Understanding Oppression

24 September 2021

I just finished reading an incredible book that I highly recommend to anyone and everyone. It's called Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire.

It was written in an attempt to help the oppressed fight back to regain their lost humanity and achieve full humanization. The word 'pedagogy' means 'the method and practice of teaching' so the book goes into the traditional systemic educational system and its flaws, and offers an alternative. I wish I could write about everything but then this would be 16,000+ words long (the current length of my notes file... heh).

The parts I want to discuss here are Freire's definition of oppression, his understanding of the implications of oppression, and his recommendations about overcoming it.

This book mentions humanism a lot, which attaches importance to humans rather than divine (or, well, money). Humanism stresses the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasizes human needs, and seeks rational ways of solving human problems. This book was written in 1968, but I feel like it's especially relevant to 2021 since society seems to have said 'fuck humanism' and went full capitalism on us.

The first part goes into the dynamics between the 'oppressors' and the 'oppressed'. The author defines 'oppression' as having "overwhelming control of another human being's thinking and acting". To be oppressed is to be prescribed specific actions and goals that are not of your own choosing. The teacher/student dynamic is used frequently as one example of oppressor/oppressed.

Freire writes, "For the oppressors, 'human beings' refers only to themselves; other people are 'things.'" Oppressors see themselves as “more fully human” than those they oppress. This is an example of objectification. In reality, humans are not objects but subjects. Objects are to be manipulated and used, while subjects have a history and an existence that parallels the human experience. When treated like ‘things’ for long enough, people begin to self-objectify by internalizing the oppressor’s consciousness.

Freire emphasizes the state of being 'fully human', by drawing comparison between humans and animals. He describes animal existence as "atemporal, flat, uniform" while humans "exist in a world which they are constantly re-creating and transforming." To be fully human is to use "reflection and action to truly transform reality". When human beings are denied the ability to exercise their consciousness, they become alienated from their own decision-making and thus, dehumanized.

“People are fulfilled only to the extent that they create their world (which is a human world), and create it with their transforming labor. The fulfillment of humankind as human beings lies, then, in the fulfillment of the world. If for a person to be in the world of work is to be totally dependent, insecure, and permanently threatened—if their work does not belong to them—the person cannot be fulfilled. Work that is not free ceases to be a fulfilling pursuit and becomes an effective means of dehumanization.”

Individuals are taught to experience the world as passive, helpless entities. Society's oppressive mechanisms (school, work, etc.) encourage us that this is the correct way to exist. The more students work at diligently storing information, "the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them."

Freire terms the traditional teaching (indoctrination?) method the banking concept, which relies on "receiving, filing and storing deposits". This also prepares individuals to be 'good' consumers. But to overemphasize the necessity of consumption is to willfully obscure the true characteristics of what it means to be fully human.

The author aptly states there is "the assumption of a dichotomy (division) between human beings and the world: a person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others; the individual is spectator, not re-creator." It teaches us to take on a passive, rather than active role.

"The educated individual is the adapted person, because she or he is better 'fit' for the world. Translated into practice, this concept is well suited to the purposes of the oppressors, whose tranquility rests on how well people fit the world the oppressors have created, and how little they question it."

The implication is that we need to adapt because the outer world isn't going to adapt to us. In actuality, the ability to transform the world is the human species' greatest strength - one that sets us apart from all other species - and those who deny or obscure this fact rely on their subordinates believing it's just not possible.

"The more completely the majority adapt to the purposes which the dominant minority prescribe for them (thereby depriving them of the right to their own purposes), the more easily the minority can continue to prescribe."

The path to liberation from oppression, Freire says, is to "separate [oneself] from the world" by realizing and internalizing that one is not an object to be manipulated, but a human being deserving of respect and autonomy (self-government). "Once [oppression] is perceived as obstacles to liberation, these situations stand out from the background, revealing their true nature as concrete historical dimensions of a given reality."

Many people are bound to a mechanistic view of reality. They fail to perceive that the concrete situation of individuals is what conditions their perceptions of the world, which in turn influences their attitudes and how they deal with reality. "To supersede their condition as objects requires that the people act as and reflect upon the reality to be transformed."

In the final chapter, Freire talks about the fundamental dimension of the ‘divide and rule’ theory. He says, “As the oppressor minority subordinates and dominates the majority, it must divide it and keep it divided in order to remain in power. The minority cannot permit itself the luxury of tolerating the unification of the people, which would undoubtedly signify a serious threat to their own hegemony (dominance).”

He says cultural action in our society emphasizes a focalized view of problems, rather than seeing them as parts of a whole. He gives an example of ‘community development’, how a region or area is broken down into local communities. Without studying these communities as totalities in themselves and as parts of another totality, alienation is intensified. “And the more alienated people are, the easier it is to divide them and keep them divided.”

Presenting major problems in this compartmentalized way “hampers the oppressed from perceiving reality critically and keeps them isolated from the problems of oppressed women and men in other areas”.

The solution lies with unity and organization which “can enable them to change their weakness into a transforming force with which they can re-create the world and make it more human.”

The book goes into MUCH more detail than I am currently able to, so I highly recommend reading it for specifics, such as a proposed alternative to the 'banking' system and a fuller look at how to overcome oppression.