Paolo Freire sought political liberation for oppressed groups, including LGBT groups, through personal liberation. Power relations benefit a few, at the top, while people who would benefit from solidarity with each other are turned on each other for small differences of status in the hierarchy. To correct this, he sought to make people “more fully human”, relating as equals not through domination.
To relate as equals, we listen from the heart, engaging empathy and compassion to empower oppressed groups. This Mutuality is a basic human value for Friere. It subverts society, which is based on a “collective lie” through which all accept a way of life maintaining the interests of the privileged. Being Alienated from ordinary society could be an advantage, as you might begin to challenge it.
Freire thought people could mature into a greater understanding of how they are oppressed. In the lowest level, “magical consciousness”, they accept life’s circumstances as fate, without challenging social injustice. People are forced into inferiority, robbed of our dignity, confidence and self-belief. Freire likened this to domesticating animals for service, and said children’s education is often formed for this purpose. The answer is to work for empowerment of oppressed groups, by raising consciousness.
In the second stage, “naïve consciousness”, they see their problems as personal failures rather than disadvantages caused by the structure of society. This is like internalised homophobia, where the queer person believes they are less than the straights. It is “false consciousness”, imposed by the powerful.
The third stage is “critical consciousness”, when life situations are seen to be caused by social structures. People need the language to express the way they are oppressed, which can otherwise simply seem to be the way things are.
Oppression is structural, embedded in society, not random and personal. Britain has had 130,000 deaths from Covid because of Tory government corruption and failure, not because of individual selfishness.
Normality is a social construction, a culture of silence, where the dominant group’s values are imposed on the subordinated groups, silencing them. The oppressed internalise the dominant cultural attitudes, and so feel ignorant and unimportant.
“Placatory practice”, making the symptoms of discrimination slightly less painful without tackling the root causes of discrimination, is not enough. The dominant group may encourage this with “false generosity”, a term coined by Engels, which does not challenge structural inequality. They treat the oppressed as passive objects in need of benevolent gestures, rather than active individuals who can transform our world.
The answer is Problematizing- showing the unchallenged normal to be contradictory and oppressive, so that groups see them clearly and are encouraged to resist. The dominant group responds by pathologizing the oppressed, attempting to convince them that their poverty is caused by their own inadequacy, or attempting to silence them.
Praxis is the unity of action and reflection. We think about what we do, to develop theory from our actions, and to “walk our talk”, acting based on our theories. When people see their political context and the unjust contradictions of everyday life this is Transformative. In authentic praxis, theory and practice are so integrated they cannot be separated.
The oppressed need safe spaces, by themselves, to explore how they are oppressed, to support them seeing that they are not inadequate. Knowledge is power. Sharing our stories builds energy for action. Freire sought to return the humanity stolen from people. Capitalism is destroying the planet with climate catastrophe and mass extinction.
We speak from our Power, which is liberated from ego.
From “Community Development in Action” by Margaret Ledwith.