(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

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


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Breaking the cycle of oppression: hope and hopelessness

I have been thinking for a while now about the different approaches one can take to break the cycle of oppression, once one becomes conscious/aware of it and of the power relations/dynamics taking place.

I may be missing something, but I think there are three main options (an artificial, arbitrary grouping that i am open to revising based on people’s comments):

1. Live with it, tolerate or work around it. This is accepting the status quo, and making changes in oneself that allows one to continue accepting oppression. Many do this as they see no other viable way to go

2. Fight against it. At a minimum, express resistance, or escape completely, but on a bigger level, mobilize others, work collectively to advocate and fight against something. I am thinking of advocacy against gender oppression and how this can change unjust laws, but doing so does not necessarily change patriarchal culture on the family unit level, and even within the workplace subtle forms of gender discrimination occurs despite laws

3. Fight for it. I find this to be maybe the hardest but possibly the best way to go. I just don’t know how it would work. Examples of this is fighting for your country’s freedom from an oppressive state. You don’t want to accept it because it is clearly unjust; you don’t want to escape it because you want to effect change; and fighting against it would risk destroying the country you so love (Egypt a great example of this). Another example is the family unit: a woman can accept abuse, can escape abuse, can keep fighting the abuse, but ultimately what she wishes she could do (assuming there was ever a justification for this) is to find a way to fight for the unit, to find a way to alleviate the oppression in peace and continue in harmony.

We love happy endings and so we wish for the latter option. Does it really work? Did Mandela even really succeed? Ultimately, there are essential elements that needs to be in place for us to consider the third option:

A. Viewing our oppressors as human,
B. As humans, we believe we can communicate with them. I intentionally do not say “reason with them” because as Ellsworth suggests, the voice of the oppressed cannot always speak rationally to describe their experience and I believe in this so much.
C. Hope. We must have hope that things can change. Hope that there remains an element of goodness in the “other” who is human but oppressing us.

I loved the entire poem by Maya Angelou that Shyam shared with me y/day and that I embedded in my previous post on liberating the oppressor.

Here, I quote just a small part of it (“Still I Rise“):

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

And from this part, though the entire poem is a challenge to the oppressor, this one touches me so much because of the “kill me with your hatefulness” and made me think that the most important thing is not to lose whatever love we have inside us.

I know, Jesus said “love thy enemy”. It is not so explicit as this in Islam, but I already told a story of Muhammad’s forgiveness of his oppressors/persecutors in the previous post.

I am just thinking out loud now about similarities and differences in Islam and Christianity on the issues of social justice, based on my limited knowledge of both (though obviously i am more informed about Islam, i have unorthodox interpretations so please do not generalize what i say as mainstream Islamic interpretation):

Christianity has “turn the other cheek” and “whoever has not sinned…” – those two are important in some situations, but I think were not meant to be used in all situations. I could be wrong,but would Jesus ask a woman to “turn the other cheek” if her husband abused her child? I think not.

In Islam there is a saying by Muhammad, also reflected in the Quran, that means loosely: whoever sees a “wrong”/injustice/unacceptable behavior (connotation unclear to me but i think all these could fit) they should try to change it with their hands, if not able, then with their tongue (i.e. voice), and if not, then with their heart, and that’s the least one can do.

I always liked this but it is dangerous, as it may result in people interfering in what is not their business based on a righteousness that may be misplaced.

There is something about discourse about injustice that tends to assume justice is a clear and obvious and universal thing. It is not. The Palestinian Israeli issue is a clear example in my case of the lack of clarity in where justice truly lies.

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Liberating the oppressors and all such difficulties

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 😉

I will stop here while I am on a high note 😉 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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Academic blogging revisited: Thinking, writing, action

This post is a confluence of several “coincidences” related to the value of thinking and writing and the value of taking action in the world – all at a time when I started my own blog as a form of contributing to public discourse with the aim of making that writing useful to the world.

The coincidences (all within a 24 hour period), include:

1. Reading about Hannah Arendt in the book Interpretive Pedagogies where she insists that ideas/thinking are not equivalent to action
2. A tweet by @jessifer that I retweeted quoting Martin Bickman: “the problem is writing articles instead of making sure the articles actually change the world.” (Emphasis mine; I have no idea who Martin Bickman is but I intend to find out soon)

These first two ideas come together in my mind to make me realize that the value in what we think and write does not make it action in the world until we find ways to make that writing make a difference in the world. Paulo Freire believed strongly in the interaction between the word and the world, and in linking reflection/knowledge to action. He suggested that action without reflection/knowledge is mere activism, and that to focus on speech/writing without action is mere “verbalism”. And so, I am beginning to think, that “thinking” is a pre-requisite to writing, and writing (and teaching) is a form of action/activism in that it can share knowledge, build on others’ knowledge, but also be a form of advocacy. But even though sometimes I write for myself, the true value of my non-creative writing lies in its capacity to reach others and make a difference, create change in some way. This also means that sometimes a blog post will be more valuable than a book, because a. It is open access so more people can reach it; b. it is shorter, so busier people can read it; c. It is simpler language than more scholarly work, so more practitioners can understand it, and d. It is more immediate, so there is less “time” lost between my thinking the thought, and it reaching someone to benefit him/her.

Now another thing also struck me within those same 24 hours:

3. I read the table of contents of the book The Future of Thinking and loved the way they titled the last chapter starting with: ”(in)conclusive”

What I really like about the “(in)conclusive” part is that it made me realize that it might really be OK to publish something when you have not necessarily reached your conclusion. Some things are changing so fast that it might not even make sense to try to conclude. I was also more recently inspired by Dave Cormier publishing his work-in-progress book on community as curriculum. It made me realize that we do not have to necessarily reach the final polished stage of our work before sharing it. I am sure Dave has been sharing these ideas in his blog over the years, and pulling it together as a book and sharing the book while it is in progress was very inspiring to me.

So I have only been blogging for about two weeks (but been writing online for six months now) but all of the above has reinforced my decision to blog. I am at a stage in my life where I cannot do as much physical activism as I would like, or as I could before, but my mind is full of thoughts and ideas that I can share and hopefully make a difference in some small way, and I hope I can share the inspiration I am getting from other “open educators” such as those who inspired this post!