Freire claims that “the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed [is] to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” As with much critical pedagogy scholarship: easier said than done! I love the critical pedagogy literature. I love the way it opens my mind and helps me rethink things and consider action. It has not, however, so far, helped guide me in that action far enough. Liberate one’s oppressors? How the heck does one do that? Mandela style?
Of course, to be fair, the critical pedagogy literature cannot and should not be prescriptive. After all, each oppressive relationship or situation is contextual, local. What works to alleviate or liberate in one instance does not work for the other… Does it?
I am trying here to think of various forms of power that can involve oppression (reminded by an old paper by Burbules: A Theory of Power in Education – which i won’t re-read right now!) – these vary from the political (oppressive state) to the postcolonial (oppressive global forces), to the very personal (patriarchal oppression or abuse). There are many more of course. And then there are those tricky benevolent-looking oppressions: the educational (teacher oppression in the classroom, administrators oppressing teachers), oppressive parenting style (and don’t get me started on this one).
Sometimes I look at this goal of liberating the oppressors and think: but that is the only way! Other times I think about it and it seems like an impossibility. Today, my thoughts are that if one is unwilling to put in the effort to liberate one’s oppressor, the only option is escape: escape as in immigrate and leave your country if the state is oppressive; escape as in divorce from an abusive husband; escape as in drop out of the educational system that is oppressing you, resign from the job where you are oppressed.
But though escape might provide immediate relief, it may not truly solve the problem long-term or even short-term, and it may create new previously unfamiliar problems and oppressions. You leave one oppressive state/country and you end up in another as a refugee or immigrant who is not a first-class citizen; it may not be a generally oppressive state/country but you are oppressed within it anyway. You may leave an abusive marriage, but you are stuck with the possible stigma of being a divorcee or single mom or whatever, and the threats of what an abusive husband might do to you in revenge. Dropping out of education or resigning from an oppressive job have consequences too: you are jeopardizing your future earnings and potential. None of these consequences are small or insignificant. Escape is still a risk to be weighed.
I write this and it feels, it sounds, it seems hopeless, but I know deep down it is not.
I so strongly believe in the power of empathy. I just struggle to implement it in real life. I fear that when the oppressed are empathetic to the oppressor, they may “excuse” the oppressor’s behavior, let it go unchallenged, because they “understand” where the oppressor is “coming from”. Oh, employers can’t raise salaries or give promotions because there is a budget crisis. Oh, a husband is abusing his wife because he has a drinking problem, it is out of his control. Oh, the state is mistreating its people because of poverty and it has many mouths to feed.
Umm, that kind of empathy is not going to help. And I think that maybe the reason it does not help is that it does not get to the roots of the motivations behind the oppressor’s behavior, maybe? So for example, why does the husband have a drinking problem and why does it lead to abuse? Is this cycle breakable, and is it breakable within the oppressed person’s control? Or does it need external intervention?
Also: why does my employer keep having budgetary issues, and what can be done to prevent them or circumvent them in the first place, so that we can work together not to have to freeze salary increases, for example.
Also: what can my role be in building a state/country that manages its resource better?
I say this, and it is hard. It is so hard. I have been saying this in different places the past couple of days: criticism is easy. Risky maybe, but easy. It’s just words. Reconstruction is hard. And it occurs to me now that it is not, cannot be an individual endeavor.
And that is maybe why critical pedagogy emphasizes collective action. It’s not just a gimmick. There is no magical solution to ending oppression, if there is any at all. But the only way to really work on liberating ourselves is to work together. Find others who share our values and beliefs, possibly not all of them, but at least most of the important ones. And do something together to work towards liberating ourselves. And in the process, not even intentionally, we might succeed in liberating our oppressors? How? The two projects I am working on now (one a co-authored article, the other still a bit vaguer in my mind) are meant to give public voice to the ideas, thoughts, experiences of the oppressed. It is a step. Having something out in public might raise awareness of the oppressors in ways that may put them on the path to liberation. I have no illusions that oppressors will read/interpret what is being said empathetically, if they would even begin to understand them. But at least we can try shouting out.
Liberating the oppressors seems necessary, because, supposedly we are actually planning to live with them later on. Prophet Muhammad was persecuted for a long time by the non-believers before he entered Mekkah victorious. The day he entered, he told those who had persecuted him and his followers that they were “free to go“. He forgave them in an instant what harm and injustice he had suffered, not only for himself but all who had followed him. That is exactly the act of liberating the oppressor. He had to get victory first, though 😉
I will stop here while I am on a high note 😉 Before it all goes downhill again
Added an hour or so later: I response to this post, an online friend sent me this Video: Maya Angelou reciting “and still i rise” – sooo inspiring
(Will embed it properly later when i am on a PC)