After the election, I found myself returning to Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the masterwork of educator Paulo Freire, again and again in an attempt to understand what was going on in the world. This felt like therapy, but also part of praxis, as I prepared for the work ahead. Because Freire emphasizes dialogue, and a book can seem so one-sided, I really wanted to have an exchange with him about our current political and social context in the US in the Trump era. Of course this is impossible in real life – what follows is my imaginary exchange with the great thinker. Friere’s contributions are largely taken from direct quotes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
I must credit bell hooks here – she conducted a masterful imaginary “interview” with the teacher (whom she actually met) in her book Teaching to Transgress.
SBY: I have so many questions for you.
SBY: Well, first of all, how would you place the rise of sectarianism in the US today?
PF: We must first understand what we are talking about. To illuminate sectarianism, I describe it in opposition to radicalization. Sectarianism, fed by fanaticism, is always castrating. Radicalization, nourished by a critical spirit, is always creative. Sectarianism mythicizes and thereby alienates; radicalization criticizes and thereby liberates.
There are many forces at work in the US today, but when one examines the political discourse, sectarianism often wins out over a radical, critical thought. This gets to the very nature of how we view reality.
SBY: Can you elaborate on that? I mean, we talk all the time now about fake news and alternative facts – is that what you mean?
PF: Well, if you think about radicalization as a critical positionality, it involves increased commitment to the position one has chosen, and thus ever greater engagement in the effort to transform concrete, objective reality. Conversely, sectarianism, because it is mythicizing and irrational, turns reality into a false (and therefore unchangeable) “reality.”
SBY: I think the term “mythicizing” is resonant – I feel like everywhere I turn, there is a lack of critical thought from both the left and the right, a repetition of talking points as truth, so that facts are distorted into values. Untruths, or partial truths, become indelibly associated with our identities. Like denying climate change research, or claiming falsehoods about legislation.
PF: This is the dangerous condition that prevents liberation from occurring. If we cannot agree on reality, there can be no true engagement in societal change. That is the insidious and despicable nature of sectarianism.
SBY: Is this wave of sectarianism new? I have so much trouble parsing whether this is a function of advanced global capitalism and how it oppressing so many – or a reactionary nationalist surge that is expressed through deeply held racism and hatred — or whether these underlying threads are exacerbated by our profit-driven, pundit-infused, valueless media environment – or is this a cyclical occurrence in human society?
PF: These are all true, what you have said. And this complexity must be embraced. For example, one cannot reduce the analysis of racism to social class, one cannot understand racism fully without a class analysis, for to do one at the expense of the other is to fall prey into a sectarianist position, which is as despicable as the racism we need to reject.
But there is a true opportunity here. American society has sometimes found it difficult to locate the oppressor and thus lead a peoples’ movement, and that complacency is dangerous and has led us to our current moment. Now, as in other flashpoints in history, the oppressors have been revealed.
SBY: My students were struggling with this recently – feeling that they want so badly to resist the oppressors but also feeling that they benefit from privileged positions in society and therefore feel complicit. What advice would you give them?
PF: Members of the oppressor class that join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation have a fundamental role. It happens, however, that as they cease to exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin; their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know. The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity. Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order, but because of their background they believe they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people but they do not trust them; and trust the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.
Those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly. Conversion to the people requires a profound rebirth. Those who undergo it must take on a new form of existence; they can no longer remain as they were.
SBY: That’s so scary. bell hooks talks about “the look.” You know, that look in peoples’ eyes when their consciousness has been raised and their worldview has undergone a paradigm shift.
PF: Ah yes, Gloria did write beautifully on that. Wonderful. Scary indeed, as you put it, but necessary.
SBY: Thank you so much. There’s much more to talk about, but I don’t want to take up any more of your time.
PF: My pleasure.