These are my notes for my reading of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. For those who choose to follow this, here is a link to an online pdf of the book

December 23, 2016

Chapter 1

What the Oppressor teaches the Oppressed.

Dehumanization is the key factor between the oppressed and the oppressor. As Paulo Freire states: ” 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” (44). To dehumanize a person simultaneously takes power away from one while empowering those who dehumanize, destroying the ability of both parties to be “fully human.” Promoted as historical fact, the idea that dehumanization is some part of social order falls into a narrative established to promote its necessity. In fact, to adopt this narrative only corroborates the lie that human order dictates asymmetries that are a natural outcome of dehumanization; a natural pecking order of oppressor and oppressed. This establishment of a hierarchy is the “distortion” that Freire points out because it is purposefully distorted by both oppressor and oppressed. The oppressor distorts “the vocation of becoming more fully human” to develop an advantage over the oppressed, limiting their ability to become “more fully human” which results in an acquiescence to the order imposed by the oppressor. In both cases, the manipulation of the “vocation” means there is a deliberate and precise prohibition of ideas that cuts off any abilities for people to be “fully human.” Furthermore, the ability to maintain that social order imbalance is unlike the divide itself, in that it takes mutual cooperation by both oppressor and oppressed to continue the asymmetric relationship between the two.

December 24, 2016

Freire maintains that only the oppressed are capable of bringing balance to the dehumanized relationship but that there is a danger inherent in their ascendance to power: “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” (44). This idea, akin to vengeance, continues an imbalance in social hierarchy by simply swapping the roles of the oppressor and the oppressed. To “regain their humanity” asserts that there is a point that the oppressed can return to that allows them their humanity in full view of the oppressor. At the same time, the warning is that the return to this point comes with the added weight of awareness the oppressed have been the recipient of disadvantaged treatment at the hands of the oppressor. This manifests itself in a natural desire to balance out those imbalances that should be carefully measured, and opens this attempt at balance up to subjective arguments based on what constitutes justice.

December 26, 2016

If justice develops from the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, Freire states that it cannot come from the oppressor. One reason for this is because “in order to have the continued opportunity to express their ‘generosity,’ the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well” (44). The oppressor creates problems in his attempts to administer any seeming “good faith” effort because the oppressor, must continue to hold the oppressed down in order to continue showing how much good he is able to do. Furthermore, because he is the oppressor, he maintains the imbalance of power because of who he is in an asymmetric relationship. His “generosity” is only a result of his privilege and position of power, and would otherwise incapacitate his ability to truly help free the oppressed. If the oppressed can only express their intent on overcoming their oppression through a framework provided by the oppressor then there is no true generosity provided by the oppressor and the entire act is one of false charity.

Freire states “an unjust social order is the permanent fount of this “generosity,” which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why the dispensers of false generosity become desperate at the slightest threat to its source” (44). The unjust social order that provides a platform for the oppressor to practice false “generosity” must protect itself. Because of this, its continued existence is dependent on power over others. For this reason, even the greatest intent of an oppressor to end the dehumanization of the oppressed falls short. At a personal or micro-level, there is no ability for an oppressor to relate with what the oppressed endures, therefore, to appoint himself to the cause of ending the dehumanization that occurs in that relationship, the oppressor must do something outside of his nature and allow the oppressed to develop.

The ability for the oppressed to develop her strengths is in alignment with the spirit of true generosity, the antithesis of false charity. “True generosity lies in striving so that these hands–whether of individuals or entire peoples–need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world” (45). The best way to lift the oppressed is to take them from an existence based on fulfilling their needs to one that they work equitably for. The idea that hands currently work “in supplication” is the basis for the oppressed in the dehumanized relationship, indicating that in order for the oppressed to fight their way out of their position in the relationship, they must “work” for that “transformation.”

December 27, 2016

At this point, there is an inherent danger from the oppressed that they become the oppressor. Freire points this out when he writes: “but almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or “sub-oppressors” (45). This subject matter was approached on the December 24th post but it is key to understand that behind the desire to achieve liberation, an attempt at justice translates to retribution. If the only relationship available is one of oppressor over oppressed then it is possible that the only way the oppressed know power of any type is power over another. It is not that the oppressed necessarily want to be the oppressor but in a social order that creates an advantage for some through the disadvantage of others, the norms of that social order only allow for one type of advancement. Therefore, the oppressed only see advantage coming from mistreatment of others.

Think of the law enforcement officer whose initial pull to the job was for a sense of control. Or for the soldier whose initial pull to service was a desire for control. Perhaps one or both of these individuals comes from the oppressed classes and insist their reason for service is out of justice, duty, or some other virtue. Yet, their service, as noble and as full of sacrifice as it is, is not to liberate the oppressed as much as it is to no longer be of the oppressed. In other words, those who rise from the ranks of the oppressed find themselves the oppressors based on a society that is built on this dualism. The oppressor convinces himself that he is doing what he does for the oppressed but in doing what he does, his service is done to keep social imbalances in favor of the oppressors and is masked by a superficial binary argument of “good vs. evil.

