April: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Why deny it? I was afraid of freedom. I am no longer afraid!

—Paulo Freire

Fear of freedom, of which its possessor is not necessarily aware, makes him see ghosts. Such an individual is actually taking refuge in an attempt to achieve security, which he or she prefers to the risk of liberty.

—Paulo Freire

Not everyone wants to pursue or practice freedom. Not everyone wants to imagine pursuing and practicing freedom. The very thought of imagining pursuing and practicing freedom frightens some people. Paulo Freire begins Pedagogy of the Oppressed with the warning that the pedagogy he is discussing—a pedagogy toward freedom—risks frightening some people. Not those in power, not those termed oppressors—in Kenya, we use “elite” and “political class”—but those who are oppressed.

Recently, I have been interested by the Kenyan vernacular “conditioned”: “we have been conditioned to” and “we have been conditioned not to.” While the awareness of conditioning is salutary, I am struck by the inability—or unwillingness—to contest that conditioning. After all, the cultural products that gave us the language of conditioning—this all seems very Cold War, spy movie, brainwashing, psychological manipulation stuff—grapples with how to resist that conditioning.

This gap between an awareness of having been conditioned and an inability—or unwillingness—to contest it, what to do with it? How is it that something called “awareness” has come to be celebrated?

Congratulations! You are very aware of being conditioned!

Freire is helpful here:

Men and women rarely admit their fear of freedom openly, however, tending rather to camouflage it—sometimes unconsciously—by presenting themselves as defenders of freedom. They give their doubts and misgivings an air of profound sobriety, as befitting custodians of freedom. But they confuse freedom with the maintenance of the status quo; so that if conscientizaçāo [learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality] threatens to place that status quo in question, it thereby seems to constitute a threat to freedom itself.

I have been interested in how those acclaimed as human rights activists and defenders think about freedom. I wonder why human rights rhetoric in Kenya rarely invokes freedom, except as a legal category guaranteed by legal instruments. What theories of freedom are at work? What practices of freedom are to be pursued? Why are we compelled—is being compelled the same as being conditioned?—to imagine that those trained in law or international relations or government are the most astute thinkers about freedom?

We need poets to imagine freedom.

Freire writes that some choose security over liberty. While this choice has a long history—it is certainly all over the colonial and post-independent histories I know best—it has assumed a greater weight in our post-9/11 world. Quotidian Kenyan life is now highly securitized: you cannot enter a supermarket or mall or, in some cases, public transport or religious institutions without encountering overt security apparatus. The wands, the patting down, the metal detectors, the mirrors, the constant sense of being criminalized. And the very strange sense that we have chosen all of this over liberty, that we are those who have chosen.

(would you rather have security or liberty, a repressive state asks)

As human rights has become increasingly professionalized—trainings, degrees, grants, reports, benchmarks, career choice for the middle and upper-middle classes—freedom as a creative practice has become even more unthinkable and unimaginable. One is pointed to the Declaration of Human Rights and the constitution and must respond, “that is not what I meant.”

Freire encourages “radicalization, nourished by a critical spirit,” which “is always creative.” I have taken the basic Foucauldian lesson about (repressive and productive) power to be that power is like the blob: it absorbs, it morphs, it navigates, it adapts. Radicalization must be creative, imagining what (repressive) power cannot. The institutionalization of human rights in Kenya has produced incredibly predictable actions. The (repressive) state giggles at predictable actions.

What is the “risk of liberty”? What is the “not this” that is so frightening that one prefers the “security” of the “status quo”? Better the devil, we say.

One cannot practice freedom by oneself: it is always a social activity. You practice freedom with others. One cannot imagine freedom by oneself. You co-imagine freedom with others. As we co-imagine and co-practice freedom, we cannot let ourselves be tethered to the types of freedom described in international and national legal documents.

I’m not convinced that there’s a moment of enlightenment or learning that reveals structures of oppression, clearing away the path to imagine and practice freedom. Perhaps this is a gross misreading of Freire’s work.

Part of what has been so distressing about “wokeness” is the damaging idea—I date it to the Matrix films—that one can map and dodge oppressive structures, much as Neo dodges bullets. I think there has to be a daily commitment to quotidian practices of learning and freedom. That daily commitment to quotidian practices—and the transformations experienced in and as daily life—energize ongoing practices of freedom elsewhere. Radical work begins at home, as Wambui Mwangi insists.

*the more time I spend with Freire’s work, the more baffled I am that so many of us have lost the connections between freedom and pedagogy that he outlines and simply read his work as a critique of “banking” and how that became the dominant way his work is taken up might illustrate something about how (repressive, institutional) power domesticates radical thinking

One thought on “April: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

  1. Reading this and looking at how the human rights NGOs work, I think it has been so professionalized that they can no longer think about freedom. It’s about the conferences and once in a while a court case here or there but nothing to do with imagining and learning freedom

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