Saturday, March 04, 2006

Second Reflection on Freire

Today I finished Freire’s book. He seems, in chapter 4, to repeat himself quite a bit—apparently working and re-working his theories and finding new ways of explaining them. He is clearly passionate about revolution, and very forgiving of revolutionary leaders, which seems to lead him to contradict himself in a few places as a result of his admiration for people like Che Guevara. He says, for example, that revolutionary leaders need absolutely to trust the people, but then includes a quote by Guevara about being distrustful of everything and everyone. Freire attributes this to being distrustful of the “oppressor” that is living within the oppressed.

He also states again that for the action of “cultural synthesis” to take place, “it is not really possible to divide this process into two separate steps; first, thematic investigation, and then action as cultural synthesis. Such a dichotomy would imply an initial phase in which the people, as passive objects, would be studied, analyzed and investigate by the investigators…In dialogical theory, this division cannot occur.” (181) Isn’t this the very process he advocates in Chapter 3? He seems to be somewhat conflicted and stumped by the dilemma that for revolution and transformation to happen, it almost cannot be initiated from within the oppressed community without some kind of outside influence. And this outside influence is almost always going to recreate the oppressor/oppressed dynamics, no matter how one tries to avoid it. It is what he calls cultural invasion.

The end of the book brought to mind a few examples of 1.) relevant projects and 2.) possible applications of Freire’s ideas. The first relevant project I can think of is the work of Bill Talen aka “Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping.” (http://www.revbilly.com/) Rev. Billy’s performance art activism acts as what Freire would call codifications which help people to recognize the state of manipulation by corporation and media under which they live. He creates dialogue, in the guise of comedy, and utilizing familiar contexts and forms (the Baptist preacher), which liberates his audience members from many thoughts and behaviors that they had formerly accepted as having originated within their own thinking.

Erich Fromm writes in The Art of Loving, “Most people are not even aware of their need to conform. They live under the illusion that they follow their own ideas and inclinations, that they are individualists, that they have arrived at their opinions as the result of their own thinking—and that it just happens that their ideas are the same as those of the majority.” (13) In the spirit of Freire, Rev. Billy startles most people who attend his performance out of such complicity into a place where they have to look at why they make the choices they make.

The second relevant project is the Missoula YWCA’s racial justice campaign, which is addressing the problem of racism from the point of view of sensitizing a homogenous community to the idea of white privilege, as explained by Peggy McIntosh in her essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. (http://seamonkey.ed.asu.edu/~mcisaac/emc598ge/Unpacking.html) The response from the Missoula community mimics what Freire describes as a response to a perceived threat to people’s identities as liberal, progressive, non-racist individuals. As Freire describes, the people “begin to realize that if their analysis of the situation goes any deeper they will either have to divest themselves of their myths, or reaffirm them.” (156-7)

Several relevant projects are emerging around this idea of sensitizing people to white-privilege, to which I think Freire’s ideas could be usefully applied—in this case, seeing white people, who don’t consider themselves to be racist, as the “oppressed” in that they are embodying and perpetuating certain codes and beliefs of the oppressor culture.

I also couldn’t help but feel not so much drawn to obvious, “third-world,” examples of oppression, but to the more insidious forms which we experience here in the U.S.—racism being one. Commercialism/capitalism being another. Maybe the book’s Marxist tendencies were getting to me. But I see useful application of Freire’s ideas in work similar to Rev. Billy’s, that would help people to break free of media influence. From Emerson, to Schweitzer, to Fromm, to Freire—the most interesting ideas are those that address the human being’s ability and imperative to THINK FOR HIM/HERSELF. Though Freire never uses the concepts of conformity and non-conformity, he essentially is calling for non-conformity in his ideal of oppressed people becoming “beings for themselves.” (161)

“In order to dominate, the dominator has no choice but to deny true praxis to the people, deny them the right to say their own word and think their own thoughts.” (126) There are a million and one reasons why we are NOT doing this, most accurately described by Freire when he talks about the mythologies that we are taught to accept. The oppressors deposit myths indispensable to the preservation of the status quo. (139)

“The people are manipulated by…yet another myth: the model of itself which the bourgeoisie presents to the people as the possibility for their own ascent.” (147) Individuals are inoculated with the bourgeois appetite for personal success (149) “For cultural invasion to succeed, it is essential that those invaded become convinced of their intrinsic inferiority.” (153)

Freire’s critique of cultural invaders parallels what we see today in the behavior of international development NGOs and government assistance by wealthy nations or organizations such as the IMF and World Bank to poor nations. IN contrast to cultural invasion, Freire proposes cultural synthesis in which “the actors who come from ‘another world’ to the world of the people do so not as invaders. They do not come to teach or to transmit or to give anything, but rather to learn, with the people, about the people’s world.” (180) This is a wonderful idea—possible ONLY IF people can be found who are willing to commit their LIVES to this kind of service. For this to really work as Freire suggests, his “investigators” would need to go and live permanently in the world they are trying to transform, much in the way that Che Guevara describes (170) of his experience in Cuba. Anything less, I think, is unavoidably “invasion.”

I question Freire’s point on p. 174 where he talks about people discerning themselves as “persons.” I believe he is right on one level, but I wonder whether he would have this mean that the “western” notion of the individual should or must be the standard by which revolutionary action is possible??

I like Freire’s pedagogy, but I think it needs to be expanded. There needs to be a reflection about LOVE, how to cultivate it; about INTENTIONAL SACRIFICE—in other words, what will it require to dislodge the oppressive mentality from the minds of both oppressors and oppressed? It is alive in them both. What is its contradictory principle? Love. So how do we develop love as praxis??

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