(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me

Liberating the oppressors and all such difficulties

33 Comments

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 πŸ˜‰

I will stop here while I am on a high note πŸ˜‰ 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)

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Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

33 thoughts on “Liberating the oppressors and all such difficulties

  1. I’ve had a heck of a week as well, but a highlight was a student trying to stir up the class to overthrow the state and make the way for #fullcommunism. I like it when my students are passionate.

    • Speaking of: I wish communism had worked. Even as a kid, I had a social justice orientation and strangely noticed how the Russians were misrepresented in US media (how can a 10 year old, generally naive, am even quite naive now, see that? Possibly because of historical socialist/nationalist politics in Egypt before my time that my parents supported). It all of course became much clearer when Muslims became the villains in US pop culture and media, and then it was easy for me to see the bias πŸ˜‰

      • I would say that budding socialism never really got the chance to work around the world….it was always put down by U.S. foreign intervention wherever the people and the governments started to organize themselves for a more equitable society.

  2. Maha, you raise such urgent issues regarding education.. I’m also fascinated by Freire’s pedagogy. He has this power of firing us up. Opression is a complex issue, yet one that needs to be shouted out, as you said. I, too, long for a world which is more empathic and humane. I’m glad to come back to your blog again, and again, and feel we see eye to eye on so much. Loved your post. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Clarissa. I feel that somehow being in Brazil you’re lucky to be in Freire country πŸ˜‰ how is he perceived there and do his ideas have long-lasting wide-ranging impact? (I know he moved away at some point)

      • I feel that Freire’s subversive views on the issue of oppression has in a way been used by leftists eho want to pudh their own political agendas. It’s a complex issue.. The current government, being the Workers Party (PT partido dos trabalhadores) brags about being for the people, and the by that they mean tbe oppressed, but no significant political action is ever set forth to really implement any type of long-lasting change, especially in education. They fool the foolish who believe that they’re doing it for the people.. they’re doing it to stay in power, to keep the status quo. The teachers union in Brazil is PT. It’s all one and tbe same.. It’s pretty messed up down here. I’ll stop now.. Getting too pessimistic..

  3. Politicians are the same the world over. Self interested power grabbers. Shame about communism.

  4. Maha, thanks for writing. 2 points stood out for me. 1. your reference to Freire and the contextual nature of oppressive situations. While we can general think of ways to handle all situations, it boils down to context for each. And 2. your faith and the lessons one can pick up from it.

    Don’t give up.

  5. BTW, i am extremely thankful for the discourse on critical pedagogy as raised here and in many similar conversations over the past 6 weeks. I told someone 3 weeks ago that sometimes i feel like all i am doing is training assembly line workers for the capitalist movement and that bothers me immensely sometimes. I am still struggling to find my real purpose.
    I suppose i want to say thanks for writing out these moments in words and sharing it with us.

  6. Maha you are amazing in your intuition of where our conversation is heading in week 8 πŸ™‚ Simon.

    • Really, Simon? That’s interesting coz even tho i have been in and out of fb more often yday than past few days, this post is totally based on stuff happening outside rhizo14 and in my “other” lives πŸ˜‰

  7. Hi Maha, Steven Downes once said the trick was to stay productive and not let others push you off your stride. If their power is based on stopping activity, or preventing forward movement then eventually they will have to give up. The Dali Lama when asked why he didn’t hate the Chinese said something like “they have taken all they can but they can’t have my heart.” We often don’t have a choice but to live in a painful reality but don’t need to accept its crippling expectations.

    Not sure which of these songs is more appropriate. The first we sang on the picket lines set up by the NAACP to protest discrimination against black restaurant workers in Oakland California, mid-sixties. Kids against history I guess.

    Change is Gonna Come http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDTei_wdm3U
    Wild Girl http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnVV9qE96fY

  8. Maha, this is such an inspiring post! I studied critical pedagogy in grad school and some of its key ideas drive my teaching, but some don’t really make sense. This is one of the more complex (and seemingly controversial) idea, of liberating the oppressor. You’ve written about it in such a way that a very broad variety of audiences can relate to and understand. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thanks, Shyam. As you already know, this post is inspired in large part by our discussions over the past couple of weeks and especially y/day morning πŸ™‚ I look forward to bringing more like-minded people together to explore these issues in depth and in context

  9. Pingback: Breaking the cycle of oppression: hope and hopelessness | Reflecting Allowed

  10. Reblogged this on Becoming An Educationalist and commented:
    #becomingeducational Read this blog on critical pedagogy – and the need to liberate ourselves – and also our oppressors… This is by one of our #rhizo14 colleagues in Egypt at this time – and she knows what she is talking about – as does Maya Angelou – whose poem ‘Still I rise’ she has embedded in her blog.

  11. Wonderful post Maha – thank you so much. I’ve re-blogged to our first year #becomingeducational students… You are being the change you want to see! S xx

  12. Hi Maha: another quote from the Dali Lama below. Sometime we feel like we are moving forward and then things stop and it feels like going backwards but it isn’t. For a long time I thought we were going we were going backwards here in Alberta though really we are just stuck going in mad circles in the same place and the trick is to step out of that circle. At the college they can’t absorb new ideas so they chase old ones hoping to find and answer they can understand. It’s up to others to provide solutions–they can’t.

    β€œThere is only one important point you must keep in your mind and let it be your guide. No matter what people call you, you are just who you are. Keep to this truth. You must ask yourself how is it you want to live your life. We live and we die, this is the truth that we can only face alone. No one can help us, not even the Buddha. So consider carefully, what prevents you from living the way you want to live your life?”
    ― Dalai Lama XIV

  13. The Dali Lama is just on my mind lately. He’s handy when the opposition is way bigger then you and you need caution but I’d stick with Friere for edge of change ideas. Sometimes you need comfort and contemplation and sometimes foolishness.

  14. “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.”
    Pablo Neruda

  15. Beautiful quote from Neruda. I’ve noticed in oppressive times that there isn’t a break from the bad news and worry. It creates an atmosphere of hope nullified by the impossibility of progress everywhere you turn. A foolish person would not give up, would not take this situation as evidence of hopelessness, would not learn a lesson from the falsehood of being powerless.

    • I love that Scott – and you didn’t even quote the Dalai Lama. Those words you just wrote are quotable in themselves. We do need to be foolish sometimes. Actually, what I was thinking about today, after writing today’s blog post was something along the lines of the hegemony of rationality… And that sometimes we need to NOT be rational in order to survive. I guess your words/ideas about foolishness express that so much better, that sometimes we need foolishness to keep us going.

  16. Thanks Maha, I think some people don’t see barriers as important. Ironic that “worldliness” is taken as a sophistication when it’s usually applied to people who “know the rules”(like don’t mess with power) and get by on a diet of compromise mistaking it for cleverness.

    I don’t know how power is held in the Arab world and fools may be considered disrespectful there? In the West a fool is considered to be someone excused from knowing the rules and generally can speak freely as they are assumed harmless, unreliable and without malice. Too bad change isn’t considered free of bad intentions.

  17. Pingback: W20 & W21 #becomingeducational: the music of Get Ahead | Becoming An Educationalist

  18. Pingback: We are the world | Moorbey'z Blog

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