There is so much to say about Paulo Freire masterwork Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It’s direct, it’s unrepentant in its criticisms, and it’s eloquent in its message. It captures the essence of the oppressor-oppressed relationship, attempting to circumscribe such an abstract struggle onto paper — and Freire manages to do so, quite well. The main dilemma when writing a book of this nature is that the woes of the oppressed must be properly synthesized into one concrete message in order to be discussed in any real detail. The biggest issue is that the struggle, in itself, is both metaphysical and material. It requires a look at the cognitive ramifications of being oppressed, as well as the causes of them; all in an effort to analyze the strife from a truly introspective perspective, one that virtually enters the minds of those under oppression. It is because Freire’s magnum opus is able to successfully incorporate these concepts, it is able to transcend far beyond being just a mere analytic Marxian study — it becomes a riveting testament to those involved in the actual struggle, rather than being just a vague documentation of what their ills are. This makes it all the more powerful and enlightening. However, because it is so vast in its message, I’ll contain my comparatively brief analysis to the first chapter only.
Paulo Freire, throughout the entire work, makes an effort to textually encapsulate the meaning of “humanization” and he revolves much of his analysis on “re-humanizing” the human spirit.
“But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people’s vocation… It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppressed, 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” (26).
However, he is careful in noting who must lead this liberation.
“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, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both” (27).
With this, Freire makes a monumental point that has been historically validated time and time again. The greatest issue with any revolutionary struggle is dealing with the vacuum of power, which plagued the leftist vanguard experiments of the 20th century. The key point being: power cannot concentrate and cannot be exerted to form a new “ruling class” of privilege and wealth — that would be the antithesis of any liberating movement, and would be a perversion of the humanization that was hoped to be achieved.
However, an issue arises (out of many) when attempting to foster such a radical change. The oppressed must realize the necessity to fight for it. The spark must be lit, but that must correspond with the oppressed realizing their downtrodden status. They must be lifted from their anesthetized state, by their own volition, and must be free of “their submersion in the reality of oppression” (27). Oftentimes, the downtrodden simply strive to become part of the higher class, in an effort to alleviate their poor condition, since they have been convinced it is the only way to move upward. They become fearful of greater repression to take action.
“… [the oppressed] have no consciousness of the themselves as persons, or as members of an oppressed class. It is not to become free that they want agrarian reform, but in order to acquire land and this become landowners — or, more precisely, bosses over other workers. It is a rare peasant who, once “promoted” to overseer, does not become more of a tyrant towards his former comrades than the owner himself. This is because the context of the peasant’s sitatuion, that is, opression, remains unchanged. In this example, the overseer, in order to make sure of his job, must be as tough as the owner — and more so… during the initial stage of their struggle the oppressed find in the opressor their model of ‘manhood'” (28).
The oppressed must overcome this personal struggle before he strives for anything, that much is crucial. He must learn to accept freedom, and to cherish it, rather than take the position of his former boss or owner. He must not be fearful of real change.
“This fear of freedom is also to be found in the oppressors, though, obviously, in a different form. The oppressed are afraid to embrace freedom; the oppressors are afraid of losing the ‘freedom’ to oppress” (28).
“…the oppressed, having internatlized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it when autonomy and responsibility… Freedom 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” (29).
“…at a certain point in their existential experience the oppressed feel an irresistible attraction towards the oppressors and their way of life. Sharing this way of life becomes an overpowering aspiration. In their alienation, the oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressors, to imitate them, to follow them. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in the middle-class…” (44).
Bearing this in mind, it becomes apparent that, first and foremost, reflection is essential to action. The goal is not to simply engage in dialogue with the masses, but to transform them in an effort to have them fight for their own liberation. It is this crucial step that will ultimately end their alienation. The difficulty, then, is how to go about doing so in a fashion that differentiates itself from the elusive efforts of the“humanitarian” oppressors.
“Pedagogy which begins with the egoistic interests of the oppressors (an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes of the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism, itself maintains and embodies oppression. It is an instrument of dehumanization. That is why… the pedagogy of the oppressed cannot be developed or practiced by the oppressors. It would be a contradiction in terms if the oppressors not only defended but actually implemented a liberating education” (36).
Simply put, by making the oppressed the objects of humanitarianism, you are in effect dehumanizing them — you are leaving them in the same situation with produced them and fooling them with false gestures of generosity, which do little to fundamentally alleviate the ills they have grown accustomed to and inherited.
In order to fully articulate this message, you first have to clean up the semantics of certain terms to be able to even speak properly and understood in any reasonable context. The most important term that must be attended to is the definition of oppression. Oftentimes, the term is thrown around to describe the nature of egalitarianism; that equality is also oppression, since hierarchy is prevented through“force.” Paulo Freire actually addresses this misguided criticism:
“Resolution of the oppressor-oppressed contradiction indeed implies the disappearance of the oppressors as the dominant class. However, the restrains imposed by the former oppressed on their oppressors, so that the latter cannot reassume their former position, do not constitute oppression. An act is oppressive only when it prevents people from being more fully human. Accordingly, these necessary restraints do not in themselves signify that yesterday’s oppressed have become today’s oppressors. Acts which prevent the restoration of the oppressive regime cannot be compared with those which create and maintain it, cannot be compared with those by which a few men and women deny the majority their right to be human” (38).
Freire then goes on to describe the oppressors, and defining the class associated with that term. The quote itself is too long to post here (it surpasses a page of very concise text, and is elaborated on later in his the work), but there are a few stand-alone points that are worth reiterating.
“For [the oppressors], to be is to have and to be the class of the ‘have'” (40).
“The oppressor consciousness tends to transform everything surrounding it into an object of its domination. The earth, property, production, the creations of people, people themselves, time — everything is reduced to the status of objects at its disposal” (40).
He then delves into the destructive self-depreciating impact this has on the oppressed:
“If [the oppressed] do not have more, it is because they are incompetent and lazy, and worst of all is their unjustifiable ingratitude towards the “generous gestures” of the dominant class. Precisely because they are ‘ungrateful’ and ‘envious,’ the oppressed are regarded as potential enemies who must be watched” (41).
This is perhaps the root of Marxian alienation; it is this mentality that limits the human spirit and degrades the mind. The oppressed become convinced of their own unfitness.
Paulo Freire ends this dense chapter on the proper method of liberating the oppressed. He differentiates two different transformations: those that are for the oppressed and those that are with them — the latter being the valid one, which demands more than mere propaganda and simple populism. The struggle cannot be done for them, rather it must be done with them. It requires pedagogical action.
“They must realize that they are fighting not merely for freedom from hunger [or any other individually specific issue], but for the freedom to create and to construct, to wonder and to venture” (50).
And perhaps most importantly:
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. The cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become human beings” (50).
Therefore, with these requirements in mind, it becomes apparent that the struggle demands committed involvement and an elimination of the cultural hegemony that preceded it. This must be done through a radical pedagogy, one that is lead by the oppressed. That is the synopsis of the message in Pedagogy of the Oppressed —that liberation, the humanization of human aspirations, can only come from the commoners themselves.