Freire reasons that in order for true liberation to occur the oppressed must rise in the hope of achieving justice without falling victim to the allure of vengeance. Yet, it is in this pursuit of freedom that many of the oppressed lose hope. Because there is a “fear of freedom” for many of the oppressed who know no other way of life than that of oppression. This is what Freire speaks of when he talks of shifting from the oppressed to the oppressor. Freire emphasizes this through defining prescription as “the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed: Every prescription represents the imposition of one individual’s choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the person prescribed to into one that conforms with the prescriber’s consciousness” (46-47). In other words, the prescriber (the oppressor) imprints what he or she prescribes (oppression) into the being of the prescribed (the oppressed).

December 28, 2016

At this, the oppressed who is interested in liberation is concerned with the attitudes and fears of those around her. There is a duality that Freire writes of in the oppressed as “they discover that without freedom they cannot exist authentically. Yet, although they desire authentic existence, they fear it” (48). If freedom is tantamount to living a fully human existence, and the oppressed recognize that they are not free but desire that freedom, they understand that their goal must be freedom, however, they are afraid to pursue that freedom. To that point, their existence is dependent on the oppressor for provision; they may not have freedom but they know what they do have and are comfortable with what they are provided. It is a matter of comfort rather than risk, and the oppressed may be unwilling to risk what little they have. This “risk” is one factor involved with building any type of resistance to oppression.

The risk involved shifts the idea of how a critical pedagogy of the oppressed can be expressed. For Freire, the pedagogy of the oppressed “must be forged with, not for, the oppressed” (48). There cannot be a development of idea without the input of those who are directly affected by that idea. To create something “for” someone imposes it on that person, while “forging with” that person creates something through them. However, this is only a beginning conception for a pedagogy of the oppressed. In “forging with” someone, the onus is on the oppressed to create their own liberation. The difficulty in an act of creation coming from an oppressor is that there is residue from the binary relationship of oppressor/oppressed that does not allow for liberation to result from their direction. An act of true liberation cannot come from the enforcer because the enforcer allows for an opening that does not create upheaval but accommodates it. Accommodation does not allow liberation.

January 4, 2017

The relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed is key to understanding what Freire is speaking of in his pedagogy. The dialectic between the oppressor (thesis) and the oppressed (antithesis) creates a synthesis that continues oppression. That Hegelian dialectic should be further explored in upcoming studies of Georg Hegel but for the time being, an explanation of the dialectic by Freire will suffice. The questions I have now are these: If this dialectic creates a synthesis between the oppressor and the oppressed, at what point, if any, does the synthesis run of its own cognition and lose sight of its position in an asymmetrical relationship? Is power the sole purpose of that relationship? Is a side-effect of the synthesis the intentional blinding of both the thesis and antithesis to the power that built the dialectic in the first place? I want to explore these questions further.

For Freire, the notion that people are unwilling to address inequalities while having the potential to do so is tantamount to advocating for that inequality. Freire states on page 50 “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.” If we are to acknowledge that human beings are and should be free, and do nothing about it, then our inactivity is worthless. Too many times the idea of what constitutes a person being “free” obfuscates the argument rather than concentrating on freedom. Freedom requires a responsibility on the part of the freed person but that responsibility is often held against the oppressed disproportionately. Where the oppressor is kept in mind with the creation of laws and distinction, the oppressed are the targets of laws meant to maintain order at their expense. It is in creating the rules that the oppressor maintains an advantage, and in the United States at least, law creation is prohibitive to the underrepresented. Furthermore, actions by the ruling class often cement inequality by imposing restrictions that inhibit action by many of the historically disenfranchised. The dialectic, as Freire sees it, is in place to maintain its inequality through a variety of means.

If inequality is the status quo, then maintaining that inequality must be built into the social body. The synthesis produced in the dialectic inherits the nature of inequality present and imbibes that inequality, producing a means of maintaining that inequality through subsequent generations, and diluting the concentrations of power to the point that it is unrecognizable that power is not meant to be shared equally. To discover that power is key to addressing its unequal nature. Furthermore, while “discovery” denotes some sort of enlightenment, how one “discovers” is consequential that person is able to address power. If a person is taught to look for signs of injustice without knowledge behind why it is important to address those injustices, that person may not be able to address those injustices in a manner that empowers them to escape the dialectic that traps them in the first place. How one “discovers” their knowledge is a key to the consciousness necessary to liberate oneself.

In order to liberate oneself, the oppressed must be able to recognize that oppression and fight against it (51). This is done through “praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” (51). It is thoughtful engagement; conscious accounting for and practice of ideas. Purposeful intent to change the world. Without this intent behind action,  the ideas of fighting inequality are marginalized because there is little purpose behind movement that cannot be countered by tactics of the oppressor.


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