

In order to do this, the oppressor must enter into solidarity with the oppressed. Now, what Freire means by “solidarity” is not the same as Occupy movements expressing “solidarity” with disenfranchised peoples across the world. Rather, he intends solidarity to represent a continual re-evaluation of one’s position in reinforcing and perpetuating the existential situation of oppression. In social justice parlance, it is more than “checking your privilege,” it is constantly checking your privilege and accepting the fact that, by intention or not, your very being is complicit in the existential situation of oppression.

Put simply, it is the realization of the oppressor that their very being is the result of a situation of oppression that strips from them the ability to self-determine in ways that do not rely upon the objectification of the world and people in it. Coextensive with this realization is the need to change the situation in such a way as to allow for the recovery of full humanity. In doing so, they must not seek out the oppressed and demand that the existential situation of oppression be explained to them (the much lamented “teach me about your oppression”), they must give up their belief that they must be the ones to execute the change.

The action that emerges from this realization, as solidarity, intends that the individual refuses to retain their hold on those things which enable their perpetuation of the situation while engaging in projects of education with the oppressed. Put another way, the oppressor must not assume that they are the sole arbiter of truth, liberation, or methodologies thereof. They must not seek to offer liberation from their own interests (the need to have more as a result of the consciousness of possession) which are conditioned by the situation of oppression as a necessary condition of their being. They must not seek to aid the oppressed solely for their own sake, but for the sake of transforming the world.

On the side of the oppressed, they must be willing to enter into projects with the oppressor where neither has the privileged position of “teacher:” assuming that one or the other individual is the possessor of the truth about oppression is to reconstruct the dialectic that emerges from the situation of oppression.  Both the oppressor and the oppressed discover the ways in which they help perpetuate the situation of oppression which they then seek to transform so that oppression is not perpetuated not just at a material level, but at the level of cultivation of consciousness. Since the situation cultivates in the oppressor a consciousness that takes the world as object for use, and this becomes the model of full humanity for the oppressed, true pedagogy of the oppressed seeks to transform this situation in such a way as to eliminate the cultivation of this consciousness.

For Freire, true solidarity is not expressed in a question like “what can the oppressor do for the oppressed to promote eliminate oppression;” rather, it appears as a question like the following: “what can we as human beings do to change the existential conditions that cause us to perpetuate oppression.” Solidarity implies a coming together, a “communion” with the oppressed on the side of the oppressor which is the mark of a true humanist. Further, the oppressor and the oppressed must come to trust one another if any such solidarity can emerge. We may point to a variety of reasons for this lack of trust in our society: systemic economic disadvantages perpetuated by the white elite to maintain their privilege (as a result of the consciousness of possession), the construction of a black/white dichotomy along the lines of the oppressor/oppressed dialectic as a the only way to express relations of race, the perpetuation of Rape Culture and Patriarchy, the enforcement of a gender binary, and the reification of heterosexuality as “normal”. That is to say, these structures generate a climate where the only way to survive is treat the oppressor with distrust, a distrust that extends to any of the oppressing class that seeks to aid the oppressed in their struggle against oppression. Hence, the possibility of true solidarity, in Friere’s conception, is impossible in the current social climate of the United States.

Most of the above emerges out of still being submerged in the existential situation of oppression, as evidenced by their perpetuation of the dialectic. That is not to argue for a “colorblind” ideology, or the argument for the elimination of gender. Far from it: what is sought in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed is the elimination of a situation that enables ontological assumptions about the value of this or that person, based upon their way of being in the world, which reduces them to the status of object. Projects that seek to reify the dialectic between oppressor and oppressed (to hold it stable in whatever way) demonstrate the ways in which the oppressed seek to become human by taking the oppressors as the model of humanity: we become fully human once we possess the capacity to reduce the world to object of acquisition. Further projects initiated by the oppressed that take the aim to be the overthrow of the oppressors (cashed out in whatever way), rather than the transformation of the situation of oppression, are at best half measures: they do not prevent oppression’s root cause. Granted, Freire takes violence  to be a requirement of getting out of the situation itself, but the oppressed must not stop there:  while an act of violence is needed to restrain the oppressor’s ability to oppress, once the ability to oppress is restrained, the oppressed must then engage in projects that seek the transformation of the situation.

So, now that I’ve come this far, I can say that affirmative-action and other programs of equality are quarter measures at best: they have their origins in the egoistic consciousness of the oppressor (in that they emerge out of what Derrick Bell calls interest convergence), they also are taken by the oppressors to be “solutions” to problems (which are forced upon the oppressed) and thus the end of liberation praxis, and they make no move to change the situation of oppression. Projects of equality, in so far as they are structured within law (which itself is created by the oppressors), presume that the model of equality and humanity is the oppressor themselves. That being said, they intend not to offer the oppressed the capacity for self-determination, but seek to grant the oppressed the capacity to become like the oppressors. Here, it could be postulated that projects of equality seek to cultivate in the oppressed a consciousness of possession through the egoistic offering of the means to become more like the oppressors as opposed to becoming more human.

Unfortunately, dominant segments of society do not see them in such a way: they treat them as though they are solutions in of themselves, and stop there, thus perpetuating the situation of oppression.